Brazilian soccer demigod Heleno de Freitas comes packing a résumé irresistible to biopic-makers: stunning good looks, unbeatable professional attainment, wish-it-were-me decadence and womanizing all, set during the ’40s and ’50s and heading like a runaway train toward a date with destiny brought on mostly be the vain star’s refusal to treat his snowballing syphilis. What we’re looking for in movies crafted from celebrity crash dive life stories is a question worth picking over (are we satisfying our tsk-ing inner Carrie Nation?). Heleno, true to its genre, simply plows ahead, marks the star’s historical calendar from the top of his game to his final dissolution, and stylishly basks in his every bacchanal and bratty act of defiance.
The moral might be don’t be a dick, but that would just place Heleno alongside 100 other film biographies. More problematic is director José Henrique Fonseca’s attachment to one biopic in particular: Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, which it rips off in every way imaginable except for the curly coifs. From the sterling black-and-white wide-screen camerawork to the hopscotching timeline, the home-movie interlude, and all the nightclub brawls, woman-beating, cement-wall punching, jealous tirades, and so on, you’re stuck daydreaming about a far, far better movie.
Apparently passionate about ether as well as nooky and whiskey, Heleno (all-purpose Latin hunk Rodrigo Santoro) is here mostly a two-dimensional playboy with disastrous impulse control. As far as Fonseca is concerned, the hotel-room exploits and juggling a wife and girlfriend (Alinne Moraes and Angie Cepeda) who could be twins amid a whorl of other willing partners are far more crucial than any achievement on the pitch. The testy, narcissistic Heleno scored more than 200 goals in his first 10 years on Brazil’s Botafogo, but in the film, we get only a few impressionistic glimpses of the game, as if it were something our Heleno only did occasionally, like on weekends.
The film certainly makes good on its ambition to be a little decadent itself: Seemingly 75 percent of its set pieces involve characters lounging around in open silk shirts and bustiers, contemplating luxury. That is, when Heleno isn’t losing his temper up in everyone’s grill or when we flash-forward—as to Jake LaMotta’s fat house stage of life—to Heleno’s institutionalized last days, driven drooling mad and eventually helpless by the malady he could have so easily cured. That’s another moral, I guess: Don’t be a dick and get your shots.
Walter Carvalho’s cinematography is a relentless pleasure, but the proscribed rhythms and questionable ethics of the classic downfall biopic go a long way to keeping Heleno low-grade and, even for soccer fans, inconsequential. De Freitas’s life story doesn’t have resonance—it only has talent and fame and glamour. Scorsese chastised this reflex more than 30 years ago (and then indulged it with The Aviator), but to Fonseca, the surfaces are all that matter.