From its opening frames depicting group sex on the beach, Brazilian writer-director Marcelo Gomes’s Once Upon a Time Veronica announces itself as a sensual experience.
Indeed, the title’s Veronica (Hermila Guedes), who has just passed her exams and begun a position as a psychiatrist in a Recife public hospital, muses in voice-over, “I vent everything through sex,” just as she sticks her tongue into a stranger’s mouth.
The interest of Gomes’s film lies in the collision between these pressure-free hook-ups and the crushing malaise that soon plagues Veronica’s life. Unable to commit to her most consistent suitor (João Miguel), and still living with her retired-banker father (W.J. Solha), Veronica finds her new job — which is more about prescribing medicine than it is about the meaningful, one-on-one counseling she had in mind — to be merely a source of stress.
And when she tries to show compassion for a distraught patient, her superior quietly scolds her: “[You] don’t talk to patients, you examine them.” There is a motif of rebuilding here — Veronica and her dad are forced out of their flat to make room for renovations — that speaks to Veronica’s need to reevaluate her own life.
At the end of the film, her blithe libido is firmly intact, but Guedes’s complex performance leaves no doubt regarding the fragility of Veronica’s psyche. An earlier scene comes to mind: As an off-screen doctor informs Veronica of her father’s declining health, Gomes’s camera plants itself on Guedes for an unbroken, two-and-a-half-minute take, the character’s tears revealing how difficult it will be for her to make it on her own one day.