Great redeemer

O Primeiro Dia uses the backdrop of Rio to weave a powerful tale of redemption in the Marvellous City


Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas
1998 (Portuguese with English subtitles/DVD Region 1 format only), Haut et Court/La Sept-Arte/VideoFilmes
75 minutes

Reviewed by Eugene Carey
LATAMROB rating: ***

FEW DIRECTORS can pull off a film about redemption interlaced with religious symbolism these days, requiring at the very least an earth-changing moment or event to form the backdrop for such a metaphysical indulgence in such a materialist world.

Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas manage to do so in O Primeiro Dia (Midnight) because their film is set in that city where Christian devotion and secular idolatry rub together so palpably, like the sweating bodies of natural opposites on a secluded beach.

Indeed, such is the telluric appeal exercised by Rio de Janeiro – the real star of this film – that Salles and Thomas manage to transform the city into a character, inhabited by dreams and fears, through camerawork that reflects their instinctive knowledge of the pace of life – and death – in this urban sprawl.

Originally made for television, it should come as no surprise that O Primeiro Dia formed part of a French cultural project gathering together different international perspectives on the end of the millennium.

Search for roots

In the case of Salles, we can detect a development in O Primeiro Dia from the mobile search for roots in a landscape of breathtaking contrast, towards a deeper attachment to that landscape – in this case, urban, but just as shaped by contrast – coming as it did after his first big hit Central do Brasil (Central Station, 1998) and before Abril Despedaçado (Behind the Sun, 2001), which also starred Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos.

Vasconcelos plays João, a prisoner who escapes from jail on December 31st, 1999 and is transformed into an avenging angel delivering redemption to Chico, an informant but friend whose execution at João’s hands is the repayment the fugitive must make to the gang that helped him flee incarceration.

João encounters Chico at battered apartment in a shantytown on a hill alongside Copacabana Beach, where the squealer had gone to surprise his former girlfriend Rosa, herself redeemed as a born-again Christian, and to give her a wad of money for their child.

Just as the intoxicating sense of inevitability brought by the new millennium weighs more heavily as this film progresses, Chico’s fate is sealed with arrival of João. Having redeemed himself by making good with Rosa, Chico accepts his fate and makes it easy for his friend to deliver him.

The job done, João’s life is now in danger as the gang that helped him escape pursues him to cover up its tracks. The fugitive then encounters the middle-class teacher Maria (Fernanda Torres), suicidal after her lover has inexplicably walked out on her, on the rooftop of a luxurious apartment block overlooking the famous beach.

Needless to say João’s intervention saves this woman’s life and, with the entry of the new year, they both dare to dream of a new beginning… but it is not to be.

O Primeiro Dia uses the millennium moment as an ingenious device to demonstrate what little time is left for us all to get our affairs in order before we go to meet our maker. It is an unashamedly spiritual film, but of the best kind: it explores the quest for redemption in a city that sits under the gaze of the giant statue on Corcovado mountain of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) in a profoundly unsentimental way.

Among its awards, O Primeiro Dia was nominated for a Golden Leopard at Locarno. Salles and Thomas have worked together on several projects, the latest of which and one certainly worth watching out for is the forthcoming Linha de Passe.

Eugene Carey is a freelance journalist