The Counterfeiter

The Counterfeiter

As celluloid guinea pig for the American left, I am perfectly willing to report on the effects of exposure to this month’s pop hit, Sin City.


As celluloid guinea pig for the American left, I am perfectly willing to report on the effects of exposure to this month’s pop hit, Sin City. I might even agree to conduct a Sin City self-experiment with Grand Theft Auto as control, in either the original or the San Andreas version. What I will not do, though, is write about Sin City as if all urban crime-and-sex movies were created equal. Some, gaudily laden with promotional funds, emerge into a welcoming market; whereas others, such as The Man Who Copied (O Homem Que Copiava), claw their way inch by inch toward the light.

Though it was written and directed by one of Brazil’s best filmmakers, Jorge Furtado, and won a fistful of awards in its country of origin, The Man Who Copied has been knocking around the festival circuit since 2003, generally on the second tier. Shopworn, buzzless and in Portuguese, it now opens at the Quad Cinemas in New York on April 22 and the Sunset 5 in Los Angeles on April 29, making me worry for its future. If I’m going to write about a tale of larceny, violence, sexual predation and the cartoon aesthetic, then (without prejudice to Sin City) I want it to be this one–not only because The Man Who Copied is a scrappy little picture but because it’s also charming, funny and ultimately hopeful.

You may discover these qualities both in Furtado’s filmmaking and in the personality of his lead actor, the extraordinary Lázaro Ramos. Best known for his nervy performance in the 2002 Madame Satã–the biopic about a notable Brazilian street fighter, family man and drag artiste–Ramos here plays someone who is similarly volatile, though far more ingenuous. On the sweet side, his character, André, lives companionably with his mother in a poor but decent section of Porto Alegre. He dreams of making money as a cartoonist, educates himself with whatever scraps of knowledge come his way and fumbles in embarrassment whenever he tries to chat up a woman. “Women are smart,” he observes glumly in voiceover. Somehow, they always figure out that he has neither money nor prestige, a fact that brings us to André’s sour side: his feelings about his job.

Bored and humiliated by his work in a tiny shop where he runs the photocopier, André is always one facial twitch away from glowering at his boss, whom he has secretly renamed the Blob. So great is Ramos’s skill as an actor that he can show contempt for the boss as André himself would–efficiently–moving his face as little as possible so the aggression barely shows. Nevertheless, the rage is present; and it helps to make credible the steps that André soon takes into danger, as he first spies on Sílvia (Leandra Leal), a young shopgirl who lives across the way from his apartment, and then begins to stalk her.

By this stage of the movie, André has told the viewer about a catastrophic outburst of violence in his childhood, and the camera has joined him as he goofs around with a buddy who lives as a petty criminal. Despite these edgy qualities, André seems more puppyish than creepy as he follows Sílvia. His intentions are benign–as they remain later, when he wants to impress her and therefore needs the impossible sum of thirty-eight bucks. All that’s required, he realizes, is a borrowed bank note and a late-night session with the photocopier. No big deal–but the balance now begins to shift between André’s good will and his potential to cause harm.

If you have seen earlier films by Jorge Furtado, most notably his brilliant short from 1989, Isle of Flowers (Ilha das Flores), you may anticipate two things about The Man Who Copied. The first is that it sympathizes, in a thoroughly unsentimental way, with the plight of a man who has only impractical ways to lay hands on wealth: counterfeiting, drug dealing, armed robbery and the lottery. (I feel I’m giving away nothing when I tell you that André tries three out of four.) The other thing you may expect is that The Man Who Copied will pop off the screen, thanks to montage like a crazed jack-in-the-box. You never know when Furtado will spring on you a fantasy image, an art history reference, an ironic how-to demonstration or an animation of André’s drawings. (The latter elements, directed by Allan Sieber, have a Simpsons look, except for the photomontage effects used whenever Eleanor Roosevelt shows up. André is fascinated by her.) A born film-cutter, Furtado has found a natural outlet for his talents in the character of André–a man whose ideas of the world are fragmentary, formed from whatever material he copies–and in the economic engine of André’s society, which is driven by an alternating current of credence and fraud.

You might think of Furtado’s scrambled chronology as an extension of this montage technique. The movie starts, very cannily, at what appears to be the end of the story, with the burning of André’s counterfeit bills. The true narrative place of this incident is one aspect of the film I did not anticipate. Nor did I foresee that Furtado might sustain some of his shots rather than chop them up, and so create a scene as beautiful as that of André’s stroll with Sílvia beside the harbor, where a long-delayed confession of yearning takes place beneath the glow of a silver-gray sky, beside unquiet green waters.

The visual sheen of that moment moved me–but I was touched even more by the emotional interplay between Sílvia and André, who finally manage to speak to each other by talking about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12. It’s brand-new to both of them. André, who is unschooled, confesses he doesn’t understand it, and Sílvia, who acts as his guide, has had to put in advance work with a dictionary to piece together the meaning. By the scene’s end, though, the characters both know what the poem has to do with them–and what they now take to heart impels them through the end of the story.

I like an urban-depths, sex-and-crime movie that puts the blame for violence on William Shakespeare. I also like a movie that allows young working-class people such a moment of reflection and makes it credible. Say what you will about this month’s pop hit–I will maintain a non-prejudicial silence–but it seems to me that Furtado’s Porto Alegre has everything you’d want in a sinful city: cartoon thrills, to be sure, but also minds and hearts.

Transfer Furtado’s bruised lovers to a burner on high heat, fold into their criminality an imminent apocalypse (perhaps real, perhaps hallucinated), add equal splashes of police procedural and science-fiction thriller, then strain through a mesh of Korean political history. I give you the recipe, sort of, for Jang Jun-Hwan’s Save the Green Planet!, which opens (presumably on a dare) on April 20 at New York’s Film Forum.

Depending on how you think of it, Save the Green Planet! is either the story of the revenge kidnapping of a vicious industrialist, or else it is the tale of a last-ditch effort to ward off rampaging creatures from Andromeda. At least, those are the interpretive choices available to the average viewer. The protagonist, Lee (Shin Ha-Gyun), does not distinguish between them, being the type of pill-popping loser who designs his own alien-catching outfits: protective ponchos made from plastic garbage bags, antitelepathic miners’ helmets encrusted with gizmos from an Erector set. Aided by a none-too-bright girlfriend (Hwang Jung-Min) he picked up in a circus, he snatches the CEO of Yuje Chemicals (Baek Yun-Shik) and carries him off to a secluded rural area, there to be imprisoned in an underground torture chamber of an eclectic, cluttered, picturesque dilapidation to rival the inside of Lee’s head.

The girlfriend, who is new to all this, momentarily looks nervous when Lee accuses his Andromedan captive of “being just like the others.” The audience experiences a more protracted unease, once Lee begins documenting the CEO’s case in a folder labeled “#13.” For the most part, though, Save the Green Planet! holds you back from judging Lee by plunging you into his point of view. It ventures outside his mental framework mostly when narrating the police investigation–and since the majority of the cops are casually, stupidly corrupt, the distance achieved is slight.

More of a suspense thriller than a comedy or parody, more of a delirium than anything else, Save the Green Planet! sometimes appears to have no purpose in its artfully disarranged mind other than to melt together as many genres as possible. Ultimately, though, the film does pose a question: What on earth can account for the severity of human suffering? The closer you get to Lee’s feelings–which will be recognizable, I suspect, to many Koreans of his generation–the more you wonder that we can think of such pain as arising normally, rather than being imposed from outer space.

Do we shirk responsibility merely by entertaining the question? Yes, says the captive CEO (or Andromedan–whatever), as he repeatedly taunts Lee. But the accusation doesn’t stick. “They tell me I’m just getting these ideas from movies,” Lee says during a speed-freak monologue (perhaps speaking both for himself and for the flamboyantly imitative Jang). “But,” he adds darkly, “who made those movies?”

The new Drew Barrymore-Jimmy Fallon vehicle Fever Pitch was directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, but it is not, I’m sorry to say, a true Farrelly Brothers comedy. Although reminders of their past work sometimes erupt (a word that comes to mind readily when one thinks of the authors of There’s Something About Mary), the mild and benevolent script is the work of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who offer a very high ratio of good advice to mischief.

The advice has to do with developing a mature, monogamous relationship. Fallon, you see, is a relatively impecunious Red Sox fan (“one of God’s most pathetic creatures”), and Barrymore is a fast-advancing career woman who cares nothing for baseball. To get past their shaky engagement and into a secure marriage, they must each grow up enough to yield something to the other. This premise puzzles me. I thought the appeal of Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore was that they haven’t grown up.

I smiled at the picture, sometimes. I thought it was harmless. But when I recall the class resentments and corporeal anxieties that the Farrelly Brothers used to express in their films–works that in this regard rival The Man Who Copied and Save the Green Planet!–I really miss Dumb and Dumber.

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