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.