Soccer film has turned a corner

December 3rd, 2012

By Leander Schaerlaeckens

I get sent a lot of screening DVDs for upcoming soccer films.

For the longest time, they were mostly terrible.

This wasn’t to say PR people made a concerted effort to bog up my DVD player with unwatchable dreck. It’s more that soccer cinematography, documentaries excepted, was awful. (See – or, rather, don’t see – the Goal! trilogy, the last of which was tellingly released straight to DVD.)

That trend was finally reversed when I was sent a copy of United, a BBC-produced recreation of the Munich air disaster, a plane crash that killed eight Manchester United players and 15 others in 1958. Although the Mancunian accents were hard to decipher at times – and that’s having lived in England for three years – the portrayal was gripping.

Last week, I found Heleno in my mailbox, a biopic of Brazil’s best striker of the 1940s.

Soccer film has turned a corner.

Because Heleno is a magnificent movie. And not just within the context of soccer’s poor standards. It was a great film, period.

Heleno de Freitas, for those that don’t know, was an abrasive, megalomaniac, womanizing, hard-partying, ether-addicted, syphilitic Botafogo striker – 206 goals in 235 games – who got away with his monstrous behavior for far too long by masking it with his eloquence, intelligence (he held a law degree), charms, good looks and immense talent. He smashed up locker rooms, fought anyone who lit his short fuse, belittled teammates, refs, opponents and fans, and once pulled a gun on his coach at Vasco.

The movie tracks the self-destructive cycle that starts with his ill-fated sale to Boca Juniors. Upon his return from Argentina, he finds out that his wife, who he cheated on without cease, has left him for Alberto, his best friend and Botafogo’s captain. Worse: his beloved club will no longer have him. Heleno wins the Rio de Janeiro state league (Brazil’s state leagues were only usurped by a national league in 1971 and still exist) that had long eluded him at Botafogo with Vasco da Gama and next, amid suicidal urges, grows obsessed with winning Brazil a World Cup. But the summit of the striker’s career coincides with World War II, which cancels the 1942 and 1946 World Cups.

Painfully, he doesn’t make the squad for the 1950 World Cup, played on home soil. His increasingly erratic and violent behavior had made him unappealing, and his hard living eroded his talents early. He played his last game in 1951, his only game for America, finally setting foot on the field of the 200,000-capacity Maracana stadium – another obsession of his – but was sent off after just 25 minutes for his incessant verbal abuse of teammates. By the time Brazil finally wins its first World Cup in 1958, Heleno is watching it from a sanatorium. He’d refused treatment for his syphilis, believing medicine made a man weak, and was suffering the neurological deterioration, most strikingly manifesting itself in his eating the newspaper clips of his career taped to his bedroom wall. Heleno died the next year, at 39.

Artful and with a splendid Rodrigo Santoro in the role of Heleno, the film is riveting throughout.

It’ll be out in the U.S. on Dec. 7.

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