After becoming drawn to Sao Paulo’s burgeoning red light district in the mid-1950s, Hiroito (Daniel de Oliveira) grows up to snort, shoot, and shag his way through Boca Do Lixo (Sao Paolo’s nightclub, prostitution, and drugs district). As he increasingly indulges in his own product and butts up against competing organised criminals, Hiroito begins to simultaneously unravel and escalate in his violence and criminality.
Boasting “based on a true story” credentials, covering a similar time-frame to Goodfellas and portraying one man’s descent into a way of life that entices him from his youth, this could have been Brazil’s answer to Scorsese’s crime epic. That it isn’t and not by some distance is a shame and the question then becomes one of where the blame should lie.
Hiroito is an enigmatic character, his father brutally murdered (Hiroito may have been responsible, we are never told), his desire for women unchecked, his appetite for drugs unhealthy and undisciplined, and his quest to rule Boca Do Lixo as its self-proclaimed King unwise. With his curiously quasi-Oriental features, his Buddy Holly glasses, his stylish dress-sense, his smooth smile, and his explosive temper, he is certainly a novel character, but unfortunately always falls short of being compelling and truly charismatic. Whereas Ray Liotta had always wanted to be a gangster and Al Pacino grew up through a crime family, we are left unsure as to why Hiroito finds himself in this way of life and what really makes him tick – the characterisation is just too shallow.
This proves a fatal flaw for the film, which consequently struggles and fails to grip the audience. The episodic structure would not be a problem in and of itself, nor would the narrative’s tendency to skip forward a year or two at a time, if there were a more coherent sense of where the story in general and Hiroito in particular were going. You get the sense that he is ambitious and becoming more successful and prominent, but only because radio broadcasts tell us so. Supporting characters are only vaguely defined for the most part, with only Hiroito’s long-suffering wife and his compromised police-confidant rising above one-dimensional status.
Boca (as it also more briefly known) is not without its plus points. There is an evocative sense of time and place to the film – its 1950s milieu well-portrayed - and during his quieter moments de Oliveira exudes seething, simmering anger, but too often he seems to struggle to move up through the gears when it comes to essaying the more explosive scenes. He is clearly a capable actor, but the role requires more than that and more than he seems able to give.
Boca Do Lixo is likely to be of interest to aficionados of Latin American crime drama, but it is difficult to see it becoming a cross-over success like Amores Perros or City of God before it. You can buy it on DVD or Bluray now.
Extras: Trailers and TV Spots, a gallery and a director’s commentary. Flavio Frederico comes across as a considered and articulate director and gives plenty of interesting and insightful input to accompany the onscreen action.