By John Duncan Talbird.
Director Daniel Augusto and screenwriter Carolina Kotscho’s biopic of the Brazilian writer, Paulo Coelho, Paulo Coelho’s Best Story, opens with the young author-to-be (Ravel Andrade) attempting suicide by gas range. Before he succumbs, he hears a rock song — a song we return to later in the film — and changes his mind. Still, the attempt has started a cycle of events. His parents commit him to a mental institution. He is given electroshock therapy. Our attention has been gained. But we don’t stay with this story for any length of time. This film is really three stories: the young Paulo, institutionalized, self-destructive, wanting to be a writer; the twenty-to-thirty-something Paulo, drug-user, songwriter, political activist, mystic (Júlio Andrade, Ravel’s older brother); and the present-day beloved writer Paulo, stopped in the street for autographs (also Júlio, in old man makeup).
This is Augusto’s first feature film and many of the actors have only appeared in Brazilian television. The film has the feel of a made-for-TV movie except for in one aspect: This story is not told chronologically. In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Amores Perros (2000, written by Guillermo Arriaga), we cut from story to story, but unlike in that film — which is composed of three unrelated stories linked by theme and location — it’s unclear why this film needed to be told this way. Like Inarritu’s less successful 21 Grams (2003, also written by Arriaga), Best Story is just one story and so the disrupted chronology seems more a stylistic gimmick rather than a choice dictated by narrative. By fragmenting the overall narrative, the filmmakers seem to be unsuccessfully attempting to obscure the fact that there’s not much story here. The truth is that the plot offers, potentially, a lot of story, but since we spend so little time with each narrative, we never become invested in any of them.
The most compelling story is the “first,” where a young Paulo is committed, escapes, is committed again. He dearly wants to be a writer. His stern and practical, but loving father (Pedro Souza) tells him that he can’t just be a writer, he also has to have a career. (The father is not obtuse, as he mentions the fact that Portuguese — and Nobel-prize-winning author — José Saramago had a day job as a journalist.) Paulo’s mother (Fabíula Naxcimento) appeals to the father’s reason and the boy is granted a manual typewriter. We don’t know why Paulo wants to be a writer, what “being a writer” actually means to him other than banging on a typewriter. In one formative scene, we watch a pretty young girl perform a Shakespeare soliloquy and receive applause (we really watch Paulo watch her; more on this later). In the next scene, we see Paulo reading a Shakespeare play. A writer is born.
Like many films about writers, we see many scenes of Paulo pounding on the keys of his typewriter, balling up paper, suffering. There’s one particularly embarrassing scene where Júlio Andrade rolls on the floor and screams, appearing to have some kind of angst-inspired meltdown which leads to nothing narratively or otherwise. Despite all this anguish, Paulo seems to have a pretty easy time of it as a writer. He writes his first play — we see a fragment of this performance, see it through his parents’ eyes who are baffled by its avant-garde posturing. But when the audience gives the playwright a standing ovation, his mother says, in wonder, “They love him!” Later that night, he meets a beautiful woman, Luiza (Paz Vega) and the two of them dance in slow motion on a beach while Paulo reads poetry to an audience and, yes, it is as silly and pretentious as it sounds. Before Paulo approaches Luiza, the camera caresses her body and it’s clear that Augusto has never heard of Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze. In fact, whenever, Paulo meets a new attractive woman we are treated to a lingering survey through Jacob Solitrenick’s camera lens.
At some point, Paulo meets a guitarist, Raul Seixas (Lucci Ferreira), and they form a rock band (we then hear the song which opened the film). But Paulo becomes disillusioned by the rock and roll life. Also, he gets arrested and tortured by Brazil’s secret police for his “subversive” song lyrics and some literary journal he’s created. He marries a woman, Christina (Fabiana Gugli), and she encourages him to follow his dream, writing, and they go on a trip to Spain where he meets, I guess, some sort of spirit guide with the rather banal name Jay (Nancho Novo). Paulo goes on a pilgrimage with Jay’s voice-over directions (sample tip: “Whenever you experience ‘bad’ thoughts, drive your fingernails into your cuticles until you feel pain”). Paulo is given a sword which, I suppose, symbolizes something esoteric which the film doesn’t try to explain. There are references to Aleister Crowley, looking for signs and symbols, and various “mysteries.”
My sense is that some of this type of mysticism is what has made Paulo Coelho’s books so popular. But mysticism in itself isn’t popular; the books have to be accessible. I admit that I was ignorant of his work. Of course, I knew of it, having worked in a used bookstore for years. However, I never had any desire to read any of his books. We shelved his books in the New Age section along with Shirley MacLaine’s memoirs about her past lives, Carlos Castenda’s acid trips, and “true” stories of angel encounters. As my tone indicates, I had a preconceived idea about these books. But I thought after seeing this film, that I should read at least one of them and so I picked up The Alchemist (1988) and read it in a few hours. I can see why this book is so popular. It’s an easy read, an appealing adventure story with a sympathetic hero who suffers and then gets his way after much perseverance. It’s a bourgeois fairytale as is the film based on Coelho’s life. They both preach to their audiences the platitude “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” which, of course, implies that those who don’t get what they want didn’t really want it in the first place. The shepherd of The Alchemist has a father with the money to buy him his sheep so that he can go on his adventure; Paulo Coelho had middle class parents who gave him a house to live in and fed him so he could write his stories. When you have a family who can take you in when you stumble, you’re performing with a safety net. Still, Paulo Coelho’s Best Story probably could have benefitted from a safer approach. Coelho knows what types of stories he’s telling — inspirational, simple — and he tells them well. Augusto and Kotscho haven’t figured out the type of story they want to tell — an art house film or a mainstream biopic — and so they’ve not succeeded at either.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the just-released, limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, REAL and elsewhere. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives with his wife in Brooklyn.