Carlos Diegues' "Subway to the Stars" (selected theaters) is an endearing poetic fable, set in Rio slums and touched with mysticism. For all the grittiness of its settings, it's as dreamy as its young hero, a struggling yet endlessly amiable saxophone player.
It's fortunate that Vinicius (newcomer Guilherme Fontes), called Vina, is so likable and engaging because he's what holds this rambling film together. Unlike Diegues' "Bye, Bye, Brazil," "Subway to the Stars" has no drive or direction but rather simply proceeds from one scene to the next; luckily, they all add up at the film's conclusion.
One beautiful night Vina makes love under the open sky with the dark, large-eyed Nicinha (Ana Beatriz Wiltgen). An exuberant Vina claims he can control the sunrise with his music; during his reverie Nicinha disappears. Although Vina commences an exhaustive search for her, contacting a tough, dedicated cop (Milton Goncalves), the film is in no way a conventional mystery, and it's impossible to guess whether we will ever learn what happened to Nicinha. It is rather a portrait of Brazilian poverty, painted not in the dark hues of Hector Babenco's "Pixote" but rather in the sunnier tones of Marcel Camus' classic "Black Orpheus." Harsh events do happen in the course of the film's tour of Rio's most desperately impoverished areas, but the emphasis is on human resilience, on the capacity of the individual to endure and, in the instance of Vina, to possess dreams and even pursue them.
"Subway to the Stars" is largely a collection of vignettes interspersed with the pulsating, sensual music of Gilberto Gil, who blends rock, jazz and electronic elements into the traditional Brazilian beat. (When Vina plays his sax, it's top musician Ze Luis you're hearing.) There are comically wry interviews with Nicinha's daffy, elderly parents, and an eerie occurrence in the worst of the slums in which a soothsayer has bound her beautiful granddaughter to a cross, promising miracles. Making guest appearances are Diegues' "Bye, Bye, Brazil" stars Betty Faria (who plays Vina's hardened stripper mother) and Jose Wilker (cast as a drunk insistent that Vina play "Blue Moon").
"Subway to the Stars" (MPAA-rated R for sex, nudity, some violence) is a deceptively slight, airy film that seems to suggest, for all its buoyancy and high spirits, that only a kind of vaguely defined Second Coming, a dawning of a new millennium, will end poverty and oppression.
'SUBWAY TO THE STARS'
A FilmDallas release in association with CDK Producoes & Chrysalide Films. Executive producer Rodolfo Brandao. Director Carlos Diegues. Screenplay Diegues, Carlos Lombardi. Camera Edgar Moura. Music Gilberto Gil. Art director Lia Renha. Costumes Viviane Sampeio. Film editor Gilberto Santeiro. With Guilherme Fontes, Milton Goncalves, Taumaturgo Ferreira, Ana Beatriz Wiltgen, Ze Trinidade, Miriam Pires. Special participation: Jose Wilker, Betty Faria, Daniel Filho, Cazuza. In Portuguese, with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).