Rodrigo Santoro stars as Heleno de Freitas in "Heleno." (Screen Media Films )
Long before Brazil's Pelé enthralled international audiences on the soccer field, scoring 1,281 goals in 1,363 games during his 20-year career, and before England's David Beckham brought sex appeal to the sport as a star for Manchester United and the Los Angeles Galaxy, there was Brazilian footballer Heleno de Freitas.
From 1939 through 1948, the forward scored a staggering 209 goals for Brazil's Botafogo team. Not only was he a remarkable athlete, De Freitas also was handsome, well-educated — he was an attorney — and wealthy.
But he also had an explosive temper and an insatiable sexual appetite. He smoked and drank to excess. De Freitas' hedonistic lifestyle eventually caught up with him. He was just 39 when he died from syphilis in a sanatorium in Barbacena in 1959.
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Rodrigo Santoro ("300") stars as the soccer player in the black-and-white Brazilian biographical drama "Heleno," which opens Friday. The actor, who shed some 28 pounds from his lean frame for the role, has received several international awards for his performance, including best actor at both the Havana Film Festival and the Lima Latin American Film Festival.
The biggest challenge Santoro and director and co-writer José Henrique Fonseca faced making "Heleno" was to find De Freitas' humanity.
"Heleno was a mythical character," said Fonseca, who grew up hearing stories about him.
After leaving Botafogo, De Freitas played for several other teams, including Argentina's Boca Juniors, where it was rumored he had an affair with Eva Perón. His career ended in 1951 with Rio's America team. By that time, his behavior had become more irrational, possibly due to the effects of syphilis. De Freitas only played one game with the club.
"If Heleno was living today, he would be called bipolar," Fonseca said. "People used to say he had the devil inside him. When I decided to make the movie, I spoke with Rodrigo and told him I am going to direct the film only if he accepted the role. I called him because he is a very, very sensitive person, very sweet and very gentle. I think he brought humanity to the character."
Santoro's 96-year-old grandfather had mentioned De Freitas to him, but the actor really didn't know much about him before he got the role. Santoro did grow up playing soccer, however.
"The character was a risk," said the 37-year-old actor. "I had to be careful not to judge him, otherwise I would paint him as a bad guy. I started to understand it would be a real challenge to find out the humanity of the guy. There were so many myths and stories."
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Santoro got insight into the real De Freitas when he traveled to his small hometown of São João Nepomuceno.
"It was a very key moment for me," he said. "I saw where he learned how to play soccer, which was two streets from his house, the bakery and the favorite sweet that he would like to eat. The people didn't have that image of Heleno the player, Heleno the bad boy with the bad rap. It was a completely different take."
Santoro believes De Freitas' hair-trigger temper came from his obsession to be the best.
"He wanted to overcome his own limits," he said. "He probably lost control and couldn't balance things very much. He really wanted people to do their best. He wanted everybody to give their blood for the game, their life."
In 1953, the disease had so affected De Freitas' brain that his family committed him to a mental institution. "He had to be treated with electroshock therapy," said Fonseca.
De Freitas died there six years later.
Could his sad demise have been avoided?
When De Freitas was diagnosed with syphilis, he refused treatment.
"I feel like he accepted his own destruction," Santoro said. "The story we heard is that they didn't know exactly how to treat syphilis at the time. They said, 'We are going to give you this substance, this medicine. We do not guarantee it is gong to cure you. But we know it is going to effect your virility.' He was like, 'No way. I am going to live full-throttle.' I think he chose rebellion. I think that demonstrates real courage."