It's hard to fully invest in "Heleno," director José Henrique Fonseca's warts-only biopic about legendary Brazilian soccer player — and consummate bad boy — Heleno de Freitas.
De Freitas, at least as scripted here by Fonseca, Felipe Bragança and Fernando Castets, was such an emotionally irredeemable, narcissistic jerk that, despite Rodrigo Santoro's sexy, riveting portrayal, there's just so much one can care about this star athlete and his self-destructive journey.
That's not to say "Heleno," with its magnetic energy, sensual re-creation of 1940s and '50s Brazil and bold storytelling lacks punch; the movie is nothing if not watchable. But, by presenting more surface than depth to De Freitas' womanizing, arrogance and volatility (an implied closeness to his unseen mother is about as far as the film digs), it largely feels like an arm's length effort.
Fonseca even goes light on the soccer-playing scenes, the one place the movie could have engaged viewers with the more heroic, idol-worthy side of the pre-Pelé De Freitas, best known as a 209-goal-scoring striker for Rio's club Botafogo.
The focus remains on De Freitas' romantic entanglements (Alinne Moraes as his wife and Angie Cepeda as his singer mistress are both terrific), his downward career spiral, addiction to cigarettes and ether, and the untreated syphilis that would claim him at age 39.
Walter Carvalho's evocative black-and-white photography deserves special mention. It's gorgeous.
"Heleno." MPAA rating: R for sexuality, drug content and some language; in Portuguese with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. At Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood.