There’s an abundance of life but precious little joy in the Brazil portrayed by director Claudio Assis in Mango Yellow. Displaying neither the sentimentality of Central Station, nor the middle-class romance of Bossa Nova, nor the hard core crime and drug scene of City of God, Assis focuses on a group of working-class people living hardscrabble lives in the favelas of Recife. Recife is a major city of a million and a half people; the highrise business district is occasionally observed in the background. But the lives seen here are not only on the economic edge; they are freighted with loneliness, with unfulfilled longings, with existential angst. Assis stretches his characters up to and perhaps beyond the edge of reality. In their extremes, he suggests a malaise infecting Brazil.
Wellington (Chico Diaz) is a butcher in a slaughterhouse (Assis dwells on both the blood and the bloodletting). His wife, Kika (Dira Paes), is a devout evangelical, given to wearing covered up clothing in a tropical city where skin is casually exposed all around. "Modesty," a man on the street leers at her, "is the most intelligent form of perversion." Wellington values his wife’s religious conviction because it assures him of her fidelity, even as he carries on an affair with another woman.
Wellington delivers (unrefrigerated) meat (from the back of a pickup) to the seedy Texas Hotel, whose flamboyantly gay cook, Dunga (Matheus Nachtergaele), lusts after the butcher to no avail. Aurora, an older resident of the hotel, is an asthmatic hooked on her oxygen tank, overweight, and terrified of the loneliness she suffers. Nearby, at a cafe, Ligia (Leona Cavalli), the barkeep, flaunts her sexuality even as she fights off the constant physical advances of the scruffy customers. One of those, Isaac, referred to as "the German," is obsessed with death–he buys the bodies of the newly dead, tastes the blood, and fires his gun into the corpse.
Late in the film, after the intertwined destinies of these characters have unfolded, Assis offers a series of portraits of the people of this neighborhood–women and men, from children to the aged, of every shade of skin color. He’s suggesting that his theme is broader than the motley, near-surreal group of characters he has introduced. These are people of great energy, but it seems to lead them only in circles of marginal poverty. They are full of life, but their spirits are troubled. The fight for survival seems to have left them without a spiritual core. The local Roman Catholic church is closed; the priest is a drunk. The evangelical movement (wildly successful in winning converts in Brazil) seems only a band-aid of reality avoidance. Isaac’s necrophilia is shocking, but is perhaps a theatrical extension of the tropical Latin fascination with death. When this life is so lacking, the next offers hope.
Assis’ film is thoughtful and well made. In-your-face, it pulls no punches. His characters are etched with skill and he creates sufficient narrative drive in his multiple storylines to sustain interest throughout. His is a strong and original new voice in Brazilian cinema.
Ligia, when she begins her day at the start of the film, bemoans the never-ending cycle of nights and days and she repeats her lament later on. But it is the comment of a customer at the bar which perhaps most closely defines the bleak reality here: "To have any sense at all in Brazil," he says, "is to feel guilty."