Movie Review: A Quaint and Queer Romance from Brazil — “Private Desert”

The most remarkable thing about “Private Desert,” about a cop discovering that the Internet crush he’s traveled 1400 kilometers to meet is transgender, is that cast and crew were able to get it made in the increasingly reactionary Brazil of today.

Director and co-writer Aly Muritiba’s melodrama is slow — 29 minute-long PROLOGUE slow — formulaic, dated and obvious considering “The Crying Game” opened 30 years ago north of the equator. But tender performances might reward those patient enough to sit through its scenic, formulaic and dramatically-limited longueurs.

Daniel (Antonio Saboia) is a cop under suspension when we meet him. Muscular and bored, he’s stuck taking care of his mute and aged father, whom he calls “Sergeant” because he was in the force before him. Daniel’s trying to show remorse, trying to keep his sanity and desperate to hear from Sara, a lover he’s apparently met online.

If she’s not picking up the phone, what hope do his texts and then sexts have?

When the reasons for his suspension close in around him, he imposes on his kid sister (Cynthia Senek) to care for their father and hits the road, motoring from Curitaba in the south the coast to Sobradinho in the north. That’s where Sara lives.

Muritiba’s script is intent on keeping two secrets, at least one of which anybody with a pulse will figure out. The first time distressed, lovelorn cop Daniel reaches Sara’s voice mail, most viewers will hear her voice and wonder, “Has he sized up Sara’s Adam’s Apple?”

The other “secret” is why Daniel has been suspended from the force, the nature of the crime that is receiving media coverage and the blunt threat of a “trial,” or so his superiors tell him. Has Sara heard of this suspension? Is that why she’s so hard to find?

As Daniel shows her photograph around town and even puts up fliers seeking her, we’re reminded that cops make the best stalkers. And then we start to see things from Sara’s point of view.

Sara (Pedro Fasanaro) lives with a disapproving grandma (Zezita Matos) and under the cagey protection of hairdresser BFF Fernando (Thomas Aquino). By day Sara is Robson, a very young man with bad skin and a job at a produce distribution warehouse. By night, the wig, heavy makeup, dress and Sara come out and she hits the club.

What’s going to happen when cross-country Romeo cop, on the run from his ugly problems, finds out? Will he even have the chance, if Sara’s grandma finds out first and consults her homophobic fundamentalist pastor?

The story Muritiba tells is naturally fresher and more of a novelty in Brazil. One can feel the film’s unstated political subtext, something verified by the fact that Brazil’s film industry selected this scenic and slight drama for Best International Feature consideration last Oscar season.

The thin story is adorned with that long prologue, which fleshes out Daniel’s situation and lets us guess-between-the-lines the nature of his offense, and then puts him on a striking cross-Brazil road trip.

Sara’s double life is far more interesting and produces the movie’s most poignant moment. It stands out because for a movie that promises passion and tension, there’s precious little of that, and the performances — plaintive though they are — don’t turn up the heat.

North American and European viewers can be forgiven for seeing this drawn-out if sometimes sexy melodrama as a tad quaint, right down to the tune that might become “their song” if these two can ever get it together, in or out of “the club.”

When a gay-friendly bar is playing Bonnie Tyler’s performance of Jim Steinman’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” it’s hard not to notice that most everything we see unfold was high stakes and “new” and just-then-losing-its-taboo here when back when that song first came out — in 1983.

Rating: unrated, sex, nudity

Cast: Antonio Saboia, Pedro Fasanaro, Cynthia Senek, Zezita Matos and Thomas Aquino.

Credits: Directed by Aly Muritiba, scripted by Henrique Dos Santos and Aly Muritiba. A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 2:02

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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