Monday, July 22, 2024

Bright and Bubbly Drama at the ‘Carnaval’

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Carnaval is a Brazillian comedy about friendship and the value of real friends over fake social media friends. The film comes on the heels of The Mitchells vs. The Machines. That was another film that satirized our relationship with modern technology. Thinking of the films side-by-side shows the difference that even the slightest bit of nuance can have in a story. 

Though to be fair to Carnaval, it never pretends to be anything but broad and, despite its flaws, comes off just bubbly enough to be tolerable.

The film’s most significant hurdle that it never really clears is that the story is about four women but written mainly by men and directed by a man. To their credit, director Leandro Neri’s and Marcelo Brasil’s lens largely sidestep the male gaze. Since the movie is set in Salvador, Bahia, during Carnaval, this is no mean feat.

However, the script credited with four writers in what seems to be the result of the collaboration instead of re-writes is only interested in the broadest and most exaggerated aspect of the story. Peu Barbalho, Audemir Leuzinger, Luisa Mascarenhas, and Neri have cobbled together a basic structure of an idea of a story but somehow miraculously never make it dull or at all cynical.

Nina (Giovana Cordeiro) is an Instagram influencer whose life’s goal is to get a million followers. However, all that is shunted aside when she discovers that her CrossFit boyfriend is cheating on her. Nina’s planned trip to Aspen is canceled, and soon Nina finds herself being invited to come to the Carnaval as an Influencer. 

Part of the problem of Carnaval is that it tries very hard to paint Nina as selfish and shallow. But Nina asks that instead of being paid, she could instead bring her friends along to help her get over her ex-boyfriend. Her friends, the geeky Vivi (Samya Pascotto), shy Mayra (Bruna Inocencio), and the party-loving Michelle (Jessica Kayane), are all too happy to take an all-expense-paid trip to Salvador.

Neri’s critique of Instagram life feels outdated. People still use Instagram, yes, but in Carnaval, it is all they use. There is no Facebook, TikTok, or even Twitter. It comes off as one of those grumpy older men being angry about something he doesn’t understand.

Indeed, at one point, while out exploring the less-touristy side of Salvador with the suave and very handsome Salvador (Jean Pedro), Nina attempts to take a picture of a gorgeous ocean vista. Salvador grabs her phone and pushes it away. He tells her to look with her eyes and see it. But if you were to replace Nina’s phone with an old-fashioned camera, suddenly she’s not a vapid “millennial” but merely someone who enjoys capturing the moments.

Even considering that Carnaval is trafficking in broad strokes and that the ladies are more caricatures than characters, Vivi still comes off as a man’s idea of what a woman who is a geek would belike instead of an actual geek. Vivi is a geek in the sense that if she were on a sitcom, she would be believable. She refuses to give the hunky men a second glance because they don’t care about reading or video games.

Michelle, the Samantha of the group, if I may show my age, finds this attitude aggravating. It’s hard to blame her. Not only is it weirdly immature it also wildly underestimates the full spectrum of what a person is. Of course, Vivi soon learns her lesson, especially when one of the geeky guides turns out to be a hunk in nerd’s clothing and forces her to re-evaluate her entire worldview.

Carnaval is so earnest it can be easy to roll one’s eyes at its over-the-top comedy and, at times, clunky melodrama. But Neri largely succeeds because he and Brasil fill the screen with vibrant colors as the camera pulls back to give us the sense of scope and size of this magnificent party. That he shoves many convoluted stories lessens the impact of the beauty and splendor Brasil captures with his lens throughout the rest of the movie.

We follow Nina around for most of the movie as she tries to “create” memorable moments with her friends. Along the way, there is the obligatory setback of her abandoning her friends in favor of spending time with pop star Freddy Nunez (Micael) to help bump up her follower count. Nina has to face if she likes the handsome and popular Freddy or the down-to-earth but no less attractive Salvador.

Carnaval, however, does have a few tricks up its sleeve. We learn that one of the characters is secretly gay. Neri handles their terror of being outed, and the pain of staying closeted with more sensitivity than the rest of the film would lead you to believe. 

Nina spends much of the film measuring herself against Luana (Flavia Pavanelli), an influencer with over 10 million followers. Luana is the villain of the piece, but she’s so broadly constructed that she barely comes off as anything but a character designed for a sketch rather than a movie. Pavanelli, however, does her best and does a good job making Luana almost instantly unlikable.

Carnaval isn’t grand, but it isn’t awful either. Brasil’s visually clarity and sprightly framing, and kaleidoscopic colors put most modern big-budget blockbusters to shame. The crowd scenes have a particular sort of enthusiasm about them, perhaps because they are actual crowd scenes, and seeing these scenes coming out the other side of a pandemic is a reminder that maybe the worst has passed. 

Whatever the case, as cookie-cutter as Carnaval may be, Neri makes it so you’re hard-pressed not to have somewhat of a good time.

Image courtesy of Netflix

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