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FILMS / REVIEWS Portugal

Review: Variações

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- João Maia’s project, several years in the making, is set to be one of the most popular Portuguese films of the year

Review: Variações
Sérgio Praia in Variações

More than a man or a singer, António Variações was an icon. João Maia’s latest film, Variações: Guardian Angel [+see also:
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, produced by Portuguese outfit David & Golias and now on general release in its home country (where it has notched up 50,000 viewers in the four days since its premiere), courtesy of NOS Audiovisuais, is a biopic of one of the most significant singers in Portuguese music history. A powerful and controversial figure of his time, he nevertheless appealed to the masses then, as he does now.

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On hold for almost ten years, the project has finally materialised. The film explores several stages of António’s life, from his childhood to the peak of his success, but centres mainly on the path he took to establish himself as a singer in the Portuguese music industry. The film stars Sérgio Praia, who does not simply play António Variações, but also fully incarnates his persona, in a truly startling, gripping and sometimes uncanny performance. Not only does Sérgio physically resemble Variações, but his punk, free and imaginative attitude builds an energy that seems to be a direct heritage from Variações’ spirit.

As a music biopic, the film thoroughly explores the musical, creative side of Variações’ life, with scenes of studio sessions, band sessions and even bathroom tape-recording sessions (a famous aspect of Variações’ work). The director wisely chose to use Sérgio Praia’s very own voice, as well as his own interpretation of some of the songs in Variações’ repertoire, enabling the audience to feel the moments captured in front of the camera in their rawest, most natural state. Though the voices of the actor and of the singer are quite different, we get a sense of António’s attitude (his particular way of standing in front of a microphone, of singing), and fully embrace the persona that is presented in front of us.

Set in the 1980s, the film explores (as António did) the main streets of Lisbon, as well as the city’s underground spots: from Trumps (an iconic gay club that is still active today), where Variações gave his first live performance, to the city centre. Despite a clearly thought-through recreation of the environment that surrounded Variações, as well as some well-executed cinematography (which shows João Maia’s extensive experience in advertising), the decor feels excessively meticulous: a perfection that, regrettably, distracts us, at times, from the force and energy emanating from Sérgio Praia’s outstanding performance.

Besides the musical side of Variações’ life (which dominates the film), another important dynamic is explored and portrayed in the picture: the (platonic) love story between António Variações and Fernando Ataíde (played by Filipe Duarte). Though widely known, this aspect of Variações’ life sometimes seems wilfully forgotten by some of the people who know and love his music — even by his own family. Mainstream films often feature a romantic plot as a way of appealing to bigger audiences. In this case, João Maia does not avoid this topic, but neither does he force it as a means to please the audience. The movie presents, in an honest and beautiful way, a story of gay, forbidden love, where the emotions come across as universal, with the vibrant on-screen chemistry between the two characters making us (want to) fall in love.

Despite its honest and beautiful LGBT dynamic and representation, the film sometimes falls into caricature. For example, the director of the record company who gave Variações his first contract is an uncomfortable cliché, exaggerating the visual signs that most people use to define a person as a homosexual.

Though that portrayal is disappointing (and could even be considered superficial, unnecessary and rather disgraceful), Maia nevertheless shows tremendous sensitivity and respect towards most of his characters – and especially towards his main character. Variações died from HIV/AIDS, a fact that the film explores respectfully and sensitively. We do not see the man’s last days, nor do we see a falling star: we only get a glimpse of the “beginning of the end”.

Variações is an honest cinematic homage to António Variações, a love letter from João Maia to one of the biggest icons in the Portuguese music scene, and indeed to his entire audience. A letter that will not fall into disgrace: this promising film will most probably continue to resonate through time.

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