The Man Of The Year

Hair today, gun tomorrow
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Strongest contender so far for picture of the year is City of God, a brutal and exhilarating epic of street violence that blithely stole the thunder of Scorsese's disappointing Gangs of New York and gave notice that Brazil could be as serious about film as it is about football. Now comes another anatomy of Rio's ultraviolent suburbs in The Man of the Year, less ambitious in its texture and design but certainly comparable to City of God in its depiction of the feral energies thrumming along those mean streets. José Henrique Fonseca, directing his first feature, brings a tremendous verve to some of the images, even if his characterisation feels somewhat slipshod.

His starting point is that unstable compound of pride and aggression known as machismo. Maiquel (Murilo Benicio), a brooding, dark-eyed youth, has spent his whole life wishing he were "someone else", and takes the first step towards having that wish granted when he walks into his local bar one evening, his hair newly dyed a vivid blond. A thug named Suel shrieks with laughter and taunts him as "a fag" - not a good idea, because the next day Maiquel shoots him dead on the street. Yet, far from being outlawed for his crime, he finds himself a hero; it seems that nobody liked Suel, and his demise is celebrated as a kind of public favour. Nobody, that is, apart from Suel's girlfriend Erica (Natalia Lage), who arrives on Maiquel's doorstep and demands to be taken care of.

Maiquel already has a new house guest, a pig he has named Bill, one of many gifts presented to him by a grateful neighbour. (No porker has been so affectionately characterised in movies since Babe.) What with his pregnant girlfriend Cledir (Claudia Abreu) railroading him into marriage, Maiquel feels life getting busier and costlier than he can manage, and working at the pet shop isn't going to make ends meet. When his dentist Dr Carvalho (Jorge Doria) suggests a quid pro quo - all dental work for free if he disposes of the man who raped his daughter - Maiquel senses the possibility of a new career. He does indeed become "someone else" - a stone killer. The script, adapted by Rubem Fonseca from the novel by Patricia Melo, ponders this drastic turn of character. Is Maiquel simply responding to the destiny of his DNA, or have his surroundings forced this ruthlessness upon him? It's a compelling subtlety of Murilo Benicio's performance that the question is never settled. Certainly, once Maiquel has steeled himself he goes about his murdering with cool efficiency. "That's how you build a decent nation," says the dentist, and soon the local police chief is sponsoring Maiquel as a sort of freelance vigilante.

What makes us wonder if Maiquel has entirely embraced the dark side is the tiny but perceptible pause between drawing a bead on his victim and pulling the trigger. Something - pity, guilt, dread? - is going through his head, but we're never quite sure what. The uncertainty is tantalising.

As Fernando Meirelles did in City of God, the director Fonseca presents the killing in an almost offhand way. The guns aren't the sleek Magnums and Uzis of Hollywood action movies but ancient-looking pistols that make small, near-decorous holes in flesh. The film is generally indifferent to the glamour of violence; Maiquel doesn't gloat over the punks he kills, or indulge himself with one-liners, and there is little sense that his new career is making him rich.

Yet it is lousy with cynicism. Self-interest rules this society, from the elderly bourgeois looking for protection and the thugs who rob and murder, right through to young women who batten on to marriage only to become, in the words of one gallant, "fat, vindictive cows". Only Bill the pig seems entirely innocent, and in keeping with the film's grim comedy it ends up on the dinner table: they kill Bill! Talking of which, Tarantino is an occasional influence here; so too is the internecine fallout of Goodfellas, though Fonseca is not a compulsive namechecker by any means. If his film has a fault, it's a negligence in developing another character to hold the screen against Maiquel; the women in particular are short-changed. (The frenzy of religious mania that grips Erica comes out of nowhere.) But for most of its length The Man of the Year is a tense, taut fable of spiritual corruption, served up with a debutant's insolent swagger.

In Pascal Bonitzer's comedy drama Petites coupures, Daniel Auteuil plays a man out of time, an old-fashioned skirt-chaser and a communist newspaper journalist. "How can you still be a communist, after all that?" "All what?" he retorts. Of rather more immediate concern is his love life, stranded between a wife (Emmanuelle Devos) who has left him and a spoony girlfriend (Ludivine Sagnier) he doesn't really care for. In remote Grenoble on a mission to patch up an estrangement between his uncle and an old comrade, Auteuil finds himself irresistibly drawn to the latter's much younger wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) who's beautiful, lonely and quite possibly nuts.

Difficult not to be frustrated by a film which has a kind of attention deficit disorder, building intrigue only to lose interest and veer off in another direction. Bonitzer maintains the illusion of continuity by means of an opal ring that passes between several characters, but he can't dispel the impression that he and his co-writer Emmanuel Salinger are making it up as they go along. Scott Thomas is a particular victim of the sudden mood swings. And I wasn't quite convinced by Auteuil as the vacillating womaniser - "a worm", as someone puts it. There's something too steely and self-contained in this actor's gaze to suggest he's a feather in any romantic breeze that happens to blow past.