The Story of Me (O Contador de Histórias)- 31 August, 2010
The Story of Me follows the early life of the celebrated Brazilian storyteller Roberto Carlos Ramos. It is significant that he is identified as a storyteller rather than a writer not only because he mostly writes children’s books but also because of the strong oral tradition which he keeps in his live performances, of which we are treated to an example of during the credits. But for the most part, this is not a biopic, it is just a story about a troubled child and the young French pedagogue who was determined to persevere with him. This is especially handy for those outside the Portuguese-speaking world of Ramos’ fame, and also because the film remains quite squarely in the vein of other recent Brazilian cinema by focusing on the lives of the street child underclass who come out of the favelas.
The youngest of 10 children, Roberto Carlos, is sent to a new government initiative which gives poverty-stricken families the chance to give their children a better life. His mother was spurred on by a TV advertisement describing FEBEM (Faith, Education, Basic manners, Expectation, Morals – Not a real acronym, more of a mnemonic device to help the illiterate parents remember the name).
True to the storytelling idea throughout, the film doesn’t unravel in chronological order. More is learned about Roberto Carlos gradually, in layers, as he opens up to Margherit, the pedagogue, who is determined to crack his tough shell to get at ‘his story’.
He naturally has the storytelling instinct inside him, and the first one he tells is an elaborate lie, illustrated by a cutaway shot of an idealised 70s family with afros robbing a bank. But rather than being twee, this is actually really funny, and the other fantasy scenes are also well served by the imaginative lines in the dialogue.
His memories of the favela are all positive and idealised, he talks about loving to tangle kites around overhead cables, in the hope that one day his neighbourhood could fly off into the sky. And it is only when he gets to FEBEM, and feels abandoned by his mother, that he starts to ‘go the wrong way’. The city makes him have unrealistic expectations which he never even desired before: a bike for a Christmas present, his own bedroom, the perfect life; and when these are not met he starts to feel frustrated. Obsessed with looking tough and realising that the harsh reality of this special half-school, half-jail was barely better than the life available with his mother, he escapes over 100 times between the ages of 7 and 14, and lives the life of any street child: stealing, fighting and taking drugs.
Fortunately, he is lucky enough to build a relationship with Margherit, and after some setbacks, he finishes reading his first book Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and is amazed by the power of the story on his imagination:
“The book took me to another world. Like sniffing paint thinner.”
Having the patient and almost saintly Margherit character come in to turn his life around could have made the film into a trite and clichéd ‘how can I reach these kids?’ genre of movie, and the fantasy scenes could have come out as sickly as in something like Amelie. For example, Precious, released last year, despite its brilliance, was marred by some silly sentimentality we expect from a Hollywood coming-of-age-out-of-poverty film.
The Story of Me, however, remains believable, compelling and original throughout.
The Story of Me will receive its UK Premiere on Sept 5th as part of the 2nd Brazilian Film Festival of London. Read more about the festival HERE.