Arts & Events
In the ten years since Bend it Like Beckham first lit up the screen, a major soccer movie has managed to make it to US theaters about once every three years. In 2005, it was Goal: The Dream Begins. In 2009, it was Rudo y Cursi (with Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna). And now, soccer-loving cineastes can look forward to Hermano, a fast-paced, dust-kicking box-office hit from Venezuela, directed by Marcel Rasquin.
Hermano (originally released in 2010) won numerous international film awards (including the Moscow, Naples and Havana Film Festivals) on its way to an Academy Awards nomination as Best Foreign Film for 2011.
The story line of Hermano parallels the tale in Rudo y Cursi — two competitive brothers vie for commercial stardom on a national team and encounter challenges, disappointments and gang violence along the way. But where Rudo y Cursi had comic moments and musical interludes (when one brother tries to use his soccer stardom as a springboard for a musical career), Hermano has the kind of grit associated with a documentary. It's got the rivalry, it's got the gangs, and it's got more soccer battles than a Jackie Chan movie has kung fu fights.
The film begins with the wail of an abandoned baby surrounded by garbage and a backdrop of deflated soccer balls near a pedestrian bridge in La Ceniza, a Caracas slum. On the bridge, a young boy hears the cry and, believing it is a stray cat, runs away from his mother to collect the prize. When the mother catches up to the little boy, he is frozen, starring at the weeping baby. The woman grabs her son and turns away. And then, she turns back…
Hace Dieciséis Años
Sixteen years later, we rejoin the two now-teenage brothers. Julio, the older (Eliú Armas) and Daniel (Fernando Moreno), who answers to the nickname "Gato" (cat). Julio is the taller and stronger of the two. Gato clearly idolizes him. Julio, however, both dotes on his adopted brother and mercilessly challenges and tests him as they compete for their mother's attention. (The film benefits from the fact that both young actors are exceptional soccer players.) Their mother, Graciela (Marcela Ciron), is a fully realized woman who is raising two demanding boys in a home filled with non-stop bickering and absolute mutual love. In the film, Graciela runs a successful small business, creating exquisite home-baked cakes for neighbors in the La Ceniza barrio. (In real life, Marcela Ciron is also a professional soccer player in Caracas' champion Female Soccer League.)
Both boys play soccer for the local barrio team. Towering Julio is team captain and diminutive Gato is a nimble striker and (as is typically the case in such stories) is described as a unique player with "a gift." When the two boys play together, their team is unbeatable.
Naturally, when Gato is offered a chance to try out for the Caracas Football Club, he stuns the hard-knuckled team owner by refusing to sign a contract unless his brother is also allowed to join the club. (The same device also plays out in Rudo y Cursi.)
Predictably, there is a classic "standoff" game on the soccer field that will determine whether the boys will share a professional destiny. But before that happens, there is a tragedy that tears the family apart.
Soccer Clubs and Barrio Gangs
A large part of the film's success has to do with its attention to the insidious reach of the barrio's gangster politics. Julio has money because he secretly serves as a part-time enforcer for the local drug dealers. Gato is still naïve — knowing little about gangs or girls.
Julio and Gato spend the early part of the film joshing and punching each other in a well-natured sibling rivalry filled with ribald jokes and a bracing torrent of grinning, obscene insults.
But things darken during a nighttime party when the local barrio leader shows up. He makes his first appearance slowly walking into the background in a large crowd of dancing kids and — even surrounded by a crowd and at a distance of 30 feet — you immediate know this guy is bad news. He's the kind of manipulator who lets you know he'll be your "protector" — "or else."
The uncertainty deepens one afternoon when mild-mannered Gato is surrounded by some street kids. At first, they seem like playful futbol fans but suddenly — and unsettlingly — their hijinks turn aggressive and potentially deadly.
What Else Can Go Wrong? Plenty
Julio and Gato become increasingly estranged. This is a particularly worrisome development because Julio — muscular, repressed and somber, never cracking a smile — begins to loom more menacing by the hour as Gato deals with a crushing secret that nearly breaks him.
The growing sense of menace is only relieved by the competition on the soccer field. The action on the barrio's dust-caked fields is fierce and fast. The filmmaking is precise and physical and two actors "do their own stunts," scoring real goals and taking their lumps in the inevitable collisions.
Gato and Julio eventually have a High Noon moment (or perhaps an "Enter the Dragon" moment) when they rip off their shirts and face off inside a crumbling building for a one-on-one soccer match will decide their futures. This intense scene plays out like a martial arts battle.
Hermano is a test of family, a test of manhood and a test of love served up in a cauldron of barrio insecurity where the wrong word can mean having your hand smashed by a mallet. Or someone you love being cut down by a bullet. It's a world of sociopathic glue-sniffing children and amoral gangsters covering for one another.
It's a world you will get to know during the course of Hermano's 97 subtitled minutes. It's a world that will most likely linger in your memory long after you've left the theatre.