“Based on a true story.” Words that often make the prospective viewer’s heart sink. Somewhat to my relief, ‘Bingo: The King of the Mornings’ neatly avoids the biggest pitfalls common to lightly fictionalised re-tellings of real life. At least in the first half of the film. The principle pitfall being that real life often just isn’t as interesting as fiction.
This isn’t a problem the film suffers from; there’s plenty of great material to work with. It’s easy to see why debut director Daniel Rezende (film editor of The City of God) chose this project. The premise: soft porn actor yet to find his big break, by chance sees the opportunity to audition for a national Brazilian institution – morning show host Bingo the clown (originally Bozo in real life, but copyright issues forced a name change for the film).
We don’t usually associate unhinged brilliance and a rock-and-roll lifestyle with clowns/children’s entertainers. The marrying of these two things is one of the nuances that draws one into the world of the film, modelled on the story of real life actor Arlindo Barreto, aka Bozo the clown.
When the film opens we see a fair bit of the lead (re-cast as Augusto Mendes) in his natural habitat, acting in porn films, trying to get into soap operas and being humiliated in the process, struggling with his ex-wife, and loving his son and mother.
We can’t help rooting for this flawed hero who’s so palpably desperate to make his former soap-star queen mother proud and live up to her success, the shadow of which he’s always lived in.
When he wins the part of Bingo, by essentially taking the piss – cleverly and wittily – in the audition, we’re hooked.
Of course, after this unlikely success, things get tricky fast, and it takes a while to pull them back from the brink. It’s only when Augusto Mendes abandons the wooden script written for the show, which doesn’t gel with his personality, that it becomes a huge hit. Ratings soar beyond all expectations, apart from Augusto’s, whose fragile yet staggering self-belief is at once hubristic and beguiling.
This transition from looming failure to stellar success is one of the many times that the film felt a little over-long. In all, it could have done with a good twenty minutes lopped off, and for at least the first third simply felt too slow in cutting to the chase.
This may partly be due to the creators wanting to do justice to, and honour the real life character and story: they don’t seem to realise that most of the world doesn’t care about that origin story, they just want a good drama.
Augusto’s struggle to overcome his demons is really the essence of the story. And this is a great enactment of how a person’s ‘dreams coming true’ does not necessarily help them to personal happiness, and can in fact exacerbate existing problems. The fact that the identity of Bingo the clown must remain a secret is the poison in the chalice: Augusto still doesn’t have the recognition (quite literally) he craves. Though, after the event you can’t help wondering if even that would have only worsened his destructive patterns.
One of these patterns is the playboy, love ‘em and leave ‘em, persona. He makes a crude bet that he can seduce the show’s director, Lucia, within a month. This is his modus operandi – he is very, very good at the smooth talk and the seducer’s mind games. Because of this, and his young-Hugh Grant-esque good looks, I rather expected him to succeed with this wager.
The fact that he does not is a nice development for those of us who aren’t already familiar with the true story. And it means that not only does he come to respect the love-interest, as she refuses to be regarded as a piece of meat, but even more importantly, she comes to see his vulnerability. There’s a funeral scene where his sheer grief and her compassion are very moving, and vividly depict that the masks between these two have been swept away by real life.
The other major relationship in the film is between Augusto and his son. Excellently acted, nevertheless this relationship suffers from repetitive episodes of the son being disappointed by his father’s growing distance. One or two of these scenes would have done, rather than the handful we get.
The surrealist elements in the film, while well done and flashy, did not work for me. The script several times goes down flights of fancy, sometimes Augusto’s and sometimes apparently the director’s. In one instance this is fun, but from the first instance it raises the suspicion whenever anything too outlandish occurs: ‘Oh, this is probably just imaginary’. Which is rather a kin to being told, ‘And then they woke up and found it had all been a dream’.
Similarly, some of the more inventive shots and camerawork didn’t seem to add anything, and, while impressive, make the film harder to watch (and, of course, longer). There is one instance where Augusto tells the show’s producer when asked to repeat something just said that he should ‘Read the subtitles like everyone else’. Evidently playing for laughs, this yanked me right out of the fictive dream and was akin to someone in a book declaring: ‘I thought this sort of thing only ever happened in novels.’ On the other hand the 1980’s authenticity, from costumes to cars and music, is spot on and extremely convincing.
Ultimately, in terms of audience satisfaction, I couldn’t help seeing how this story would develop if it was fiction rather than fact. There’s a path that seems to be opening up a third of the way in, and I spied a resolution down it. I personally would have preferred that redemption to the somewhat less perfect real life resolution that was merely hinted at, right in the last moments, and then explained by the dreaded: ‘Text comes up on screen and tells you their fates’ trick, rather than fully rendered.
I would also have preferred to see more of the development of the relationship between Augusto and Lucia, the director. This again is indicated, but not shown: one of several times the film suffers from not showing the parts of the drama we want to see. While it’s fine to ask the audience to do some work, it’s also good to just give them what they want at times.
For me there was too much descent and fall in this film, certainly too many repetitive shots of cocaine use and lying about on floors with prostitutes, and not enough redemption. Though, the redemption is there in the original story. It seems largely a problem of pacing. Slow to get going and too fast to end, which does occasionally lead to wandering attention, rather than total engrossment.
However, we can consider that this film is perhaps always going to mean more to Brazil, and those who’ve grown up knowing the real life myth it’s founded on.
Ultimately, like its hero Augusto, ‘Bingo: The King of the Mornings’, is flawed, imperfect, not always pleasant to be around, yet charming and oddly beguiling.
Review by Catherine Assheton-Stones
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