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O Signo da Cidade

Directed by Carlos Alberto Riccelli

Written by Bruna Lombardi

Produced by Carlos Alberto Riccelli and Bruna Lombardi

Starring Bruna Lombardi, Malvino Salvador

2008 Release (Brazil)

“Wherever you are, look to the sky and your star will guide you where you need to go… whatever happens or comes your way, you have your star to thank, more than you know.”

I take a seat near the front, my head at around the height of the Hebrew subtitles on the screen (just below the English ones) at the cinema in Haifa, Israel.

I soon meet Teca (Bruna Lombardi), astrologist and radio show host in São Paulo, Brazil — South’s America’s largest city, and the world’s seventh. She and São Paulo’s 18 million residents are the subject of O Signo da Cidade. The script, brilliantly written by Lombardi, is a study in love, beauty, pain, and the need for human connection.

Teca’s life is complicated by her terminally ill father, Anibal (Juca de Oliveira), who left her mother when she was eleven. In parallel, Teca’s assistant Bio is struggling with his mother, who is oblivious of his homosexual relationship with Josialdo (Sidney Santiago), a flamboyant transvestite. Meanwhile, Teca’s life becomes intertwined with a host of others: Teca’s new neighbor Gil (Malvino Salvador), a down-to-earth man stuck in a troubled marriage with the neurotic and drug-addicted Lydia (Denise Fraga); Luis (Thiago Pinheiro), an angsty client of Teca who is unable to make human connection and cope with his loneliness; Julia (Lais Marques), Luis’ girlfriend who is depressed, pregnant, and addicted to self-mutilation; and Sombra (Luis Miranda), a male nurse and a silent healer in the city.

In the course of the film, the various characters who interact with Teca fall in love, die, are lost, and are found. Pieces fall, like dominoes, revealing not a cosmic pattern, but a set of individual yet interconnected fates. The film reveals the microrelationships that are made and lost constantly in the living, breathing city. Beauty in this film is revealed both in creation and destruction, and in tiny, unnoticed, lonely lives that live and breathe alone, aimlessly, and yet passionately.

The stars, fickle, are willing to save some: Josialdo, after being brutally beaten and set on fire for being a transvestite, is saved by a rainstorm. But they are just as willing to condemn others: The saintly Sombra is killed by a stray bullet.

The script, written by Lombardi, is lined with subplot within subplot, each delicate, cold, melancholy, beautiful: a tribute to the common man in an unfamiliar world. Lombardi brings out as much beauty in death as in life, as much emphasis on our human power as in our helplessness. Language flows as much through words as through the scenes and colors of São Paulo. It has a restrained grace — cold, yearning, alive, as a beautiful yet distant stranger.

Which it is, to all of us on the other side of the fourth wall. A friend and I seem to be the only ones under thirty years old; the rest are culturally-aware middle-aged Israelis. Together, we’re about as far from the Brazilians depicted (geographically, emotionally…) as you can get.

But that gap is bridged, and that’s the point: the power of total strangers to impact our lives.

Lombardi’s acting is brilliant, expressive, and beautiful. She is human: powerful individually, but intense when interacting with the other actors. Malvino Salvador plays off her nicely, introduces a rare note of stability amongst the desperate, confused states of the rest of the cast. Together, they speak a fourth language: that of expression and unspoken meaning. Lombardi’s character is a duality — a practitioner and patient of Fate. She shows it in brief glimpses that another actor might unknowingly fumble through. She is both a foil and a lead, single-handedly creating a complex web of feelings and faces, three-dimensional, like life.

O Signo da Cidade is a rare film: It is a simple study of simple people, done very well. It is a modern-day ode to the common man, a case study of the lonely majority, of the way we interact, love, hate, rise, fall, as we desperately seek destruction and salvation. It speaks to everyone who’s stared at a curious stranger, and wondered what their story was, to anyone who’s been changed by a small conversation. It’s a small reminder — a conversation — that sometimes there is a small redemption for each of us.