When Brazilian director Alejandro Landes saw the headline “Paralyzed Man in Diapers Hijacks Plane to Bogota” in 2005, he was inspired to make the film “Porfirio” that is showing at the Museum of Modern Art until Thursday. (Film schedule is here.) This is the third praiseworthy film I have seen in the past couple of months that features a leading character in a wheelchair and by far the best. Considering the fact that one of them is Michael Haneke’s acclaimed “Amour”, nominated for best picture of the year in the upcoming Oscar ceremonies, it faces stiff competition. Although I thought that Haneke did good work, I would rank it only as a “show” in the wheelchair movie sweepstakes behind the ebullient “The Intouchables” that “placed”. (For more information on win, place and show, Google “horseracing”. I should add that I find the notion of awarding films on this basis rather questionable to begin with as it goes against my communist principles.)
As it turns out, the eponymous Porfirio Ramirez had more than a fleeting connection to horseracing. As a rancher and horse breeder in the southern Colombian city of Florencia, Porfirio had organized horse races for its citizens’ amusement. While one might expect Landes to focus on the ostensible high drama of the hijacking , it is not even shown in the film (Ramirez had smuggled two hand grenades in his diaper– the wheelchair’s wide berth made navigation through the metal detector check impossible.) As the victim of a policeman’s stray bullet in 1991, Porfirio was demanding indemnity from the government. After being sloughed off one too many times, he decided to take direct action. However, the hijacking ended peacefully when government representatives hoodwinked Ramirez into thinking that $43,000 had been deposited into his account back in Florencia. He was put under arrest once he got off the plane.
Instead Landes is far more interested in the daily struggle of being a paraplegic. Most of the action, such as it is, consists of Pofirio being showered, fed, clothed, and catered to by his son Lissen who loves his father but resents being an unpaid care-giver. The household gets by on the income that Porfirio receives for renting out minutes on his cell phone to neighbors even too poor to have their own, something that is ubiquitous to most denizens of the Third World. Landes holds nothing back. Early on, he shows Porfirio defecating from the back of his wheelchair and his son cleaning up after him. Despite Haneke’s reputation for defying the tastes of a conventional middle-class movie audience, he would never have dared show such a scene, especially since the man playing Porfiro Ramirez does not simulate the act but actually does it.
Not everything is so grim. Despite his disability, Porfirio is an irresistible sexual partner for his young and pleasantly plump neighbor Jasbleidy, played by Yor Jasbleidy Santos—a nonprofessional. For those who expect steamy sex scenes on the silver screen to involve people who look like the young Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, you’d be amazed at how these two distinctly ordinary people can get your blood pumping. Since the sex, like the defecation referred to earlier, happens for real rather than being simulated, its erotic quotient is raised considerably.
Porfirio’s days consist of him sitting in his wheelchair on his front porch watching the world go by. Filmed on location in the sleepy, backwater Florencia, Landes has a brilliant eye for how to make the quotidian compelling. In one scene a door-to-door “medicine” vendor approaches Porfiro with his sample case. For only 50,000 pesos, he will cure him of his disability, just as he has cured AIDS and cancer in others deemed incurable. Porfirio explains that he would be very interested in the product but unfortunately poverty prevents him from actually buying it.
In another powerful scene, Porfirio takes his wheelchair to a local repair shop to be worked on. The master mechanic is a man who is congenitally paraplegic and gets around through what looks like an improvised duck squat. Despite this, he not only is capable of the most challenging mechanical tasks but even helps lift Porfirio up from the chair to be worked on. The subject of dreams comes up as they exchange small talk. Porfirio says that he dreams about running across an open field, as free as the wind. The mechanic shrugs his shoulders and says that is natural since mobility was robbed from him in adulthood but for those like him who were born with a disability, the dreams are always based on one’s permanent condition.
As might be expected, his financial claims with the government are uppermost in Porfirio’s mind. When the public attorney handling his case refuses to return his phone calls, Porfirio wheels himself downtown to the man’s office where he confronts a steep staircase with no wheelchair ramp in sight. This affront is woven into the same blanket of neglect that forces Porfirio to finally take dramatic action.
The real surprise is that none other than Porfirio Ramirez himself plays Porfirio Ramirez. Landes not only had the audacity to make a movie about a man deemed partly crazy and completely uncharismatic in cinematic terms, but to cast the man himself in the leading role. (Jasbleidy is his actual next-door neighbor and lover but a very fine actor Jarlinsson Ramírez Reinoso plays Lissen.)
Given Landes’s decision to make a film about such a decidedly noncommercial subject and seeing how all-consuming the project became, I could not help but think that Werner Herzog might not be the last of the auteurs. It is remarkable that a young Brazilian director can take on a project in the best traditions of the European avant-garde and have such wild success. The press notes for “Porfirio” will give you some indication of the kind of unique esthetic Landes adheres to:
On the 12th of September 2005, I read a headline that lingered with me: Paralyzed Man in Diapers Hijacks Plane to Bogotá. Three months later, I found myself knocking on the door of the jailed man the press had nicknamed the “air pirate.” Porfirio grew out of my time spent with him, his chair, bed, house and family. Though I had my video sketch camera in hand on my first visit, it was of little use; I encountered a closed man. But I kept going back to visit and he thawed, revealing a mixture of bravado and dramatic flair, that, coupled with the fact he was forbidden to leave his house, captured my imagination. I began to video sketch and write but though Porfirio understood I was preparing a film, he did not suspect I would cast him as himself until days before the shoot. “Who will play me?” he kept asking me.
I moved to Florencia and lived in the places and with the people I wanted to work with for five months before shooting the first frame. During that time, I shot sketches of Porfirio, watching him move made me particularly conscious of time as well as the Catholic and Socratic notion of the body as prison to the soul. It was then that I developed the visual identity of the film: the low, frontal, still and symmetrical frame that, with a cinemascope aspect ratio pushing the horizon lines, would speak of the character and his relationship with the world around him.
The first draft of the screenplay read like a stream of consciousness, yet my time with Porfirio brought it down to its essence: the drama of a man’s character without dramatic devices. I decided never to show him the screenplay but rather I read him lines—mostly out of order—and asked him to say them back to me so I could rephrase, making the language his, not mine.
I strongly urge New Yorkers to take a trip over to MOMA to see this striking new film. Hopefully it will be booked at one of New York’s art houses down the road. If so, I will be sure to send out a head’s up.