Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

O Palhaço – The Clown

Review Date: 12-1-12

Release Date: undetermined

Runtime: 90 minutes

Period: Contemporary-ish

Costume Designer: Kika Lopes

Very seldom am I truly amazed by anything anymore. I’m getting older; I live in the big city; I’ve seen a lot of cool things in my life. Let’s face it; I’m getting cynical. But then one day, something comes along that just blows a hole in my reality, shooting me sky-high. Last night, that thing was the costume design of O Palhaço – The Clown – Brazil’s entry for the Foreign Film category at the Oscars.  Frocktalkers, you NEED to see this film!!!

The film is simple enough: thirty-something overgrown man-child Benjamim (Selton Mello) works as a clown for a small, low-budget traveling circus. His aging father Valdemar (Paulo José) runs the show. Benjamim yearns for something else, something more – maybe an oscillating table fan would even be enough. The show runs well, but it’s a grind on him. He questions his life – his future, his prospects – and makes a break with all he’s ever known. Once on his own, he finds himself, and realizes that he is a clown, and the circus is where he truly belongs.

We’ve seen this story in different incarnations in many movies that have come before it – The Wizard of Oz, Being There, Forrest Gump to name a few – in the form of the “fool’s journey”. Some people might equate this to Joseph Campbell’s concept of the “hero’s journey”, but in this case, it seems a little bit simpler. The story is told almost as a dream, with much of it taking place in the surreal world of the circus.

The circus is populated with the father/son clowns, a fire-breathing vixen called Lola (Giselle Motta), a burly strong man (Thogun) , a couple of musicians (Hossen Minussi and Álamo Facó), Benjamim’s mother and fellow clown Dona Zaira (Teuda Bara), a little girl Guilhermina (Larissa Manoela), a little person (Tony Tonelada) and a few other performers. They all have their jobs to do, and their roles to play, in the circus. When they’re not in the ring, they are running lights and setting up the decrepit tent. They are dying their hair and pretending to be Russian – anything to make it more interesting.

In each town, the MC of the circus (Cadu Fávero) briefs Benjamim on the important players in the town – the mayor, the town drunk, the name of the local whorehouse – so that these familiar figures can be incorporated into the opening act. It works, to great effect, and the troupe is invited to dine at the mayor’s home – a feast the likes of which they’ve never seen.

The Mayor and his family cheer on their son.

The Mayor and his family cheer on their son.

The one catch – the mayor wants his son to have a role in the circus. They reluctantly take the boy on, and results are cringe-worthingly perfect. The boy’s proud parents look on in absolute glee.

The design of this film is so beautiful. I want to have a coffee table book with pictures of every single costume from the film. Not just the principal players, but also the background. I want to study this film, soak the images in like a tonic. Every single detail felt so real, and the costumes felt like the skin of the actors. I can’t recall another film where I’ve felt this way. It was beyond brilliant.

For all of the recent hoopla over the careful and sparing use of the color red in film (as noted by the LA Times), this film throws that right out the window. Red is used in abundance in this movie. Its richness helps to create a lush, juicy, vivid sensuality that leaps off the screen and practically hugs the viewer.

Both clowns have important red elements in their circus costumes. Benjamim’s is a red plaid suit with a red striped t-shirt underneath. Valdemar wears a red hat. And let’s not forget the central icon of the clown – the red nose. Here it is worn almost like a crown; a symbol of dignity and reverence for the work, and that work is amusing people.

When off duty, the father and son have very different looks – no red to be found. Benjamim’s look echoes the Chauncey Gardener look – old-fashioned suit and hat. It creates a beautiful silhouette. Here, Benjamim’s suit is a tad ill-fitted, as though he picked up the jacket at a thrift store, and the pants perhaps at a yard sale. The hat he wears echoes his father’s. His sweet face reminds me a bit of Jack White from the White Stripes in this costume.

Valdemar is an old-school dude. His hat, worn and crusty, with the dress shirt, vest and gold chains combo tells you a lot about who he is, and who he wants you to think he is.

The aging here on the costumes is fantastic. These garments looks like they have been with him forever, barely washed, sweated through, and he’s had them for thirty years.

Lola, the fire-eating hussy, has a very beautiful performance costume. It comes off as Indian in inspiration – she wears a bindi on her forehead, with jewels in the corners of her eyes. It’s revealing, it’s shiny, glittering, and her skirt is a swirl of saturated red. With the gold top and red skirt, it is eye-catching beyond measure. If you can imagine someone of her exquisite beauty showing up in a back-roads hamlet in Brazil, you can imagine the kind of dazzling impression she might make.

Lola tempting EVERYONE with an apple.

Lola tempting EVERYONE with an apple.

When Lola is off-duty, not only is she spending “quality time” with Valdemar, she is also stealing money from the till and swinging her kitty around to anyone who will pay attention. Note the animal print (snakeskin) and the color (red) with the apple.  Symbolism, anyone??  She is a loathsome sort, trading on her looks and not caring about anyone but herself. In the end, she is found out. And when she is, she is wearing black and white. No red. The gig is up.

Mom clown, Dona Zaira, has the most fantastic circus costume ever. Not only does she have the big, red, cleavage-revealing dress, she has the hair, the huge fake eyelashes, the makeup, everything. It’s quite a look, and it is executed to perfection.

One night, while the rest of the crew are getting into trouble at a bar, Benjamim meets Tonha (Fabiana Karla), a beautiful, heavyset girl, who joins him on a bench outside the bar. Her costume – tight red top with bra exposed, pale blue hoop earrings, red flower pulling up dark hair – could not have been more complementary or stunning. The contrast in those colors – pale turquoise on brown skin, blood red flower on black hair – was extraordinary. She looks so beautiful. It’s an emotionally painful scene, as you see Benjamim consider her, consider his life, and swig from a bottle. The contrast of her beauty and Benjamim’s emotional pain is quite powerful.

Everyone gets hauled off to the police station from the bar, and they end up in the police chief’s (Moacyr Franco) office. With his tinted glasses, old dress shirt, and 1970s necktie, he is a sight to behold. He goes off on a Christopher Walken-esque tangent about his cat named Lincoln, and it is quite something. I may quote that scene for years to come; it’s that good.

After he leaves the circus, Benjamim goes to town and gets a job as a clerk. The stark contrast in his attire – looking like a Mormon missionary or member of the Geek Squad from Best Buy – tells us that he is a fish clearly out of water. He is a different person, and as such, probably not very comfortable in his skin.

In the end, Benjamim returns to the circus, and is joined in the big act by little Guilhermina, who takes over the “Lola” role. In her sparkly costume, covered with stars, shiny spangles and sequins, she steals the show. It’s a lovely, age-appropriate costume in a dreamlike ending; it’s perfect.

The BG in this film is great – the whole feeling of the movie is that it could take place at any time in a rural setting. If I had to place the period, I’d probably say it was late 1980s, but it’s hard to tell. Sometimes in rural areas, you don’t see new cars or new clothes… or new hairstyles for that matter. And in this case, it doesn’t really seem to matter. Modernity is not the hallmark of this movie. It’s a classic tale without need of restriction to a certain era or period.

I am so excited for actor/director Selton Mello. He has created a work of real beauty in this film. I encourage you to see it when you can – I am not sure that the film has US distribution yet. I was lucky enough to see it in an Academy screening, and the audience went nuts for it. I feel sure that they will get distribution at some point, based on audience enthusiasm alone. This is a marvelous movie, and when Selton Mello gets ready to do a movie in the US, I would like to be first in line to meet with him on it. He is a force to be reckoned with, creatively, and he has inspired me! Viva Selton Mello!!! Enjoy the film, Frocktalkers – it is SO beautiful. NICE WORK, Kika Lopes!!! You get an A+ in my book!!

– KMB

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