"Once Upon a Time Veronica" begins with a scene of wordless ecstasy, an imaginatively shot glimpse of a group sexual encounter on a beach in Brazil. This sequence is more than a tip-off to this film's notably sensual nature, it is a clue to the personality of its title character as well.
Written and directed by Brazil's Marcelo Gomes and starring the impressive Hermila Guedes, "Veronica" is the kind of small film from a faraway country that would be easy not to notice as the waves of major studio releases crash onto theatrical shores. But that would be a pity.
Thoughtful as well as sensual, particular yet universal, it is the kind of expertly made examination of the human condition we can never have too many of. Even at this time of year.
Gomes, whose third feature this is, said in a press notes interview that he wanted to make this film because "there is a general idea that people can only have an existential crisis when they live in a cold place like Sweden, like in Bergman's movies. It almost seems like someone living in a sunny tropical city cannot have doubts about their own life." Which is where Veronica comes in.
A young woman in her mid-20s at a turning point in her life, uncertain of who she is and whether she can succeed as an adult, Veronica is a not unfamiliar type. But because of the way actress Guedes and the director, who has been strongly influenced by the work of Mike Leigh, have collaborated, she could not seem more individual or more real.
The next scene after the one at the beach has Veronica taking an important examination. She passes it and, after years of medical school study, she can get paid for examining patients as a mental health professional.
Going to work at a large, overcrowded city hospital, Veronica finds herself uncertain and overwhelmed by the variety of patients she sees and by how troubled they are, with symptoms ranging from catatonia to the outrage of a man who spits forcefully in her face.
Because Veronica got used to using it in medical school, she confides her doubts to her small tape recorder, and, to a lesser extent, the man she has the strongest emotional connection to, her genial, gray-bearded father, Ze Maria (W.J. Solha).
Veronica is also at something of a crossroads personally. Someone who visibly enjoys an active sex life, she has less interest in having a romantic connection, to the point where she worries to her tape recorder that she is a woman with a heart of stone.
Veronica's most frequent partner is Gustavo (João Miguel), a man who confesses his love and tells her she is his soul mate. Examining herself in her mirror, worrying wordlessly that she is getting old, Veronica wonders if a permanent relationship with Gustavo is what she should be considering.
Two aspects of "Once Upon a Time Veronica" make it especially noteworthy, one being the film's setting. Writer-director Gomes was born and raised in the seaside city of Recife where everything takes place, and he has made this story into an atmospheric celebration of the city itself, its buildings, its people, even its geography.
Finally, however, "Veronica" belongs body and soul to the actress who embodies the title character. Guedes has a particularly mobile, empathetic face, capable of looks that are either sexual or severe, and her presence is tangibly alive. She makes us care about Veronica, she makes her struggles our own, and that makes all the difference.
'Once Upon a Time Veronica'
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hours, 31 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Musical Hall, West Los Angeles