Occasionally too whimsical for its own good, Vicente Amorim’s The Middle of the World is still a moving coming-of-age story that invokes memories of films such as Pixote (with significantly less violence) and The Bicycle Thief. The latter is an interesting comparison, as The Middle of the World is a road movie (think Y Tu Mama Tambien) on bikes. Set in impoverished Brazil, The Middle of the World tells the tale of the unemployed trucker Romao, who pedals from Paraíba to Rio de Janeiro on a quest to obtain employment that pays 1000 reais (approximately $300) a month. Romao believes he needs this sum to adequately support his family (wife and five children), but learns early on that work on that pay scale isn’t easy to find.
Throughout the journey, Romao’s persona goes through frequent swings. Early on, the family attitude is playful – little games on the bikes, music during breaks, singing at cafés for money (songs about love, not coincidentally). As the movie progresses, Romao becomes more and more dour, often snapping and chastising; as an example, he tells his eldest son Antônio, “you’re not a son, you’re a curse from God.” Of course, his definition of what makes a good son is ‘somewhat’ questionable. For instance, he considers cigarettes to be a sign of manhood, scoffing when Antônio finds himself unable to inhale without coughing. That Antônio is the lone teenager among the children makes his relationship with Romao extremely tense. Romao appears frequently confused on how to treat Antônio, whether or not to respect him. Not even when Antônio pushes a man who’s bothering his mother (and receives a knife wound to the nose for his trouble) do things drastically change. Antônio’s passive demeanor doesn’t help matters; he frequently crumbles under the slightest bit of confrontation. When his younger brother Rodney rudely demands that Antônio give up his toy car, Antônio succumbs with barely a whimper.
All this highlights The Middle of the World‘s examination of adolescence, which succeeds much more than some of the other themes. Romao’s desire to find the 1000 reais is emphasized again and again, to the point that our compassion for his situation begins to wane. His stubbornness also becomes somewhat grating, particularly his refusal to settle for anything less, despite his family’s willingness to do so. Luckily, these problems are overshadowed by the film’s touching take on optimism and maturation, and Amorim (wisely) doesn’t overuse faith as a ‘copout’ of sorts for woe or happiness. A few beautifully done scenes say all we need to know about the family’s religious beliefs, like a splendid high-angle shot above a religious statue, signifying that God’s looking down on them and aiding their journey. Later, one of the children finds money in a church, putting himself in quite the quandary over what to do with it, considering his family’s many needs.
Though De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief isn’t about riding bicycles (the picture focuses on a man and his son’s attempts to recover a stolen two-wheeler), the comparison is valid because both films use bikes as a metaphor for hope, for potential escape from misery and unhappiness. After all, The Middle of the World really isn’t about riding bikes either. Like De Sica’s masterpiece, it utilizes them as an outlet for sanguinity (a source of income in The Bicycle Thief, a vehicle for a better place in The Middle of the World). Despite its minor faults, should be seen by fans of neorealism or Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, as well as by anyone tired of the predictably ‘moving’ Hollywood pictures that tweak our emotions every three minutes. Amorim strikes me as someone to watch; his effective use of the subtle score and gritty compositions are impressive for such an inexperienced director. Along with Fernando Meirelles’ explosive City of God, The Middle of the World makes two impressive pictures to make their way here from Brazil in the past few years.