‘The First Fallen’ Review: A Remembrance of Those Passed

A director crafts an elegiac tribute set during the dawn of the AIDS crisis in Brazil.

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By Lisa Kennedy

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At the start of his pandemic film, “The First Fallen,” the Brazilian director Rodrigo de Oliveira stakes a claim to the elegiac: A soldier steps through a jungle ruminating in voice-over about those who die early in battle. The significance of this scene — which cuts to Suzano (Johnny Massaro) watching his nephew, Muriel (Alex Bonin), in the surf — is made clearer later. But the meaning of the blood trickling from Suzano’s nose is a given from the beginning.

When Suzano, a biologist, returns from Paris to a small city in southeast Brazil to visit his sister, a nurse named Maura (Clara Choveaux), the first wave of H.I.V. and AIDS is on the horizon. It is the last day of 1981, but Suzano doesn’t feel like celebrating. He looks “haggard,” Maura tells him. He has a dry cough.

He skips ringing in the new year with friends at a new nightspot. At that club, a performer named Rose (played with furious grace by Renata Carvalho) is being documented by the videographer Humberto (Victor Camilo). Together Suzano, Rose and Humberto will face a crisis with a breadth and scale that they are unlikely to ever fully grasp.

Throughout his film, de Oliveira plays with the tension between verisimilitude and the artifice of performance. (Suzano’s increasingly wracking cough comes across as both truthful and melodramatic.) A gay man of a younger generation, de Oliveira mourns the vulnerability of these characters’ bodies while paying tribute to their flourishes and fears. We see death and the spreading of ashes but the film does not end there, instead returning to that jungle from the beginning. There a trio wages a battle that will not save them but might save others.

The First Fallen
Not rated. In Portuguese, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. Rent or buy on most major platforms.

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