Paraíso Perdido is Portuguese for paradise lost. Set almost exclusively at night in a Brazilian cabaret club lost in time, I could think of no more appropriate a name.
Paraíso Perdido (Monique Gardenburg, 2018) follows the lives of a family who own and work at the club after which the film is named. We also meet other performers ーa kind of extended familyー and are introduced to the scene through Odair, a policeman who is given the club’s flyer by a speeding motorcyclist. After he protects one of the performers, Ima, from being beaten up outside the club, he is hired by their grandfather, Jose, to be their bodyguard. Odair acts as a way-in for the spectator, and we discover the club, the family and their secrets alongside him. The more time he spends there, the more we all learn about this twisted family touched by tragedy.
Top Tip: try to remember everyone’s names and it’ll make the plot easier to follow
Paraíso Perdido has a distinct, and quite frankly exquisite, audio-visual identity. The club seems to be almost trapped in a time-loop, the neon lights inside creating a striking visual picture as the performers sing tragic Brazilian melodies from a bygone era. The stage lights, at times, burst forth in different colours, evoking the feelings of the performers: a red light for passion; blue for contemplation; pink for flirtation.
The music ー a mix of Brazilian folk, pop and rock songs from the 70s, 80s and 90s ー sets the mood perfectly. Lyrics and guitars are deeply seductive and emotive, drawing the viewer into film; much as, one would imagine, it would draw a Paraíso Perdido patron’s attention (try saying that 3 times quickly) towards the stage. Music enters and leaves the soundtrack at pivotal moments, floating between diegetic and non-diegetic states (that is, within the action of the film and able to be heard by the characters, and not). The taking of a photo triggers the start of one song; the ending of a dream sequence and sharp pull back to reality cuts off another.
We never see the club during the daytime, so we get a sense that performances there continue in perpetuity. In fact, almost all the action takes place at night; the few daytime scenes we see are mostly with Eva, Ima’s mother, at the prison, where the plot begins to unfurl. We don’t see a main character at any kind of day job until around two thirds of the way through the film; once enough has been revealed of their secrets, we are privy to more of their lives outside Paraíso Perdido.
Just to be clear, Ima is a drag queen and another member of the family is bisexual, so the film is definitely queer enough to be reviewed here. Inside the club, no one bats an eyelid at expressions of queerness ー least of all at drag ー and, contrasting against the aged interior design and retro song selection, Paraíso Perdido is a kind of modern queer utopia (or paradise, if you will). However, Ima is assaulted twice whilst outside the club smoking, reminding us of the dangerous world that surrounds this lost paradise.
Biggest Gay Mood: wearing this wig
(I’ll let you choose either one)
Ima starts to form a relationship with one boy, Pedro, who has become infatuated with her on stage. As expected, off the stage, this comes with its own struggle. Despite the open and accepting space of the club, Pedro ー as with so many queer-curious men ー carries his own internal baggage and prejudice. The first time we see them kiss, outside the club, he looks around him first, fearing judgmental onlookers. Later, he runs away when he sees the boy behind the make-up when the two meet up for the first time during the day. Refreshingly, Ima seems largely unbothered by Pedro’s aversion to them out of drag, and instead, Pedro’s own struggle becomes the point of greatest tension. Soon, Pedro gets a grip on himself and starts to let himself approach Ima. He helps them with a translation of a song so they can perform it in the club: poignantly for a boy in love with someone’s stage persona, the song is Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”.
Now, if you’re a reader of Every Gay Movie, you’ll know by now that if a film has a gay sex scene I’m going analyse it. Though short, one scene between Ima and Pedro reveals a lot about their desires, as well as the maturing of their relationship. Pedro is watching Ima on stage. Ima sings passionately, their dress slipping off one shoulder to reveal a naked chest underneath. Where previously any hint of maleness in Ima had led to Pedro running away, instead he smiles back, still entranced by their performance. This sequence is interspersed with the sex scene, seen mostly through mirrors, as they make love in a glamorous room decked in red and orange tones, reflecting the theatricality in which their relationship began. The short sequence ends with Pedro staring and smiling into the mirror, thus looking both at himself with his lover and at us.
Against the aesthetics of the carefully stylised setting, some members of the large main cast still manage to shine through. It goes without saying that R&B artist Jaloo’s transition from music into acting here is pulled off ー in one of his first film roles, no less ー sublimely. The gorgeous Lee Taylor as Odair is sufficiently kind-eyed and brooding. Malu Galli plays Odair’s agoraphobic mother, and does it with a powerful sensitivity. She is introduced to us clutching a speaker, playing loud music late at night ー she is deaf, we soon learn, and feeling the vibrations of a song she used to sing before she lost her hearing.
Odais and his mother’s relationship is as strong, if not stronger, than the bonds we see between the Paraíso Perdido family, and the love and appreciation she has for him penetrates from behind her eyes through the screen. Although she cannot leave the house, she learns about the club and the people behind it through Odair, and joins the larger family group from a distance through her son.
The plot development progresses slowly; the main thread is brought in from the first few minutes, but we can only learn more details gradually. Still, this opening scene pulls you into the mystery immediately, and you can’t look away.
As always, no major spoilers, so I won’t ruin it, but the ending of this film is not just satisfying, but also powerfully symbolic. After the full mystery is revealed, and all the plot threads have been neatly tied up, our main family unit ー in groups of one or two ー wander off down the street away from the Paraíso Perdido, towards their unknown destiny. They follow each other blindly and unquestioningly, and the high angle shot gradually rises and pans away.
It is this seductive, unidentifiable beauty that is Paraíso Perdido’s truest strength. Yes the plot is convoluted, but it barely seems to matter. The atmosphere created at the cabaret, simultaneously trapped in time and moving ever forward, is exquisite: from the evocative and expertly placed soundtrack, to the striking and absorbing visual picture, you are unavoidably drawn into a world of tragedy, of pain, but also of love, of connection, and of joy. In this Paraíso Perdido, passion, emotion and truth shine through.