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What three Rio teenagers do with a landfill windfall

30 January 2015

Stephen Brown sees a BAFTA-nominated tale of Brazil's poor

Mighty dollars: Gabriel Weinstein (left) as Rato and Rickson Tevez as Raphael in a still from Trash

Mighty dollars: Gabriel Weinstein (left) as Rato and Rickson Tevez as Raphael in a still from Trash

A QUARTER of Brazilians live in poverty. The film Trash (Cert. 15, and not to be confused with the Paul Morrissey-Andy Warhol-Joe Dallesandro 1970 cause célèbre) is about three of them.

The teenagers Raphael (Rickson Tevez), Gardo (Eduardo Luis), and Rato (Gabriel Weinstein) live hand to mouth by foraging among the landfills of Rio de Janeiro. When Raphael scoops up a wallet from the garbage, he discovers it's full of banknotes, plus the key to a railway-station locker. This contains an intriguing set of numbers, and a letter to Joaõ Clemente (Nelson Xavier), a jailed anti-corruption lawyer.

In a country riddled with fraud, the trio's dilemma is how best to hide their findings. Their suspicions are confirmed when Frederico (Selton Mello), a dishonest police inspector in cahoots with a shady character running for mayor, offers a reward for the wallet.

The story is based on a youth-orientated novel by Andy Mulligan, who has been a teacher in Brazil. Rooney Mara (Lisbeth in the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), playing his alter ego, engages the boys in what are tantamount to situation-ethics seminars, encouraging them to discover what is "right".

There are times when the film reminds one of Millions (2004) written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (God on Trial, The Railway Man, etc.), inasmuch as it also features a boy who comes across a small fortune. In that case, the boy believes it is heaven-sent, citing scripture to endorse this perception.

In Trash, the teenagers discover through Clemente that the scribbled numbers are biblical quotations that, if decoded, could expose some of Rio's sleaziest leaders. Martin Sheen plays a world-weary but compassionate priest. He is hard-headed enough to know how many beans make five. "Wherever there's corruption and injustice," he roars, "there are dollars" - in this case, a fistful of them.

His tough-love assistance is decidedly about enabling an option for the poor to be realised. But which of these choices in this situation is right: should the teenagers pocket the money, collude with slush-fund politicians, or redistribute it among the needy? In genre terms, we are watching what turns out to be a rather spiritual tale wrapped up as an adventurous thriller - more Three Musketeers than Secret Seven, one would have to say. Or, returning to its biblical references, this is a David and Goliath story. In church, one of the boys even dances before the altar, as King David did.

It doesn't take much to guess what happens, but the excitement lies in the process by which it is all resolved. The script is by Richard Curtis (The Vicar of Dibley, Love Actually, Blackadder): not someone I readily equate with thrills, although we know his commitment through Comic Relief to the world's most destitute people. And its director, Stephen Daldry, began his film career with Billy Elliot (2000), about another teenage boy overcoming social and economic obstacles.

There are differences, of course, in this new film, which offers us gritty realism before waving an almost magical wand over events. We won't have to wait long to learn whether this BAFTA-nominated film has been seen by Academy voters as an impressive clarion call for communal justice, or an example of cheap grace being slathered over issues that deserve more serious analysis.

On current release.

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