Told through a nonlinear narrative, Almost Brothers (Quase Dois Irmaos) concerns the bond two men share over five decades against the backdrop of Brazil roiled by political and social change. In 1957, two young boys meet through their fathers' shared love of samba. Miguel (Brunno Abrahao), the son of a white musicologist, is from a middleclass neighborhood. Jorge (Pablo Ricardo Belo), the son of a black samba musician, is from a favela (hillside shantytown). They become friends, then drift apart as boys of different social classes are wont to do, only to be reunited a dozen years later in prison.
The young men arrive at prison by very different routes. Jorge (played now by Caco Ciocler) is convicted of bank robbery. Miguel (played now by Flavio Bauragui) is a militant leftist dissident jailed for politically-motivated crimes against the military junta. They are tossed into a prison population that is newly teeming with political prisoners like Miguel. In short order, the political prisoners wrest control away from the warden by a successful hunger strike, and that success together with their sheer numbers gives them control over the inmate population itself. Firmly established, the collective prohibits vice and provides leftist political indoctrination to the non-political inmates.
As the years advance, the cohesion of the prison collective established during the peak of the imprisonment of political prisoners weakens as those who have completed their sentences are replaced with non-political inmates. Jorge attempts to smooth the transition by softening the collective's prohibitions on vice, while moving the criminals towards a cooperative action framework. Jorge's efforts fail though when Miguel frustrated by the reemergence of drugs, theft, and sodomy within the prison, compels the physical separation of the political prisoners from the non-political inmates. Abandoned by Miguel, Jorge asserts control of the non-political inmates using the organizational methods learned from the political prisoners leavened with the brutality of the criminal gang. Here begins one of Brazil's most disciplined and dangerous gangs, 'the Red Command'.
Miguel and Jorge's paths continue to diverge after they're released. In the post-junta Brazil, Miquel is propelled into political office as a senator, while Jorge garners power as a drug kingpin. When they meet again in 2004, Miguel (now played by Werner Shunemann) is looking for support for social programs in the favela controlled by Jorge (now played by Antonio Pompeo) who is back in prison and distracted by trying to manage a favela turf war via cell phone (no pun intended). I won't reveal what awaits Jorge and Miguel, but suffice to say, Almost Brothers does not end on a happy note.
Though I've just outlined the story in a straightforward chronology, director Lucia Murat employs a non-linear narrative that shifts often and without warning between the 1950s, the 1970s, and 2004. While contemporary audiences are by now sufficiently accustomed to such artifices to not be flummoxed, the shifts occur far more frequently than is warranted, and are often more disruptive than revelatory.
Though there is little in common between the unadorned cinematography of Almost Brothers and the visual flourishes of City of God (2002) and the Brazilian television series City of Men (2002-2005), the narrative commonalities are not coincidental. They're all written by Paulo Lins. Raised in a favela, Lins has matured into a leading voice in modern Brazilian political fiction. It is his skill as a writer that makes Almost Brothers strong enough to weather the superfluous temporal shifts.
The image quality itself looks acceptable, but regrettably, distributor First Run Features continues to release DVDs with an image aspect ratio of 1.66:1 in letterbox. While letterboxing the image may have been acceptable when most viewers could be expected to watch on a 4:3 television, that day has past. DVD releases of small foreign films like Almost Brothers should be engineered with cinephiles in mind. Because the majority of cinephiles already have 16:9 displays, or at minimum, wish to be future-proofed against the day that they will have them, 1.66:1 images should be enhanced for 16:9 display. There's no excuse for First Run Features to continue to drag its feet on this.
Although the removable yellow subtitles are adequate in appearance and are comprehensible, they suffer from being written by a non-native English speaker. Odd word choices, such as 'pederasty' instead of 'sodomy' and 'bugle' instead of 'trumpet', incorrect phrase constructions, such as 'take it up' instead of 'take this', and translations of popular names that vary from the accepted English norm, such as 'Red Squadron' for the infamous Brazilian criminal organization 'Red Command', all subtly come between the film and the viewer. While mistakes like these are common on import DVDs, I would have expected better from First Run Features.
The original Portuguese audio track is presented in a 2.0 mix that offers very little channel differentiation. While the audio track is acceptable for dialogue, the excellent samba-infused score by Nana Vasconcelos is underserved by this poorly engineered mix.
The only extras on the disc were trailers for other First Run Features DVDs and a PC-read-only discussion guide with notes on Brazil, the film, and a director biography. There's no reason this discussion guide material couldn't be made accessible by a DVD player.
Almost Brothers provides a fresh prospective for American viewers into Brazil's recent history of dictatorship and wealth disparity. This film will be especially appealing to fans of the writer Paulo Lins's other work brought to the screen, City of God (2002) and the follow-up television series City of Men (2002-2005). Unfortunately, although the story is strong enough to overcome the weakness of too many temporal shifts, its impact is diminished by the poor quality of the DVD release. The lackluster audio and extras, the letterbox presentation, and the substandard subtitles make this is a difficult title to recommend; perhaps better to rent it and hope for a better future release.