There’s a strange synchronicity in watching writer-director Gabriel Martins’ latest feature “Mars One” as Brazil rejoices in the recent re-election of Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva for a third term. The bittersweet film, in theaters and on Netflix now via Ava DuVernay’s distribution label Array, begins just as rightwing politician Jair Bolsonaro was elected in late 2018.
But for the working-class family at its center, the macro changes in the spheres of government don’t much register while they struggle to stay financially afloat. Bolsonaro’s election and inauguration play in the background of their everyday lives without any of the characters ever acknowledging or engaging with the results. Not only are they from a lower socioeconomic status, but they are Black in a still racist society, like most in Latin America.
By slowly introducing each of the four family members’ individual concerns in a mostly seamless manner (even if some segments could benefit from less lethargic pacing), Martins immerses the viewer in his deftly written, multifaceted story of interpersonal growth. In “Mars One,” individual and communal goals move on parallel tracks through the layered plot.
For the young son, Deivinho (Cícero Lucas), the Mars One project — which aims to colonize said planet by 2030 — has become his endgame. Yet, as much as Deivinho idolizes Neil deGrasse Tyson, his father Wellington (Carlos Francisco), a veteran superintendent at a luxury building, demands that his sons do his best to succeed at playing soccer professionally.
The caveat to the mission — those who travel to Mars won’t ever return — reveals the boy’s unverbalized desire to escape his reality. His strong-willed sister Eunice (Camilla Damião), a queer university student, also wishes to attain independence from the tight-knit nest, especially because she hasn’t come out to her parents. Then there’s Tércia (Rejane Faria), the matriarch suffering from PTSD after being victim to an obnoxious TV prank.
Reminders of the economic inequity present in our current capitalist hellscape, where the rich get richer and the rest must struggle to get by, are present at every turn for Martins’ characters: Tércia’s boss, a nouveau riche celebrity, goes on a European vacation for several weeks while Tércia scrambles to find work. Wellington, an alcoholic in recovery, goes above and beyond for his superior but receives no compensation. Eunice falls for Joana (Ana Hilãrio), a young woman from an affluent and open-minded family.
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In the periphery of these four story threads, one minor character stands out: Flavio, a Black man who works with Wellington. He speaks of revolution, of the exploitation of the poor by the elite, but his words mean little to Wellington, who for his entire whole life has been told to keep his head down, to get the job done, and to be content with the simple pleasures his wage affords him. Later, Flavio, true to his beliefs, wreaks havoc and upends Wellington’s livelihood.
Though they never call much attention to themselves, the expertly illuminated frames of cinematographer Leonardo Feliciano (“Araby”) paint the ensemble cast with purposeful and aesthetically pleasing lighting. A shot of Eunice and Joana naked on the floor of an empty, opulent apartment just as the sun is about to set offers a moment of perfect peacefulness, while a scene where Deivinho and his sister chat openheartedly about his space aspirations with their faces drenched in moonlight feels quietly striking.
That heartfelt complicity between the siblings holds the key to pushing their parents to see beyond their limited worldview, especially Wellington, written as a simple and, to an extent, naïve man set in his ways. While Tércia’s arc, dealing with mental health as best as she can, at times becomes tonally over-the-top, Faria’s restrained turn of quiet distress is worth singling out in a film with a whole cast rendering subdued, believable performances.
Of Martins’ many notable narrative choices, one that makes “Mars One” a unique release, at least among those that reach the U.S., is that the lives of his Black Brazilian clan exist with minimal influence from non-Black people in their immediate circles. Nearly everyone they interact with are also Black, which results in their racial identity never being treated nor discussed as an othering characteristic or obstacle in the story.
As each of the distinct characters tries to address their own unfulfilled hopes, they seem to be a million miles apart emotionally even if under the same roof; Eunice wants to leave the house and move in with Joanna, while Deivinho needs dad to understand his dreams are not for him to decide. But for that to happen, their parents’ apprehensions and vicarious expectations must vanish. Gradually, their respective plans begin to fall apart, giving way to a collective reckoning.
By the time a series of seemingly unfortunate events brings everyone to their breaking point, Martins presents his characters with a new way forward, together. No cure-alls nor magic lamps make everything all right in neat fashion, but the tragedies they thought had befallen them ultimately allow them to see one another fully, without pretenses. That’s a greater, more realistic happy ending that many of us can hope for here on planet Earth.
“Mars One” premieres in U.S. theaters and on Netflix Jan. 5.