Excelsior

My sister lives in Brazil but she always sees all the Oscar-winning films before I do. If I ever get to see them at all. I don’t like to go to the movies anymore. For one, I’m always cold in the theater. It’s expensive and very few movies are worth the price of admission in my Scrooge-like point of view. I don’t like candy, soda or popcorn. Not to mention one has to drive to the movies, imagine that. Why go through all that if I can wait three to four months, or less, and then watch it comfortably, via my own DVD player and TV, in my own family room, for a fraction of the price and not freezing to death? The movie-goers will counter argue that is much more fun to watch a sci-fi movie, such as Star Trek Into Darkness on a gigantic screen with surround-sound system. True; some movies do lose a lot when watched on our TVs, as large screened as they may be.

Because my mind constantly works on a dual mode, English and Portuguese, I can’t help wondering how much is also lost when a movie is translated. From title to subtitles, how much is ignored, twisted, misinterpreted? Lost in Translation (2003) speaking of that, was a very nice little movie almost no one talks about any more, starring Bill Murray as an American aging movie star in Tokyo to film a whisky commercial. To further confirm my fears, there is the Italian proverb that goes, Traduttore, tradittore – Translator, traitor.

Many years ago, working as an English/Portuguese/Spanish simultaneous translator in the machine tool business in Brazil, I agonized over the precise way to convey what was being said in meetings and conversations. Business could be lost or gained, customers would be acquired or wasted and the company I worked for had a good name in the market, hundreds of employees. Their salary and welfare depended on how well those meetings and presentations turned.

The anguish over quality translations stayed with me since then. That Brazilian company was eventually sold and I’m still worrying about the damage poor translations do, which brings me back to how this blog started: Award-winning movies. In particular, Silver Linings Playbook. Aline, my sister, emailed me saying “it takes place in Philadelphia; you have to watch it.” It was already on my Netflix queue so I moved it up to the pole position and we watched it a couple of Saturdays ago.

It’s not the kind of movie you need a giant screen to watch. It may work even on your tablet. I was instantly hooked; right at the first minutes, when the word Excelsior shows up on the screen. Excelsior, apart from being the main character’s motto or mantra, is Latin for ever higher, still higher. And high indeed scores the entire production; cast, director, script. It’s the living proof we don’t need super special effects and computer generated elements to enjoy a great Hollywood tale.

Don’t watch it just because you are a De Niro fan though, as De Niro again is playing Italian-American De Niro; unless you love that same old character to death. Don’t watch it because you are an Eagles fan or wish to see pretty shots of Philadelphia. There will be a few; but those are not the core of the plot.
It’s rather a small plot and it does not involve the end of the world, James Bond-like stunts or complicated political schemes. It’s humanly simple. As it does take place in the Philadelphia area and Patrizio “Pat” Solitano Jr., (Bradley Cooper, who by the way, according to Wikipedia was born in Philadelphia) jogs through the streets of his neighborhood, often joined by Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who always calls on him Hey you!, Yo Adrian! was never too far from my thoughts. Although no one throws him an apple and there will be no climbing of the Art Museum steps. As Rocky Balboa, Pat Solitano is training for an athletic event of sorts – part of his deal with Tiffany, for her to make him a special favor, involving Pat’s estranged wife, a good friend of Tiffany’s sister.

Watch Silver Linings because the acting by the main couple is terrific. If you had no idea who Bradley Cooper was, like myself (I only had a faded memory of him in Limitless, again with Robert De Niro) you won’t be able to forget his face after Silver Linings. His Pat Solitano has bi-polar disorder and is completely nuts. Absolutely crazy. Crazed characters, as we know, when well played, are immensely engaging, triggering the viewer’s sympathy and empathy right away. Watch it to see Pat run in his sweat pants and shirt, covered in a thick black garbage bag with holes for his head and arms. To keep the weight off.

Patrizio Solitano can’t do anything right. Attending a dinner party at his best friend’s home one evening, he shows us up in Eagles jersey number ten (DeSean Jackson) while everybody else is formally dressed. Cooper’s greatest achievement in the movie is to make us feel uncomfortable. He is always doing the wrong thing at the wrong place and time, using the most inappropriate words, making the worse possible comment, using the poorest of judgments. A loose cannon. A ticking time bomb; confused, clumsy, needy; the dude-what-were-you-thinking kind of person.
But watch it mainly for Jennifer Lawrence’s acting. She is the best young actress I’ve seen in the last ten years or so. Lawrence had already made a deep impression on me with her Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Silver Linings confirmed her talent. Not always do I agree with Oscar-winning performances – I tend to like best the movies and actors which did not win the Oscars. The one to Jennifer Lawrence was more than well deserved though. She earned the Best Actress award with every single minute of her acting in Silver Linings. Funny and intense; very competent and natural in every single shot. I am not a movie critic so I can’t come up with the right technical words to describe Ms. Lawrence’s acting skills and attributes, but you will be convinced of everything she says and does in the movie. Should we credit her stellar performance to the director, David O. Russell? Every actor’s success on the screen is always partially due to sensible direction and good chemistry with the director. But she was outstanding in The Hunger Games too, and even younger back then. Compared with Lawrence, most actresses I can think of feel a little too dramatic, a bit frozen, artificial or exaggerated. They are, after all, always acting. Jennifer Lawrence has the ability to make every piece of dialogue and facial expression believable, absolutely required and, above all, unrehearsed.

If I had to pick only a pair of scenes to showcase her talent in Silver Linings, scene Number One would have to be her dinner date with Pat, when she orders tea because he ordered cereal and milk. A date that should not feel like a date. Pat is separated; Tiffany lost her husband. As long as they behave as lunatics, it seems, their tragedies can be kept at bay. And of course, falling in love again at this stage of their convoluted lives (both living with their parents), is unthinkable. So cereal and tea it is, because that was not a date.

Scene Number Two would be the Sunday Eagles game sequence, with friends and family gathering at the Solitanos’ home. Tiffany is surrounded by hostility. No one likes her because she is dangerous and makes Pat even crazier. Leading the pack at her throat is De Niro, supported by a crowd of very talented actors. Tiffany deals with them single-handedly as Pat is not emotionally available to provide much support. What we see on the surface is Tiffany’s smarts and wits winning the battle; one piece of well written movie script loaded with football stats. What we don’t see right away is that the scene worked like a charm because as young as Lawrence is, she is not inhibited by the many decades of added acting experience in that chaotic living room. Everybody is pointing fingers at Tiffany, calling her names, criticizing her; she should not even be there. When Tiffany makes her point and silence all the angry voices around, at the end of the sequence, she opens up a bottle of beer and waits for the wisdom of her words to sink in.

Back in 2002, when I first came to America, I thought speaking and writing English with the same ease I communicate in Portuguese would never be possible. Since then, I know my English improved, not because of any special merit on my part but because it happens naturally when you are exposed to situations that force you into the foreign language. At work, at the grocery store. You have no choice. You just can’t go back to Portuguese one fine day and say to your coworker, Bom dia, como foi o final de semana? (Good morning, how was your weekend?). And with that I’m back to translations. I asked Aline how Silver Linings Playbook had been translated in Brazil. I knew it would be a disaster. It’s hard to translate English idioms – they don’t make sense in Portuguese and Spanish if we try to do so literally; it requires thinking, researching, perseverance, imagination. It requires judicious study of the work being translated, of the cultural nuances involved. I was bracing myself for this one more tragic translation and when it came it sounded like murder. I don’t even want to think of how they butchered the dialogues into Portuguese subtitles. The movie was released in Brazil as O Lado Bom da Vida – The Good Side of Life. The Italians were right.

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