Gabriel Martins’s Marte Um (Mars One) opens with a slim teenager, Deivinho (Cícero Lucas), gazing up at the stars he longs to reach. He is seemingly unaffected by the fireworks going off over the city center of Belo Horizonte or by the few shouts accompanying this celebration, exclaiming the election of Brazil’s current authoritarian president, Jair Bolsonaro. These traces of ambient context tell us that its 2016 and that the country is about to descend into a dark and still unfinished period of political and social unraveling—of rampant corruption; a devastating and deadly nonresponse to the coronavirus; an alarming, state-backed increase of rain forest destruction; and an existential threat to a relatively young democracy that’s been faltering in the wake of major economic and political crises over the past decade. It’s against this future backdrop of a Brazil in deep and deepening turmoil, of what we know is coming, that director Martins casts his often pleasing shadow play of hope and resilience.
As we come to discover, Deivinho’s real vision in that opening scene is not just of the stars, but of his own longed-for future as an astronaut bound for Mars, a participant in the project for which the film is named, the establishment of a permanent human colony on the red planet. It’s a seemingly impossible goal for a kid from the tenuous suburbs of the city. But is it any less realistic than Deivinho’s soccer-mad father Wellington’s (Carlos Francisco) own desire for his son to become a professional footballer?
Everyone in their family, it seems, has a desire that feels at least somewhat out of reach. Deivinho’s older sister Eunice (Camilla Damião), a college student beginning to embrace her sexuality, not only wants to strike out on her own, renting an apartment with her new girlfriend, but also for her self-determination to be accepted by her conventional family. Her mother Tércia (Rejane Faria), a housecleaner, seems mostly to want to sustain the tenuous balance of their home, with Wellington peacefully continuing his journey of sobriety (he’s four years in, thanks to AA) and her children perpetuating a traditional social order, remaining obedient and practical, while pursuing even better lives through education. If the family has achieved a position (during the previous progressive yet turbulent Lula and Rousseff administrations) from which they can imagine continued improvement in their quality of life, it doesn’t take much to reveal their dependence on the whims of the wealthy for their semblance of middle-class stability. When Tércia’s employers go on vacation, she temporarily loses a portion of her necessary income, and Wellington, a maintenance man at an upscale condo, depends on his attentiveness and good humor to build trust with the residents. His character is the only job security he has, and this is all-too-easily jeopardized by a co-worker who’s more willing than Wellington to see and resent the imbalance of social and political power their employers’ wealth represents.
The performances of Marte Um‘s cast are consistently remarkable through all the film’s extremes of passion, joy, despondency and despair. There’s a lovely and authentic feeling of connection between the family members that we understand will eventually prevail over their disagreements and challenges. Failure will find forgiveness and disruption will be accommodated into a new, more expansive status quo. To this extent, the somewhat slow-paced Marte Um can feel rather like an afterschool special that will inevitably end on a note of unity and mutual understanding. And yet, considered in its lightly-sketched narrative moment (no character in the film even mentions the election), at a point when the resilience of the family will be necessary to withstand the imminent Bolsanaro threat, we can appreciate Martins’ mild melodrama as a message of hope for families like Deivinhos, or perhaps as a prayer that the bonds of love and beneficence like those performed on the screen will sustain them and ultimately carry them through to whatever comes next.