The Burning Season (1994)

Though made for Home Box Office, the American cable TV channel, this biopic of Brazilian activist Chico Mendes boasts some shaky A list talent behind and in front of the cameras. Every high profile Hollywood hispanic except Hector Elizondo and Cheech Marin is in the cast, and the film calls on the services of John Frankenheimer as producer director, input from David Puttnam as an executive producer and some script work from Michael Tolkin. With a powerhouse performance from Raul Julia in the lead the actor's recent death gives a kick to his last big scene, in which Mendes repeats 'I want to live' while accepting the probability of his imminent murder and a highly emotive storyline, it's odd that this should turn out to be such an ordinary picture, skipping over the ecological and political issues in favour of Western style Good Guys vs Bad Hats melodrama.

Though hailed as an eco activist because he fought to preserve the rain forests from the big cattle interests, Mendes was primarily a committed union man who wanted to keep his rubber tapping supporters in work. Julia does very well by this ordinary man of integrity, playing him as a combination of Gandhi and Arthur Scargill, but Frankenheimer unsubtly establishes the dastardliness of his enemies, the corrupt politicos and business bastardos. We are taught to hate the villains in sequences of torture and brutality, not to mention a juxtaposition of Mendes surrounded by his happy family with bloated, evil cattleman Tomas Milian consorting with three teenage prostitutes as he does a dirty deal.

One of those movies which congratulates its audience on their own liberal decency, this personalises big issues into tidy melodrama and soft soap, but is reluctant to name names and get really angry until the final montage of indictments.

First Published In: Empire (issue unknown)

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