Brazilian favorite ‘O Ébrio’ chronicles the exploitation of a kind-hearted man by those he holds dearest

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Poster for O Ébrio (1946)

A medical student is made destitute and homeless after his family loses their property due to a series of faulty business practices. Shunned by his relatives, he turns to the church, which gives him a second chance at life. When his participation in a radio singing contest gives him money and fame, he finishes school and becomes a doctor. In Gilda de Abreu’s Brazilian classic, O Ébrio (1946), a kind-hearted man is taken advantage of by the people he holds dear. (RMM: 3/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan

To say that “Gilberto Silva” (Vicente Celestino) is down on his luck would be an understatement. While finishing his final year of medical school, his family lost their farm and their livelihood to bankruptcy. Left without money or a home, Gilberto sought help from his relatives, who did not want to support him financially. Ever since he has been wandering from town to town in search of a shred of kindness. 

Gilberto finds a moment of respite when he happens upon the open doors of a church. In probably my favorite moment of the film, Gilberto sits in a pew and asks God for help. His eyes, twinkling with earnest, strike me with the force of the desperation and pain they wear so plainly. As if on cue, the “Priest” (Victor Drummond) walks in and offers Gilberto dinner and a room to call his own. In my second favorite moment of the film, Gilberto thanks God with a smile that could warm the coldest heart. 

In one particularly important scene, Gilberto’s conscience speaks to him in the mirror, telling him to stay away from relatives and women as they can only cause him trouble. Gilberto turns his attention to finding work, though his efforts are rejected. On the radio, he hears about a singing contest with a money prize and decides to enter. As he sings an original song detailing his life’s plight, the audience is transfixed by his beautiful voice. He wins the contest and uses the money to help the Priest make repairs to the church. Little does Gilberto know that this exposure will catapult him into a life of wealth, fulfillment, and strife too.

The radio station asks Gilberto to perform again, and he soon becomes a famous singer. He uses his newfound wealth to obtain his medical degree and finds purpose as a successful doctor. At the hospital where he works, he meets and subsequently falls in love with the beautiful nurse “Marieta” (Alice Archambeau), who has admired him from afar since first hearing him sing. At their wedding, Gilberto’s relatives re-enter the picture. Having heard of his success, they hope to weasel their way into his good graces and benefit financially from his kindness. The audience will soon remember the words of caution uttered by Gilberto’s conscience, as the deceitful nature of both his wife and his family makes itself apparent and ruins Gilberto’s life. 

A homeless Gilberto prays to God.

Widely successful in Brazil upon its release — and a favorite of the Brazilian public to this day — O Ébrio endears us to its hero, Gilberto, whose good-heartedness does not waver in the face of poverty and betrayal. It was the product of first-time director Gilda de Abreu and her husband, singer Vicente Celestino, who stars in the film and wrote the play. Celestino further endears us to his character with his deep, warm singing voice and his ability to convey strong emotions like heartbreak through song. 

Though I see the film’s lasting appeal, I personally don’t think it’s aged too well. I, of course, sympathize with Gilberto; in this man exists a saint and a martyr. Scorned in a major way, not just once but twice, he gives his love and trust (and money) freely to those he holds dear and dedicates his life to saving the lives of the ill and the injured. Yet, he is met with emotional abuse and deception. Marieta soon leaves him for his cousin, and the relatives dream about the day he dies so they can inherit his wealth. Once he discovers the falseness of it all, he fakes his death and returns to the life of the homeless drunk. Who wouldn’t feel sorry for him?

Still, Gilberto strikes me as somewhat naive, and this diminishes my sympathy for him. To me, Marieta’s lust for money and feigned interest in Gilberto is evident from the moment the two meet. The relatives’ intentions are so obvious that it’s obnoxious; they fall to Gilberto’s feet, showering him with compliments and love. Why does he allow them back into his life, especially after they refused to help him when he actually needed it? 

Though Gilberto’s conscience is right in a sense when it tells him not to trust women, the warning leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I can’t help but pick up on a rather sexist, misogynistic undertone. Such a sentiment reinforces the narrative pedaled through society and culture over the centuries that women are, by nature, deceitful and cunning creatures who lure you into their web through seduction, as if it’s the only weapon they possess. The perpetuation of such a narrative is the reason Cleopatra, to this day, gets a bad reputation as a seductress who used her looks to advance her political career, as though her accomplishments couldn’t come from her intellect. In this case, Marieta is rather horrid. I just wish the filmmakers had chosen a different means for Gilberto’s downfall. 

I will say that O Ébrio does not end at all the way I thought it would. Perhaps I’m too well-versed in the Hollywood Hays Code era’s movies and rules to see a film from this period as ending in anything but happiness. At a bar, where the now homeless Gilberto drinks his memory away, Marieta appears. Left penniless from the cousin she left her husband for, she has come to seek Gilberto’s forgiveness. Knowing how terribly she treated him, I hoped he would turn her away but expected him to take her back. To be sure, he forgave her for everything, but — to my shock — he did not reconcile. The film ends with him wandering again, as we saw when the film opens. And then I was saddened by the somber note it struck but refreshed by de Abreu’s decision to break from the mold.

© Roza M. Melkumyan (12/5/20) FF2 Media

Gilberto meets another drunkard, “Pedro” (Manoel Vieira). 

Featured Photo: Gilberto sits with a drink. 

Photo Credits: Versátil Home Video

Q: Does O Ébrio pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?  

No. 

Tags: FF2 Media, Gilda de Abreu, O Ébrio, Roza Melkumyan, TCM, Turner Classic Movies, WomenMakeFilm

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As a member of the FF2 Media team, Roza writes features and reviews and coaches other associates and interns. She joined the team as an intern herself during her third year of study at New York University. There she individualized her major and studied narrative through a cultural lens and in the mediums of literature, theatre, and film. At school, Roza studied abroad in Florence and London, worked as a Resident Assistant, and workshopped a play she wrote and co-directed. Since graduating, she spent six months in Spain teaching English and practicing her Spanish. Most recently, she spent a year in Armenia teaching university English as a Fulbright scholar. Her love of film has only grown over the years, and she is dedicated to providing the space necessary for female filmmakers to prosper.
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