“The Man Who Copied” (2003) opens with a concise illustration of not only the economic pressures facing Andre (Lazaro Ramos), a nineteen year old high school dropout living with his mom in Porto Alegre, Brazil, but the exacting, precise manner in which he goes about dealing with this everyday pressure. In the checkout line at a grocery store, as the clerk scans items, Andre realizes he won’t have quite enough cash to pay for it all. He analyzes what he can keep and what he can put back in order to make the payment. It sounds simple, but this scene goes on for a couple minutes, and it swiftly establishes director Jorge Furtado’s m.o.: a film which scrupulously examines every detail and which focuses, above all else, on money, and how it is of such mind-numbing importance to those who don’t have it and of such little regard for those who do.
After all, Andre, as we quickly learn, is a but a mere photocopy operator, which we see as he goes through a meticulous demonstration of his job, reciting in voiceover every last detail of how the copy machine works, which sounds mundane, but is actually thrilling in a kind of souped-up vérité. In fact, nearly every line of dialogue in the first thirty minutes is Andre’s narration, like he’s a Brazilian Henry Hill, which, in a way, he is. The film is an honest portrayal of Brazilian working class told through so much snappy editing, pop music, even occasional animation. It’s like The Dardenne Brothers crossed with Scorsese. And it works. You are roped into Andre’s plight, even as you learn he is going “Rear Window” too, spying on his neighbors in the building across the street, and in particular, spying on Silvia (Leandra Leal).
His courtship of Silvia is conventional in that bumbling, Alvy Singer-ish way, in which Andre has to conquer his nerves even as he occasionally slips into fantasy. Their romance blossoms, however, because he follows her to the clothing store where she works, acting as if he’s interested in buying a nightgown for his mom. It’s $36, however, which he doesn’t have. But he becomes convinced this purchase is the way into Silvia’s heart, underlining how money changes everything, and when his shop gets a color copier, and he finds himself entrusted with a $50 bill by his boss, he becomes a counterfeiter.
Here, “The Man Who Copied” begins to turn, leaving its Dardenne influence in the dust and just adopting Scorsese in full, transforming into a full throttle variation of a crime thriller in which Andre will go to any length to save Silvia from the life that increasingly becomes not exactly what it seemed. It’s quite the tonal shift, swaying from hyper-realistic to excessively outlandish, which might yield accusations of an Identity Crisis, but that’s never really the case. Furtado knows what he’s up to, and he knows that’s what driving these characters isn’t a sensation of greed so much as the unsettling realization of this is what it takes. To escape the place they don’t want to be, simply having love or a desire for something better won’t do; no, you need cash, and a lot of it, and quickly.
Yet as his characters are swept up in this monetary monsoon, increasingly doing bad things as a means to a lavish end, Furtado can’t quite stop loving them as much as he did in the first half. Reasons are laid out for doing what they do but he still refuses turning them into outright outlaws. It’s as if the final scene, predictably set beneath the open arms of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, really is meant to serve as forgiveness.