Brazilian cinema is too often stuck between an unshakable need for soap-operatic drama and the unfortunate belief that legitimacy can only be achieved by imitating the aesthetic conventions of the most traditional forms of American filmmaking. Once Upon a Time Veronica only timidly attempts to sway from that tendency by forging a faux essay of sorts through its voiceover, a series of diary entries that its sexually aware protagonist chronicles with a voice recorder. Veronica (Hermila Guedes) has just finished med school in Recife and is facing the gap between the theory of books and the harsh reality of Brazil’s public health system: enormous lines, unhelpful colleagues, and disgruntled patients who refuse medical protocol and sometimes even spit in her face. She refers to herself in the third person, as “patient Veronica,” and exerts self-pity for feeling alienated in spite of having it all on paper. When she’s not being a doctor, or a patient of her own self in her journals, she’s hanging out with her ailing father, having lukewarm sex with her boyfriend, or daydreaming about beach orgies.
There’s a hazy melancholy to Guedes’s face that can be captivating, but the film’s narrative and aesthetic strategies are too self-aware for it to ever feel ingenious. As Veronica’s diary entries are never particularly insightful, the diaristic device ends up feeling hokey. Apart from one great line, “French kissing isn’t kissing, it’s sex,” their function is less poetic than punctuation. The father’s vinyls of old-school Brazilian music, the uncommitted usage of a handheld camera, and the short-lived and just as uneven digressive inserts of naked bodies entwined on the beach all feel a little too carefully posited, as if we could read the intention behind every element spelling itself out on the frame like a watermark. Worse, the brief usage of toothless non-actors as patients feels exploitative and hesitant, as if writer-director Marcelo Gomes were trying to intermittently embellish his otherwise traditional narrative with more experimental components (such as unexplained inserts of naked bodies coated in beach sand) as a way to hide the unoriginality of its blueprint.
Although it’s refreshing to see the city of Recife portrayed once again in a major release, following Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds, its specificity feels forced, such as the mentioning of “frevo,” a local music and dance style, in one scene as a way to unmistakably highlight the setting and serve it like a dish of exotic haute cuisine to international audiences. Once Upon a Time Veronica is simply too conscious of its form and its global-market ambitions to ever feel honestly interested in the themes it purports to cherish: urban alienation, self-reflexivity, and female sexuality quietly bursting out at the seams.