The Pilgrim: Paulo Coelho’s Best Story follows the internationally revered author (Júlio Andrade) of The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist through several decades of his life, forging a variety of chronologically-scrambled frissons and coming of ages into a mood tapestry that theoretically resists the historical reductions of more traditionally plotted biographies. In 1960s Rio de Janeiro, Paulo (initially played by Ravel Andrade) struggles with his prosperous, bourgeoisie parents as he wrestles with suicidal tendencies that periodically land him in an institution. Gradually blossoming into a young playwright popular with the ladies, Paulo neglects his family’s curfew, leading to an act of vandalism that represents a decisively symbolic act of breaking away. Soon Paulo’s traveling the world, embracing casual sex, drugs, hippies, and the occult. Eventually returning to Brazil, he writes songs for Raul Seixas (Lucci Ferreira), parroting familiar sentiments about following yourself at the expense of The Man, leading to a brief detaining by the military-run government. In 2013, Paulo, now an aging, revered, long-married author, reflects back on his life, walking the Route of Santiago de Compostela in honor of the 25th anniversary of The Alchemist.
In other words, director Daniel Augusto simultaneously tackles two notoriously difficult subjects for the film medium: the blossoming of creative consciousness and the awakening of spiritual contentment, which are similarly ineffable processes that might not look like much externally. Cinema, of course, is a study of how externals indicate internals, though it usually favors more physically flamboyant action over the relative inaction of contemplation or writing. Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson are two of the great portraitists of cognitive process for their patient, painstaking, ultimately evocative willingness to survey the geography of an actor’s body in relation to its setting. In their best films, one senses the shackles of tedium and self-doubt that are breached on the way to transcendence. Augusto appears to regard such philosophical tacks as aesthetic buzz-kills, relying on more familiar tropes pertaining to the sexy, rebellious rock-star artist who does things his own way.
Augusto’s film is always operating at an extremely shrill pitch; it’s all incoherently assembled highpoints. The timelines blur together to forge a phantasmagoria of hair, acid, cigarette smoke, and the occasional bared tongue or breast to perk one’s attention, preventing the enterprise from devolving entirely into anarchic tedium. Augusto revels in that great fantasy of the writer as unchecked consumer (though only of stimulations, not material goods, which would conflict with the pervading “non-conformist” image being sold). We only occasionally see Paulo writing, and when he is, it’s in a decidedly melodramatic fashion: He’s often throwing pages all over his writing area and stamping about passionately or halting things for a quickie with his gorgeous wife.
There’s always something to look at in The Pilgrim (some of the barroom musical numbers have a particularly hot, hazy, clubby vagueness that’s atmospherically effective), but it doesn’t give you anything to chew on, and it’s woefully unaware of the banality of the self-help clichés it’s peddling. Júlio Andrade’s smug, opaquely one-note performance also locks you out of the film. This version of Paulo Coelho is a self-pitying prat, leaving one to inadvertently sympathize with the characters who wish merely for him to bug off.