Brazilian cinema has surprisingly flourished under the inhospitable conditions imposed by the Bolsonaro regime. Well, not quite surprisingly, since political turmoil has fuelled cinematic production in the country for decades, from Glauber Rocha’s Aesthetics of Hunger to Eduardo Coutinho’s sharp, groundbreaking documentaries. The current government, however, poses an active and harmful threat to the industry. The Cinemateca Brasileira was left to burn after years of neglect and Ancine, the Brazilian Film Agency, has been drastically underfunded. The president’s mafia-like family isn’t shy on the matter, employing their social media channels to spew infantile offenses against politically-driven films such as Wagner Moura’s 2019 drama Marighella, which brings the true story of the eponymous politician and guerilla fighter to the big screen. Well, in reality, it doesn’t quite bring anything to the big screen as it remains buried under bureaucracy after a series of delayed release dates – with many speculating about the possibility of veiled censorship, a sombre nod to the dark days of Brazil’s dictatorship. 

As films that draw straight from history struggle under the tight shackles of the government, filmmakers manage to somewhat dodge the obstacles of this perceived censorship through dystopia, a genre that grants creative freedom while still allowing for a strong political message. Think Kleber Mendonça Filho’s genre-bending Bacurau (2020) and Gabriel Mascaro’s cutting-edge drama Divine Love (2019), both incisive studies of Brazilian society that rely on the future to build a critique to the present. 

And if Brazilian entries at recent film festivals are any indication, this tendency is not going anywhere soon. Highly-praised at Sundance, Iulli Gerbase’s drama The Pink Cloud opens with a card stating, “This film was written in 2017 and shot in 2019. Any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental”. It is, of course, referring to the fact the film revolves around a pandemic, but it might as well be a nod to the nefast ripples of the current Brazilian administration, the president famously known for instigating hate, prejudice and egotism, all values explored by Gerbase’s tale of eternal lockdown. 

Renata Pinheiro’s sophomore feature King Car follows the same pattern of employing futuristic depictions of contemporary struggles to convey a political message. Here we have Uno (Luciano Pedro Jr), lovingly nicknamed Ninho, a young man whose life is deeply intertwined with cars from the moment he is born in the back of his dad’s taxi. From an early age, Ninho notices he has an odd gift: he can speak to cars, and cars can speak to him. This strange ability lays somewhat dormant throughout his childhood, but becomes a larger part of his life once the local government passes a law prohibiting cars older than 15 years of circulating in the streets, a measure that not only harms the livelihood of his father and many others, but also threatens the cars themselves.  

Luckily, Ninho’s uncle, Zé (Mateus Nachtergaele), is an expert mechanic and, together, the two begin pimping older rides to fancy technological standards, making them look newer and therefore invisible to the prying eyes of authorities. It all starts with Ninho’s beloved Uno Mille, a car that sat forgotten in a garage, just like his uncle, a man shunned from social circles due to an undisclosed intellectual disability (“I hate everyone who takes away my loneliness without offering me true companionship in return”, Zé says, in one of many highlights of Nachtergaele’s impeccable performance). In Zé’s hands, the Uno goes from junk to standards even Dominic Toretto wouldn’t be able to fault. To celebrate the makeover, the vehicle is renamed King Car.

It is no coincidence that the model chosen to embody the revolutionary values of the working class is a Uno Mille. In Brazil, the Uno Mille has long been established as the car of the masses, heavily permeating popular culture, from countless mentions in hit songs to a warm, familiar presence in telenovelas. Whenever a character needs to be seen as part of the proletariat, there the Uno Mille is. Here, the transformation of the humble Uno into the state of the art King Car is a clear metaphor: once the modest ascends to mighty, the thirst for power overcomes the class struggle.

Cinematographer Fernando Lockett permeates the film with warm shades of green while playing with vivid, saturated hues and bright streaks of neon. The cinematography is amplified through the throbbing beats of electronic music, which contributes to the sense of urgency that fuels the people to fight against the establishment. “Let’s get on with it and take to the streets to fight for justice!”, exclaims King Car from deep within its engines. And the people listen. Until their voice is once again obfuscated – this time, not by oppressive laws, but by roaring engines. 

Pinheiro juxtaposes the technological with the environmental through Ninho’s vocation. Uninterested in stepping into his father’s shoes and taking over the taxi company, the young man decides to study Agriculture at university, quickly becoming connected to a group of activists in the region. It is through this group that we finally see opposition to the dangerous yet steady rise of the machines. It is also here that King Car stumbles, losing some of the freshness of its first act and flirting with predictable tropes. 

Fear not, however, as, despite the bumpy road to its conclusion, King Car still manages to deliver a cleverly constructed critique to crumbling institutions. Pinheiro makes great use of dystopia to paint intrinsic allegories but is equally unafraid to grab the bull by its horns. “Since when has a carmaker ever done social justice? That’s no justice! That’s marketing”, says one of Ninho’s friends when confronted with his youthful naivete. The quote fully encapsulates the message at the core of this wild futuristic ride: all power lies in the hands of the people. Bolsonaro, beware. 

Rating: ★★★★