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What to Stream: “Belarmino,” a Hidden Masterwork Starring a Portuguese Boxer Who Could Have Been a Contender


Belarmino Fragoso walks with a skip and a strut in his step. He walks a little faster than others do, swings his arms a little more freely, occupies a little more space in the street as he surges through crowds with a wry pursing of his lips and a twinkle in his eye. On the other hand, Belarmino is the only person in the crowd who knows he’s being filmed. A veteran boxer in Lisbon nearing the end of his career, he’s the subject, the protagonist, and the star of “Belarmino,” a 1964 fusion of fiction and documentary by the Portuguese director Fernando Lopes and one of the hidden masterworks of cinematic modernism. (It’s streaming on YouTube.)

From the start, Lopes makes clear the fusion of style and substance that, no less than the fusion of reportage and reënactment, gives “Belarmino” its (and Belarmino his) artistic identity. The boxer—a former national champion in the featherweight division, who’s thirty-two and has been fighting for sixteen years—bounces down a long corridor to a training gym where, through a picture window, other athletes, all in striped shirts, are seen energetically working out as if in an angular dance scene choreographed by Jack Cole. Although others—younger, leaner, looser—spar and swarm, Belarmino, embodying the loneliness of the long-term boxer, punches the heavy bag with a fierce and solitary determination. It’s this very peculiarity—the essentially social and public nature of boxing versus the grimly encasing solitude of the boxer, the boxer’s desire for a private life and a social life versus the ferociously isolating dedication that the sport requires—which emerges in Lopes’s vision of Belarmino.

The same paradoxes emerge in Belarmino’s own casually profound and self-aware account of his life and work—throughout the film, Lopes cuts between the dramatized action and on-camera interviews with the boxer. These sequences, shot in closeups and extended takes, do more than adorn the action—they’re part of it, making the athlete, the family man, and the public figure inseparable from the thinking man, living deep in the harsh memories and hard circumstances that motivate and mark him. The charismatic, voluble, and pensive Belarmino, with his long presence in the public eye, doesn’t so much thrive in front of the camera as bare his soul to it.

As a teen-ager, Belarmino—who had only a third-grade education and was working as a shoe-shine boy, facing regular harassment from the police—took up boxing on a whim, as a mere means of subsistence, under the tutelage of a trainer and promoter named Albano Martins. Belarmino sees himself as having been grievously exploited by Martins (whom he bluntly calls a “pimp” of the sport). As an interviewer, Lopes is confrontational. Far from merely gathering his subject’s remarks, the director journalistically presses Belarmino to confront incidents and observations that the boxer would rather avoid—an accusation of fixing a fight, a sordid story of his work as a private bodyguard, his extramarital affairs. He also interviews the now elderly Martins to hear his side of the story.

Martins believes that Belarmino “could have been great” but let his talent slide through indiscipline and love of night life. Belarmino responds that he often didn’t have money to eat, but he fought—and won—nevertheless. And, explaining the practical and financial demands of an international champion’s training routine, Belarmino counters that what prevented him from developing his talent was his poverty, along with his desire to have and support a family. The movie goes into detail about the grim economics of boxing—Belarmino cites the poundings he endured, as a teen, for a pair of used shoes and a raincoat, the class division intrinsic to the sport, which, he says, only the poor and desperate pursue as a means to make a living—and also his current desperate circumstances. He admits to going days without eating a proper meal; his side work as a photo colorist—painting color onto black-and-white photos—doesn’t bring much income, nor does his wife’s job as a domestic worker.

Belarmino knows that his career in the ring is ending—he hasn’t won a fight since 1960 and, in his previous bout, was knocked out in the first round—and he plans to become a trainer. (He believes that he’ll be a maker of champions.) The movie’s drama builds to the crisis of a fight that may be Belarmino’s last. Lopes shows him in extended training scenes and also interviews him about his approach to boxing, which he discusses with a revelatory clarity. Belarmino admits that he’s afraid when he boxes but avers that everyone is—and he’s not afraid of losing, which he considers a part of the sport. Rather, Belarmino says, “I’m afraid of making a fool of myself,” and likens that feeling to the one felt by performing artists. (He cites singers, including the celebrated Amália Rodrigues, by way of comparison.) “We’re all afraid—afraid of looking like a fool,” he says, explaining that boxing is not just a sport but a “noble art.”

The high-contrast, sharp-edged black-and-white cinematography, by Augusto Cabrita, is transformative, rendering ordinary actions—Belarmino and his wife, Maria Amélia, washing and dressing for work; Belarmino striding through an empty locker room, running in an empty stadium, working on his photographs in a café, taking in a movie, joshing with men in a streetside crowd—complex and eventful. The editing similarly transcends the merely pictorial and factual to evoke the tangled depths of thought, as when it intercuts Belarmino’s medical exam for the culminating fight—and its review of his medical history—with his stolidly contemplative presence at an outdoor café. The fight itself, an eight-round bout against a Spanish boxer, Toni Alonso, is presented with surprising, illuminating views, whether still photographs, closeups of footwork, or bird’s-eye shots showing the ring as a graphic abstraction. The editing of that sequence, too—complete with a remarkable twist of dramatic distancing—is a similar shock of aesthetic imagination. Lopes weaves the competitive aspect of boxing deeply into his vision of Belarmino’s complex, troubled subjectivity and self-awareness.

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