A biopic of Brazilian labor/environmental activist Chico Mendes, this was produced for HBO cable television, with all the attendant flaws and virtues of a nobility-juiced feature.
As a child Mendes witnessed his father and fellow rubber-tappers stand by as a union organizer burned to death at the hands of federal soldiers. Determined to make a better future for his people, adult Chico (Raul Julia) works closely with labor leader Wilson Pinheiro (Edward James Olmos), whose
advocacy of workers' rights makes enemies in high places. Business execs, cattlemen like Darli Alves (Tomas Milian) and bent politician Orlavo Galvao (Tony Plana) form a consortium to clear Amazon forests for a lucrative road project to benefit ranch and military transport. The impact on
rubber-tapping would be calamitous, and Pinheiro is assassinated for his opposition. Chico assumes leadership amid a crackdown on the outraged peasants, and adopts a strictly nonviolent approach to stop the hacking and burning; he launches legal challenges to forest ownership and sit-ins to block
the bulldozers. The Gandhi approach doesn't save Mendes from kidnapping and torture, while an aide's arm is severed--offscreen--via chainsaw. Documentary filmmaker Steve Kaye (Nigel Havers), on a worldwide ecological crusade, shows up and records Chico's unsuccessful run for government office.
Chico loses the campaign (opponents buy votes with free chainsaws) but, thanks to Kaye, becomes an international celebrity and "Green" icon. The media spotlight eventually forces Galvao to backpedal over the issue of defoliation and swallow his losses. Unwilling to bend with shifting political
winds like the power-brokers who used him, Alves orders Chico's death. Refusing to flee, Chico is fatally gunned down by Alves's son. Part of Brazil's rain forests become a protected sanctuary in Mendes's memory, while systematic denuding of land continues in other areas along the Amazon.
Like so many earnest TV productions, THE BURNING SEASON is strictly on the side of the angels with no let-up or room for disagreement. One can wholeheartedly endorse saving the trees and still wish that not everyone on the opposing side were characterized in agitprop terms. Don't ranchers need to
make a living too? Alves, according to Andrew Revkin's source book, was a thug who considered himself beyond the law, but director Frankenheimer grants him the full Emperor Nero treatment in a gratuitous orgy sequence.
What enables THE BURNING SEASON to surmount its cliches and shorthand characterizations is Julia's incendiary performance, the last before his early death. Although it's painful to observe this robust actor in visibly terminal straits, he burns up the screen, fleshing out the martyred hero beyond
the dimensions of a script which sometimes seem to have an agenda at variance to the facts. THE BURNING SEASON's most scorching moment, in fact, is Mendes's blowup at Kaye (a character based on the real-life Adrian Cowell) at a gaudy Miami fundraiser; he senses himself co-opted by trendy
tree-huggers wholly ignorant about peasant rubber-tappers and their welfare. Thus the pic's concluding, heavy-handed voiceover recitation of rain-forest holocausts ill befits the more complex, politicized Mendes glimpsed earlier.
At its best, THE BURNING SEASON overwhelms us with the David-vs-Goliath dimensions of its hero's apparently hopeless struggle to defang a monster called Big Business that swallows forests whole. (Violence, profanity, nudity, sexual situations, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: NR
- Review: A biopic of Brazilian labor/environmental activist Chico Mendes, this was produced for HBO cable television, with all the attendant flaws and virtues of a nobility-juiced feature. As a child Mendes witnessed his father and fellow rubber-tappers stand by a… (more)