What Rodrigo de Oliveira has accomplished with his feature The First Fallen (originally titled: Os Primeiros Soldados or The First Soldiers), is a guerrilla film without the style that characterizes that very specific kind of film. He doesn’t need to make his feature extremely realistic to make the audience understand a specific circumstance, in space and time. He only needs good performances and a script that perfectly translates a general feeling.
In The First Fallen, AIDS is a relatively unknown disease. It was still wrongly attributed to a certain population (it was known as “the gay plague”), and a cure was far from thinkable. In Brazil, young men are still trying to understand the symptoms when death strikes extremely fast. Suzano is a young man who realizes he may have gotten the disease that’s threatening everybody in his circle. His only resource is trying to document his final days so that his family can have one final piece of his life.
Alongside Suzano is Rose, a transgender woman who has also contracted the disease and who angrily faces a system that can’t cope with her existence, but also with the effects of her disease. She becomes part of Suzano’s underworld, in which they participate in a montage that represents a dive into an emotional realization.
De Oliveira’s film is a drama set in a nontraditional narrative structure that becomes interesting when tragedy becomes real and expected. Characters aren’t developed in the usual fashion and seldom does the film consider a first-person perspective for the audience to emotionally connect with a character.
However, Johnny Massaro as Suzano is responsible for that inevitable connection. The young performer is exceptional when portraying the downfall of a man whose expectations have to be cut short due to something they can’t comprehend. That progression into the character’s deeply emotional breakdown is perfectly represented by the actor whose work in the film is essential. We want to see more of him.
The First Fallen isn’t personal. It’s the story of many, condensed in a few storylines carried out by people who suffered from a disease important enough to shake society to its core during the 80s and 90s. AIDS was still something people couldn’t connect to their daily lives. We’re sure some of them felt it as punishment, a materialization of that which society cursed them of.
Rodrigo de Oliveira’s The First Fallen goes full circle in a final sequence that doesn’t feel as relevant. Nevertheless, it’s an inevitable universal message about the role of a community in a health crisis that struck the entire world, but harshly changed the dynamics in some parts of society. It’s curiously optimistic in a film that wasn’t as hopeful.