“Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!”
Love and War
“Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!” begins with a helpful intro that explains that the Apa River dividing Brazil and Paraguay was the scene of horrific battles in the 19th century when hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans were slaughtered. Those events continue to shape the lives of people on the border. Brazilian adolescent Joca (Eduardo Macedo) is madly in love with his Paraguayan Guarani peer Basano (Adeli Gonzales). She, however, rejects him.
Things at home aren’t so good for Joca. His mother Joana (Claudia Assunção) has been depressed for 10 years, ever since her husband left the family, so he has been raised by his older brother Fernando (Cauã Reymond). Fernando is known as “December” in his anti-Paraguayan bikers’ posse whose members are named for the months of the year (except for the leader, Telecath (Marco Lóris), who presumably has self-loathing issues since his mother was Guarani). The Calendar Gang, as they are called, keep rumbling with their Paraguayan counterparts, headed by Alberto (Marcio Verón), whose girlfriend is sleeping with Fernando, but that’s not such a big problem since Alberto has set his sights on his cousin Basano, just turning 15.
As the narratives flow (and come together) into one another, Guarani bodies mysteriously float down the river in eerie imitation of nearly a century and a half earlier. It takes some time for us to realize these aren’t phantom corpses but real ones. Their deaths are ultimately connected to Joca’s family. The core of the film is Joca’s love for Basano. Another important theme is the threatened survival of indigenous culture. The Apa river is the dividing line and the meeting place between the two cultures. The dead bodies that float by and the sword that Joca retrieves from its depths recall not just recent political turbulence in the region but the 19th-century war that decimated Paraguay. For Basano, who spurns the advances of her cousin Alberto and has no interest in “anything with anyone,” Joca’s love represents a particular danger, because to join him on the other side of the Apa would mean forgetting her identity, her people and her language.
Writer/director Felipe Bragança brings gang warfare, political history lesson and impossible love story together and while this is a well-crafted and often stylish film, it could have been so much stronger. Every part of the landscape serves as a reminder of the past; swords are retrieved from the river and bodies are seen floating past on the currents. The ghosts of old grievances are everywhere.