You may not know it from its typical portrayals in the media, but Brazil’s São Paolo is one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities. As one character remarks in Matias Mariani’s debut feature “Shine Your Eyes,” this bustling metropolis “could very well be London.” Much like that European melting pot, São Paolo is home to a significant African diaspora community, who are the focus of this mystifying drama.
Nollywood star OC Ukeje plays the lead role of Amadi, a Lagos native who finds himself on a life-changing journey. At the behest of his mother, he is sent to Sao Paolo to find his brother Ikenna (Chukwudi Iwuki), who is engaged to be wed in his homeland. Through photos and other correspondences, Ikenna has painted a picture of a successful new life as a mathematics professor. But as Amadi digs deeper, he finds that things aren’t as they seem. With the clues behind Ikenna’s disappearance becoming increasingly bizarre, Amadi begins to question everything he knew about his brother and family.
Like many immigrant dramas before it, a melancholic sense of disillusionment pervades “Shine Your Eyes.” With its seemingly never-ending skyline of tall buildings, Mariani immediately conveys the promise of boundless opportunities. As the mystery unfolds, however, Ikenna’s claim to a comfortable new life is revealed to be merely a facade.
In uncovering the truth, cinematographer Leo Bittencourt emerges as the film’s MVP. Often opting for low angle and wide shots that effectively juxtapose the protagonist against an imposing cityscape, the audience can quickly identify with Amadi’s feelings of unease. Indeed, if nothing else, “Shine Your Eyes” is a prime showcase for the labyrinthine architecture of Sao Paulo and its suitability for a film about mysteries and secrets.
At its heart, though, “Shine Your Eyes” is a profoundly human story. In that regard, Bittencourt’s portrait-like compositions are once again tremendously appealing. And as Amadi encounters a myriad of languages and ethnicities throughout his mission, the film lives up to its name in showing a fresh perspective on what it means to Brazilian.
But while it succeeds in its macro-level ethnography and a palpable sense of place, “Shine Your Eyes” falters in telling its central story. Though Ukeje compellingly imbues his role with an understated resolve, viewers are likely to share in his growing frustrations. Due to vague plot developments that test your patience, the narrative struggles to gain momentum. Like Amadi, it ultimately leaves you wanting to abandon its plot to explore São Paulo on your own adventure.