Dr Nise da Silveira arrives in a psychiatric hospital outside Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s. She takes her seat, the only women in a lecture room full of males, to hear a lecture on new developments in treating the ill. But, the violence of the treatments her colleagues are practising, lobotomy and electroconvulsive shock therapy do not appeal to her. In order to work, she is left with no alternative but to take on th abandoned Occupational Therapy department. There she starts to introduce her patients to art therapy and makes some incredible discoveries that connect with the work of Carl Jung, into the nature of the human unconscious mind.
Nise – The Heart of Madness is a sympathetic portrayal of the changing face of mental health in the 20th century. The viewer immediately feels immersed into a different time and place. The violence of the treatments, is echoed in the violence of the nurses and medial staff (who display attitudes that shock contemporary sensibilities) and in turn violence manifests itself in the patients. Dr Nise hopes to interrupt this circle of violence, to watch listen rather than impose. In turn, the film asks us to do the same, to watch and listen to the way this story unfolds.
Director Roberto Berliner has a background in documentaries, often with a focus on people recovering from or dealing with hardship. In Nise – The Heart of Madness, theres a careful balance in the way the mentally ill are conveyed. The film doesn’t shy away from portraying the harrowing conditions the mental ill found themselves in, abused and ridiculed by staff, left to wallow in their own filth and faeces. But, this isn’t an exercise in misery porn. Berliner’s focus is always on the mentally ill as people and when the film dares to offer us hope, it’s always a fragile, tenuous and risky thing. The film looks dusty and gritty, but not in an excessive way, it feels old, rather than weathered, warm rather than distressed. In a way, the even-handedness of this approach actually feels brave, making for some challenging cinema as the viewer is drawn into an astonishingly fresh perspective, seeing the world through the eyes of those who try to care for and understand the mentally ill.
The film is based on the remarkable true story of Dr Nise da Silveira, who was a pioneer in the field of Occupational Therapy and the first to bring Jungian Psychology to Brazil. While the telling of Dr Nise’s story has been compressed to fit the film, with a focus on key events and achievements, we do get a sense of a remarkably focussed, smart and passionate psychologist committed to enhancing the lives of her patients. But, we are left wondering a little as to her motivations, where her resolve came from and how she coped with being out her own as a pioneer and to some extent an outcast within her profession.
One cynic on social media claimed Nise – The Heart Of Madness was too beautiful to be true. However, the judges of the Tokyo International Film Festival clearly didn’t agree, giving this feature the TokyoGrand Prix prize and handing Gloria Pires the Award for Best Actress. Thankfully the judges, like this reviewer, can accept that beauty and truth can live side by side. There’s certainly no disputing the strength of Pires’ performance, the film almost completely hangs off her resolute demeanour both in close up and as shed walks about those under her care. It’s a memorable embodiment of a remarkable figure in the history of medicine. And, the film itself is worthy of achieving broader recognition, especially among fans of historical and medical dramas and of course, lovers of world cinema.