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With: Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, Alvaro Bezerra de Mello
Written by: Monika Treut
Directed by: Monika Treut
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Portuguese, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 91
Date: 09/13/2001

Warrior of Light (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Angel of the Slums

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

G.W. Bush would call Yvonne Bezerra de Mello a bleeding heart liberal, or a whiner or a weakling or an anti-patriot. But to about 150 kids in the Rio de Janeiro slums, she's a mother and a savior; one woman even likens her to a deity. And the fact is that Bush would not be able to handle de Mello's daily life. Every day she ventures into the ghetto to help feed and provide medicine for about 150 kids. She doesn't mind touching and being touched by the grimy kids. Apparently, de Mello's driver, Ayrton, vomited the first time he drove any of the kids around -- the smell was too awful. Even better, she teaches them. "You can't eat if you can't think," she says.

The new documentary Warrior of Light tells de Mello's story by following her on her day-to-day activities and makes a strong case for why she deserves our attention. Still, the film skimps on her private details, tidbits such as the fact that she married a very wealthy, much older man and that she still feels "lonely" despite her own three children and the human contact she has all day. Apparently, she's also an accomplished writer and sculptor, though you might walk out of Warrior of Light without knowing that fact. (She helps the kids make furniture out of discarded plastic soda bottles.)

Directed by German filmmaker Monika Treut (My Father Is Coming), the film chooses five particularly charismatic children to focus on, including the HIV-positive Tiago, whom de Mello met on a fateful night in 1993. Tiago survived an attack by the police, who gunned down and killed six children sleeping in the streets. De Mello was called to help out that night, and became an instant celebrity thanks to the many photographs taken of her and the subsequent interviews. (She also happens to be quite striking.)

Others would have used the child to massage their egos, then move on. But De Mello continues to visit and care for Tiago. The young girls may not have Tiago's disease, but they suffer, too. Many of them are verbally, physically or sexually abused. From behind the camera, Treut asks three of the girls if they'd ever want to get married and have kids, and all three answer with some kind of negative response. One girl named Vanessa says that people shouldn't have kids unless they have the money to take care of them.

Many Brazilians view de Mello as a villain or an opportunist for working with what they consider thieves and trash. She takes much of this abuse while traveling in her husband's upper class circles, but we rarely see it. Warrior of Light is a powerful film, but it could have been a great one if it had embraced and explored this telling duality in de Mello's life.

DVD Details: New Yorker's 2007 DVD release includes the featurette "Christmas in UerĂª," an update on the children as of today (24 minutes). And, yes, that's my blurb on the front cover.

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