Nise – The Heart Of Madness


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Nise – The Heart Of Madness
"Nise - The Heart Of Madness is a brilliantly rendered slice of history which touches on numerous subjects and really does justice to the people it portrays."

Famous for her political passion and iconoclastic approach to psychiatry, Nise da Silveira is a figure with whom most Brazilians are familiar; for many viewers of this film, however, she will be an unknown quantity. It focuses on just one chapter of her life and there's not much need to know the rest, but the effect is that Brazilian and foreign audiences will go into it with very different expectations. it speaks well of Roberto Berliner that he has managed to create a film that works for both.

The film opens with Nise (Glória Pires) hammering on a door. Brazilian audiences will know that she's just been released from prison (where she was held because of her refusal to renounce Marxism); now she's anxious to get inside somewhere similar. This is a psychiatric hospital in Rio de Janeiro, a place where she will continually have to assert herself like that to get attention. It's also an early example of the framing technique Berliner will use sporadically throughout the film to evoke its secondary theme, the production and socio-political positioning of art.

Copy picture

At the time of Nise's arrival, the institute is a brutal place. This is, in part, because it's quite advanced - techniques like electroshock therapy and the ice pick lobotomy were, at the time, only slowly coming into use around the world. Most patients - or clients, as Nise prefers to call them - were simply kept locked up and drugged into submission. Wisely, Berliner steers away from the torture porn aspects of the system which many other directors can't resist lingering on. We get a short, sharp shock at the start, and it's quite enough for Nise, who determines that the only way she can stay on there is by moving into the occupational therapy department. This is an area where progress has been slow. Clients are given mundane work to do. Nise wants to introduce them to something genuinely stimulating.

Though she drew on ideas developed by Jung, Nise was a pioneer in giving mentally ill people access to self-directed creative opportunities, and this is the film's main focus. There are a host of superb performances from the actors playing her clients, all of whom have understood that they are playing people - mostly real individuals - rather than just imitating the symptoms of diseases a is often the case in films about asylums. What's also understood is that mental illness rarely makes people aggressive - rather aggressiveness tends to emerge, if it does at all, as a response to ill-treatment or the frustration of being unable to communicate. This film never patronises its subjects and never lets us forget their potential for violence - there's a powerful underlying tension in many scenes, especially where groups are getting excitable or staff members are alone with clients who have a history of violence - but there is no gratuitous exploitation of aggressive acts. As a parallel to the change that take place in these people as they are introduced to art, we see brutal orderly Lima (Augusto Madeira) change and develop in a similar way, to the point where he begins to develop friendships with his clients. Nise is clear, however, about the responsibility of staff to maintain some emotional distance, and she's clear that a client being able to hold a conversation or produce a work of art is not necessarily cured.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the real Nise's work was the quality of the art that came out of it, championed by art critic Mário Pedrosa (Charles Fricks), and it's beautifully reproduced here, with an eye for technique and some superb physical acting. Berliner is careful to let the art lead as it did in reality, so that it's initially through the paintings and sculptures that we get to know the inmates as human beings. Don't leave when the credits start to roll - that's when we get the chance to see some of the real human beings whose stories are told here, several of whom made careers out of their work. The real Nise (who died in 1999) gets to speak too, and flash the famous smile which we rarely see from Pires is this recollection of more difficult times.

Nise - The Heart Of Madness is a brilliantly rendered slice of history which touches on numerous subjects and really does justice to the people it portrays. It would stand well enough if it were fictional, but as a record of work which continues to improve lives today, it's really worth celebrating.

Reviewed on: 03 Feb 2016
Share this with others on...
Nise – The Heart Of Madness packshot
The story of Nise da Silveira, a former political prisoner who transformed a psychiatric institution with creativity and art.

Director: Roberto Berliner

Writer: Flávia Castro, Mauricio Lissovski, Maria Camargo, Chris Alcazar, Patrícia Andrade, Leonardo Rocha, Roberto Berliner

Starring: Gloria Pires, Fabricio Boliveira, Felipe Rocha

Year: 2015

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: Brazil


Glasgow 2016

Search database:

If you like this, try:

Images Of Bedlam