Mental health care remains a somewhat neglected medical specialty, at least when it comes to getting patients access to adequate coverage for even basic needs. But in the 1950s, when lobotomy and electroshock therapy were state-of-the-art breakthroughs, the care of anyone suffering from mental illness, especially acute maladies such as schizophrenia, was decidedly grim. Roberto Berliner's film dramatizes the life of Brazilian psychotherapist Nise da Silveira, an admirer of Carl Jung who employs painting, music, canine companionship and unusual amounts of freedom in treating patients in a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.
The film captures the doctor's calm but revolutionary approach to the hospital's neglected occupational-therapy wing. Her male colleagues frown on her methods, as happened in real life; a few clips of da Silveira herself, and stills of some of her actual patients, run with the credits. Unlike in so many films, here the actors' portrayals of psychiatric patients' conditions -- and their humanity -- ring true. Those performances, combined with a slow pace, documentary-style framing and an emphasis on observational moments — smoking in the yard, painting, sexual encounters, the wardens' capricious care -- give this film a rare verisimilitude. In the mode of nonfiction, the story doesn't really have much of a climax or an ending, except for the satisfying recognition (from the art world if not the medical world) that the patients da Silveira encourages in painting possess legitimate artistic abilities.