Wednesday November 1, 1989

Brazil Environmentalist's Voice is Still Heard

If you're wondering what this Brazilian rain forest stuff and the related killing business is all about, it's explained in "Chico Mendes: Voice of the Amazon," an hourlong documentary that airs at 7:05 tonight on cable station TBS, with a repeat at 8 p.m. Nov. 12.

Hollywood producers have been running into and over themselves trying to get his rights. This, then--one of several film studies going on his incredible story ("Frontline" did one in April) --is sort of a pre-look at the movie.

No Robert Redford there or Tom Hanks. Mendes looked decidedly ordinary, with a flat nose, a fat mustache, a round stomach. He displayed no pretense. But in his resolve, he exuded a nobility.

Executive producer Tom Belford and producer-director Miranda Smith compiled this out of old film, the last of which was made by Smith a month before Mendes' assassination last December.

With sponsorship by the Better World Society, this documentary most probably would take (and does) the side of the environmentalists and rubber tappers like Mendes who would "extract" the products of the forest and preserve it rather than scorch it level for cattle ranchers.

The film doesn't rant. It takes its power from a quiet recitation of how Mendes came to his convictions. Several attempts had been made on his life and he reflected--not far from the end--that "There's nothing we can do; we must carry on the fight."

In what probably was the last film of him, he is shown eating dinner among a tumult of children and friends, and the camera lingers on him for several beats as he stares off and sort of clears his teeth of the meal. It really signifies nothing--except to emphasize the fact of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events.