By: Andrew Giangola
August 18, 2016
In this golden age of sports documentaries, Netflix’s new six-part series following the Brazilian stars of the PBR holds its own with the best sports films of our time.
Like other distinctive sports documentaries, “Fearless” is much more than scores and results. It canvases universal themes of the human condition far beyond the field of play.
In the exquisitely shot film, physically-gifted and mentally-driven athletes make tremendous personal sacrifices in chasing their dream. There’s 2015 Rookie of the Year Kaique Pacheco leaving his tearful mother for a new continent; 2008 World Champion Guilherme Marchi strained by a divorce and contemplating death on the dirt; and Three-time World Finals event winner Robson Palermo loaded into an ambulance as his numb wife cradles their newborn child.
Fans can watch the series on Netflix beginning on Friday.
Poignant vignettes like these bring fans closer than ever to these strangers in a foreign land, who are clawing for acceptance, while sometimes feeling mocked and conspired against in a sport where impressing stone-faced judges is a prerequisite for winning.
The Brazilian bull riders are a tight band of brothers. They may share backyard barbecues and locker room barbs in their native Portuguese, but in risking their bodies to pursue PBR glory, they are just like the other athletes putting everything at risk to be crowned the world’s best.
In doing so, they seek immortality. Ultimately, as their bodies and sometimes even their spirits break, they are forced to acknowledge the fleeting nature of superhero status.
“When you ride bulls, you’re unbreakable, forever a living thing. You’re superman, that’s who you are,” three-time World Champion Adriano Moraes says in the documentary. “And then the day you retire, you pull your cape off, and you become just another mortal. And being mortal hurts. That’s why we keep that cape as long as we can.”
Due to language barriers, the Brazilians may not be as familiar to fans as PBR’s English-speaking riders. “Fearless” tells the unique back stories to reveal these athletes’ range of personalities, humble faraway roots, and treasured family lives.
One of the film’s more complex and compelling characters is 2010 World Champion Renato Nunes – a combustible cocktail of doubts and trepidation about continuing in the sport even as he teaches his daughter to ride a homemade barrel at his bucolic Brazilian ranch.
Like his countrymen, Nunes began riding for the love of it; he then came to America to conquer bull rings paved in gold. Bull riding was a way to escape poverty while feeding an adrenaline addiction, or as two-time World Champion J.B. Mauney quipped, an addiction to “the worst kind of drug.”
“I had lived off the money I made from working on other people’s farms, and my dream was that those farms could be mine,” Nunes said. “I came to America so that I could have enough money to live off my own land.”
As the Brazilians try to chase down Mauney in the 2015 world title race, the film flashes back to Nunes’ ranch. We meet his brother, a hobbling shell of himself since being head-butted by a bull. After 17 days in a coma, he finally woke up and had to learn to walk again. Some days, he’ll see Renato, but have no clue who his own brother is.
As Nunes’ career winds down and his doubts fester, we meet the stoic and young phenom Pacheco. Pacheco has ice water in his veins in the arena and in his hotel room he intently studies videotape on his laptop for hours at a time. The quiet and intense 21-year old is laser focused on a serious run for the championship, while Nunes anxiously gallops towards a crisis of confidence.
“I have accomplished so much in my life and as I reach the end of my career, I’m risking dying or becoming a paraplegic. So that makes me feel afraid,” Nunes confesses. “It’s not the same anymore. I no longer living the dream I once had. And if we don’t live our dream, why live at all?”
Speaking on behalf of the group, three-time World Champion Silvano Alves says, “Everything I have in life is because of bull riding.”
Back home, the Brazilian cowboys’ success in the United States puts them on a pedestal. They’re local legends and purveyors of the good life for their extended families. Yet everything can be taken away in an instant by powerful animal 10 times their size.
The first episode of the series begins with a harrowing opening scene: Neil Holmes on the dirt, coming to consciousness, speaking to PBR Sports Medicine in a gasping gurgle. Later in the series, in a shocking turn of events, one rider will walk away from the sport in the middle of its biggest event.
The PBR provided Netflix with unfettered access, including inside the PBR Sports Medicine room. When a dinged-up Palermo is unable to recite in order three simple one-syllable words, it’s clear he has a concussion.
Dr. Tandy Freeman likens the injuries in PBR – broken spines, lacerated livers, and ruptured spleens – with the type of trauma hospitals see when motorists are “scraped off the pavement” in freeway wrecks.
A rider’s reaction to those big wrecks is what separates the men from the boys, according to PBR CEO Sean Gleason. “The first time you get stomped on in the guts defines your career,” he said.
Or, as nine-time World Champion Ty Murray puts it, “No amount of money in the world should make someone do this. The bull doesn’t know or care.”
It’s no wonder on a bright, hot South American day, Alves, battling through an uncharacteristically difficult and injury-plagued year, walks into an empty village church, removes his hat, and sits down to pray for solace, peace and protection.
Juxtaposed with the brutality in the arena, it’s one of many gentle scenes revealing humble, hard-working men who are working towards their lifelong dream, taking care of their families, and leaving a mark in a faraway land.
Any PBR cowboy risking it all for that gold buckle now has to go through these stoic Brazilian cowboys who are elevating an entire sport on a weekly basis.
These special group of riders have gained millions of fans as the sport has grown. Cheers for them are bound to grow even louder following this riveting documentary.
“The best thing in the world, maybe it’s not winning or being famous,” Marchi said. “Maybe it’s being welcomed wherever you arrive.”
Considered in those terms, “Fearless” should do more for these riders than Marchi’s wildest dreams.
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