Titles are important. Originally titled Os Primeiros Soldados (literally: The First Soldiers), the film is now called The First Fallen for its American release. Much is lost in this translation here. Whereas Os Primeiros Soldados conveys the brave plurality of battle, The First Fallen conveys only the initial death, leaving the film around it out of it. This is a gorgeous film about communal strength and not at all a film about suffering. So, the titling is a bad choice for a film that mostly makes strong and affirming choices for its characters. As such, may we refer to the film by the title it earns?
The bravery of Os Primeiros Soldados is due to its queer characters. It’s important to note upfront: the film does not center any characters who are not queer. AIDS does not discriminate over who it impacts. We know this. But what do the characters know when AIDS first arrives? They are dying. The main character dies in the middle of the film and director Rodrigo de Oliveira has enough grace to make this a fact of his battle and not to fetishize his suffering. It is very much not about the Fallen but the communal fight through an epidemic you do not understand without any certainty if the drugs you’re taking have an efficacy or if any cure will ever come.
We know the cure will never come. We know the virus will spread. Some of the medicines will only get better at keeping it at bay. We know the terrible impact it will have on queer communities, especially through association, and that it can be spread evenly to heterosexual populations. The film doesn’t have to live in the boundaries of what we know and what has happened since the early ‘80s. The film’s intelligence is in staying in the moment while still trusting the audience to believe in this forced perspective and the characters living in the confines of this world.
Os Primeiros Soldados is successful because of how it understands the commune of its characters, their relationship to one another, and the disease that is spreading through them invisibly until it is tragically visible. What the film does to ground all of this is to use color with heightened intention. Blue is applied everywhere. First it is luxuriant blues, then the blues are sad, and finally the blues are sad and hopeful. A blue story in three acts, assigning a signature color and extended texture to both the world and the outfits of the characters that inhabit it. (Bringing to mind, of course, Derek Jarman’s perfect 1993 film Blue, which uses the color equally, meaning that is the only thing you see, a blue screen; beauty).
The film is profoundly affecting outright. We sit with the characters as they tell each other their fears and express the breadth of their strength. It’s a Portuguese entry that lives and breathes wider universality. This is for queer populations everywhere and offers hope and strength, but also a deep well of compassion, at every angle and with every development.
Os Primeiros Soldados does not have to play by the American standards of the AIDS story. Characters do get sick and die but the film has no interest in upholding the kind of misery porn that often circulates Western films about serious pandemics. While we can attribute our current situation to the film, it is an important reminder that while we have vaccines for COVID already, there are no AIDS vaccines. The film seemingly entered development before this was a factor but you have the context a film is released into. It all makes the film all the more wonderful in its specificity, understanding it’s characters journeys as the focal-points of the story, while also never diverting from its purely queer journey. It believes and honors its characters and is a film with great empathy and feeling. This is a film about true Soldiers.