Film Review: Nise: The Heart of Madness
Nise da Silveira was a Brazilian psychiatrist who revolutionized the way mental patients were treated in the 1940s and ’50s. This elegantly made biopic shows her struggles against the medical establishment and the status quo. Because of both her political beliefs and her refusal to go along with electroshock therapy, she’s demoted to the “occupational therapy” wing of the hospital where she works. There, she discovers mental patients being treated worse than animals, subjected to callous disregard and even contempt by the staff. Nise not only shows how these troubled men and women can be treated via art and other creative acts, she also makes sure that hospital workers treat them differently—a holistic approach to medicine, avant la lettre.
This is a heartfelt, respectful film, and it eventually focuses its attention—wisely—on the patients themselves, the individuals whose lives are affected most by Nise’s therapies. It would have been easy for Nise to become just another movie about just another hero doctor. But the film practices what it preaches, by presenting these people as, well, people—individuals with their own stories and their own lives. And while there’s plenty of drama here—both in Nise’s efforts with treatment and in her locking heads with superiors and with some patients’ families—the film never plays things for cheap effect. The result is a historical movie that’s genuinely humanistic and quite powerful.