There’s a north-eastern Brazilian legend that says that when a massacre occurs and blood is spilt, a red mandacaru (a sort of cactus) rises from the debris, symbolising not only the tragedy but also a life reborn, one which is more mature and conscious of its own mortality and foibles.
Throughout the many years of its existence, Brazilian cinema has had its ups and downs – years of explosive aesthetic fertility and years of quiet stagnation and abortive productivity. But in 1990, Brazil suffered one of its most traumatic cultural, intellectual, emotional and otherwise “massacres” when newly elected president, Fernando Collor de Mello, the first democratically elected president after a period of military dictatorship and corrupt government, shut down the already limp Embrafilme – the state-owned company that supported Brazilian cinema since its foundation in 1969. In doing so, among other atrocities, Brazil went from an average of 100 films produced and released per year to a mere two released in 1992.
In those obscurantist years (1990-1992), the Collor government left an indelible mark on Brazilian self-esteem; we felt powerless, frightened, and suspicious, we couldn’t recognize ourselves, and as such we were ashamed to see the “face” of our country. We became a land of expatriates trying to find our roots and identity elsewhere. This strange malaise was brilliantly reflected in Walter Salles’ and Daniela Thomas’ existential road movie Foreign Land (Terra Estrangeira, 1995), where its two Brazilian protagonists find themselves wandering through the streets of Lisbon, making wrong choices, getting lured into crime, hurting themselves and others, and eventually and painfully falling in love. The final image of the film – where the two embrace before a vast and inexorable ocean with an anchored ship stuck in the frame, and Gal Costa singing in the background: “I am so tired/But not to tell you/That I’m going away/Maybe one day I’ll come back/Who knows but I must forget you” – has become emblematic of those times.
The ones who remained in Brazil suffered an increasingly bleak perspective: unemployment; urban violence; economical and political exploitation; the rhetoric of fraudulent speeches; and the retrenchment of one’s individuality. In Sergio Bianchi’s unflinchingly dialectical The Secret Cause (A Causa Secreta, 1994), we witness this social chaos through the eyes of a group of actors of different ages and from various social, ethnic, sexual and national backgrounds trying to cope with deteriorating relationships, lack of communication, cruel games of violence and daily exasperation. In his most recent film, the passionately discussed Chronically Unfeasible (Cronicamente Inviável, 2000), Bianchi, like a tropical Michael Haneke, employs Brechtian concepts of Historicity, ambivalent humour and the introduction of the asocial type as means to reveal moral and ethical degradation, contradictory models of exploitation and servility and man’s inhumanity to man.
President Collor was eventually ousted by an impeachment, and in subsequent years (1993-1998), Brazil achieved and enjoyed – through a series of improved laws regarding tax incentives – a resurgent interest in rebuilding its cinematic identity. This period became generically known, spread by both critics and academics, as “Retomada do Cinema Brasileiro” (Resumption of Brazilian Cinema). Again, in his next film, Central Station (Central do Brasil, 1998), the most prize-wining and universally acclaimed of the period, Salles was capturing the changes of that period: the film opens with the illiterate voices of Brazil’s excluded, reciting their sorrows, losses and joys, their faces like geographic contours of a country keen to be seen, to speak, and to reconstruct its future.
Producers, filmmakers and public alike welcomed the arrival of new directors (between 1994 and 2000, 55 directors made their first full-length feature) from all around the country, decentralizing the production between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and in thus, opening windows to other geographic spaces (from the north-east to the extreme south), revealing the cultural diversity (language, behaviour, habits), the physical traits and the ideological contradictions of its various regions. Among this group of first time directors the most notable were Paulo Caldas and Lírio Ferreira who directed Perfumed Ball (Baile Perfumado, 1997) and José Araujo with Landscape of Memory (O Sertão das Memórias, 1996). The two films revisit the sertão and the cangaceiro mythology through new perspectives; the first mixes its narrative with documentary factualness and the dynamic energies of the mangue beat (a musical, and social, movement originated in Recife that is a fusion of local rhythms and pop genres); the second navigates, in beautiful sepia, through a spiritual and sensual journey made of dreams, encounters, and archetypical figures of the sertão mythology (the Dragon, the Hero).
In addition, directors who made the transition between the ’80s and the ’90s – who were caught in the vault of inactivity – reinforced their voices and imprinted their styles and thematic concerns. Djalma Limongi Batista who had always been interested in linking the nation’s formation and its corollary – the legitimisation and creation of subjectivities – with poetic, non-repressive, and affectionate remarks regarding sexual preference, racial markings and economic class struggles, continued this trend in the transcontinental Bocage, The Triumph of Love (Bocage, O Triunfo do Amor 1997). Ugo Giorgetti’s Boleiros, Era Uma Vez o Futebol… (1998) bears the director’s trademark of ensemble pieces, of a group of people exploring a subject – this time Brazilian passion for soccer. Guilherme de Almeida Prado maintains his usual and fascinating crosscutting references to various genres and forms, melodrama, musical, neo-noir and the film medium itself, in The Magic Hour (A Hora Mágica, 1998).
At the same time there were directors of previous generations willing to resume their careers, some of them after years of forced interruption. Old Cinema Novo masters benefited from this breath of fresh air and introduced new perspectives to their body of work imbuing it with startling awareness and clarity. Ruy Guerra returned, after an 11 year absence, with the Kafkaesque Turbulence (Estorvo, 2000), a stark black-and-white dip into the fears, anguish and despair of an anonymous man, in a film that mixes the anthropological and political with a non-stop flux of symbolic images and disturbing sounds. Nelson Pereira dos Santos, one of Brazil’s most revered filmmakers, made, with The Third Bank of the River (A Terceira Margem do Rio, 1994), a welcome return to form, adapting, into a cohesive narrative, a series of short tales from novelist Guimarães Rosa. The Third Bank is a luminous film of poetic gestures, representing a link between the director’s earlier Barren Lives (Vidas Secas, 1963), influenced by neo-realism, and the “miracles”, the magic, mystic realism and popular history of The Amulet of Ogum (O Amuleto de Ogum, 1974), a link between the contradictory elements separating town and country and between fact and myth. Walter Lima Jr. has been developing since his first film, the delicate, sensible Boy of the Plantation (Menino de Engenho, 1965), a special relation to space and time in what he calls “a geography of sentiments”, and the oneiric, elemental The Oyster and the Wind (A Ostra e o Vento, 1997) is a mature statement of his achievements.
With O Viajante (1998), Paulo Cezar Saraceni concluded his “Trilogy of Passion”, based on the baroque, operatic works of Lúcio Cardoso, and preceded by Porto das Caixas (1962) and The Murdered House (A Casa Assassinada 1971). If the first entry in the trilogy (woman oppressed, disenchanted and isolated, kills husband with an axe and remains unpunished) revealed Saraceni’s interest in documenting reality through objective lenses, the second two (woman returns to the oppressive house of her youth where homosexuality, suicide, adultery and incest were hypocritically repressed but always present; woman, emotionally driven towards a man who does not desire her, consequently kills her own disabled son) broke down naturalism in a series of theatrical gestures, the face and body of its actors floating between decadent stasis and luscious electricity. The actors’ movements are framed by a “complex network of cathected drives, intensities, energy points, and currents, in which the sensory and motor process coexist with stored physical memory, codifications with shocks” (1). Such theatricality combined with a bold, allegorical use of colour, elaborate tracking shots, stylised tableaux, and an almost “epic” soundtrack, explored the nature of desire, emotional violence nurtured by hypocrisy, puritanism, frustration and characters cursed by insensible acts of vengeance, hatred, segregation and love. O Viajante is also a tribute to one of Brazil’s most outstanding actresses, Marília Pera, whose performance ranges from proud control to delirious attacks of ferocious anguish and lust. These three Saraceni films remain one of the most artistically accomplished and relevant bodies of work in Brazilian cinema.
Another important name from Cinema Novo, Carlos Diegues, continued his personal exploration of Brazilian idiosyncrasies. In See This Song (Veja Esta Canção, 1994) he recaptured the flavour of his most joyful films, using the music of some important songwriters of his own generation (Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Jorge Benjor) as narrative drive to four tales of love, betrayal and marital crisis placed in four different socio-economical zones of Rio de Janeiro (from the favela to the middle class). His most recent film, the well received God is Brazilian (Deus é Brasileiro, 2003), takes again the picaresque road movie structure of Bye Bye Brazil (Bye Bye Brasil, 1979) to reveal the cultural contrasts and syncretic beliefs of the common Brazilian.
The experimental filmmakers (Rogério Sganzerla, Júlio Bressane, Carlos Reichenbach, among others) who rose from the Underground movement of the late ’60s (conventionally called Cinema Marginal) with an intent to break down the heavy influences of Cinema Novo, re-emerged cannibalising our senses with narrative free devises, employing old and new technology, revising History, and mixing genres and homages (especially to the Tropicalist movement, the Anthropophagic Manifest of the ’20s and the chanchada – Brazil’s own form of the musical, with a carnivalesque attitude). In his seminal The Red Light Bandit (O Bandido da Luz Vermelha, 1968), Rogério Sganzerla, one of the front-runners of the movement, summed up the intentions of the group and his own vision in particular, intentions that continue to reverberate in his and his comrades’ oeuvres:
(…) Cinema has to be political, but it can be in many ways, and not only like Glauber Rocha or Paulo Cezar Saraceni (…) Their films are much too strong and personal to be imitated (…) I disagree with a Brazilian Cinema that is strictly critical, realistic and objective (…) our reality doesn’t support cynicism and the dry assimilation of facts (…) (in The Red Light Bandit) I mixed various genres (…) from the documentary, the sincerity (Rossellini); from the criminal film, the violence (Fuller); from comedy, the anarchic rhythm (Senett, Keaton); from the western, the brutal simplification of narrative (Hawks) as well as the love for open spaces and long shots (Mann)(…)The characters of this magical and roguish film are sublime and uncouth. Stupidity and uncouthness are political data, revealing the secret laws of body and soul as exploited, desperate, servile, colonial and underdeveloped (…) (2)
In Tudo é Brasil (1998), Rogério Sganzerla continued his fascination with Orson Welles’ journey through Brazil for the filming of the unfinished It’s All True. He had already dedicated two films on the subject: Nem Tudo é Verdade (1986) and A Linguagem de Orson Welles (1995). In Tudo é Brasil he ends the trilogy with a memorably funny radiophonic dialogue between Welles and Carmen Miranda deconstructing the rhythms of the samba through the pleasures of its exotic musical instruments.
Carlos Reichenbach in Buccaneer Soul (Alma Corsária, 1994) paralleled the 30-year friendship between two male poets with the cultural, economical and political changes of São Paulo. It’s a touching film about personal choice and experience, and in this and his next film, the more quiet and intimate Two Streams (Dois Córregos, 1999), Reichenbach reveals his considerable cinephilia: references to beloved Japanese directors (especially the iconoclast Eizo Sugawa); the chanchada; the Cinema Marginal; the works of Brazilian pioneers Humberto Mauro and Mario Peixoto; the cinema of “prosaic gestures”; and the sustained gaze of Valerio Zurlini.
Julio Bressane’s films are always broadening our sensory experience; we are caught in a vortex of movement propelled by kinetic impulses from one body to another, from one image to another, from one sound or word to another. His films are like “inter-semiotic transactions” leading us through a poetic language that invites us to reminisce and transform. Some of the most exquisitely beautiful images of Brazilian cinema from the past ten years have come from Bressane’s films: ’30s singer Mario Reis (as personified by the extraordinary Fernando Eiras), lonely, naked, facing the camera in the final image of The Mandarin (O Mandarim, 1995); the first ten minutes of Miramar (1997), which displays Bressane’s masterful framing and appropriation of classic Hollywood films; Nietzsche walking in a Turin café with the camera revealing a cornucopia of colours, mirrors and seductive chandeliers and alabasters in Days of Nietzsche in Turin (Dias de Nietzsche em Turim, 2001); or, in the same film, Fernando Eiras as Nietzsche, in a ritualistic, frenzied, Dionysian dance, with camera and body in perfect communion. Bressane has never been more in evidence than now with complete retrospectives of his work in Rio de Janeiro and Turin, and selections for the Cannes, Venice, Rotterdam and Locarno festivals.
There were always very few women filmmakers in Brazil, with the solitary voices of Carmen Santos and Gilda de Abreu in the ’40s and ’50s not withstanding. We had to wait till the ’70s to see the arrival of some important names like Tereza Trautman, Tizuka Yamazaki and, most notably, Ana Carolina. In her fourth fiction film, Amélia (2000), which is bathed in her usual corrosive humour and psychoanalytic examination into women’s psyche, all alongside characters trying to cope with situations of humiliation and assimilation of the Other, Carolina made her most mature film to date. Suzana Amaral, who had directed, in 1985, the heartrending Hour of the Star (A Hora da Estrela), had to wait 16 years to make her second effort, the equally impressive A Hidden Life (Uma Vida em Segredo, 2001), a film of small and reflexive gestures and another intimate portrait of an obstinate, almost Bressonian heroine, who walks through life’s mishaps, displaying a tangible purity of both body and soul. In the post-Collor period of cinematic renewal, the number of women directing their first films increased admirably, with groundbreaking works like Carla Camurati’s Carlota Joaquina, Princess of Brazil (Carlota Joaquina¸ Princesa do Brasil, 1995) – the first post-Collor film to break the barrier of one million spectators, Laiz Bodansky’s Brainstorm (Bicho de Sete Cabeças, 2001), Tata Amaral’s A Starry Sky (Um Céu de Estrelas, 1997), Bia Lessa’s Crede-mi (co-dir. with Dany Roland, 1997) and Ana Muylaert’s Durval Records (Durval Discos, 2002).
Eduardo Coutinho, Brazil’s greatest documentarian, once remarked whilst reflecting on the documentary format: “We don’t know what is real. Documentary is a precarious way to reach it, always incomplete, the real invades it, it never knows where it is going to reach, it never says ‘this is, this was’, this is right, this is wrong”. (3) What interests Coutinho in his films (Boca do Lixo , Santo Forte , Babilônia 2000 , Edifício Master ) is that immanent presence of surprises, incidents, casualties and small revelations that his gentle and unobtrusive camera reveals in the face of his subjects and their geographic spaces (be it the inhabitants of a favela from the South of Rio or the various poor trying to get some profit from the remains of a huge garbage dump). Documentaries have gained even more status in recent years, as witnessed in the revelatory work of Jose Padilha’s Bus 174 (Ônibus 174, 2002) or Paulo Caldas’ and Marcelo Luna’s The Little Prince’s Rap Against the Wicked Souls (O Rap do Pequeno Príncipe Contra as Almas Sebosas, 2000)
In 2002, Brazil elected as president Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva, a representative of the Labour Worker’s Party. This fact, along with the instalment of famed singer Gilberto Gil as Minister of Culture, suggests that our country has a cultural and political agenda that is finally willing and able to maintain alive and well a national cinema. Over these past two years Brazil has released such festival favourites as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (Cidade de Deus, co-dir. with Kátia Lund, 2002), Beto Brant’s The Trespasser (O Invasor, 2001), Hector Babenco’s Carandiru (2003), José Henrique Fonseca’s The Man of the Year (O Homem do Ano, 2002), Karim Aïnouz’s Madame Satã (2002), Luiz Fernando Carvalho’s To the Left of the Father (Lavoura Arcaica, 2001) and Walter Salles’ Behind the Sun (Abril Despedaçado, 2001); but it is perhaps Claudio Assis’ Mango Yellow (Amarelo Manga, 2002), that has made the lasting impression.
Mango Yellow isn’t afraid of unmasking the country’s wounds by employing tactics of social grotesquery, sneering at itself, hyperbolising reality, with the body, gestures and camera movements adopting at the same time an attitude of shocking strangeness and familiarity. It’s a film of profound disorientation that ejects us from our conformity and makes us confront radical, unsettling perspectives – of regeneration through the debasement of its characters and their tendency to buffoonish behaviour and our own sense of corporeality (sex, food) and life’s incompleteness. When Karim Aïnouz (Madame Satã‘s director) said in an interview that: “President da Silva is just a working-class guy, a typical Brazilian. I think his election is an act of self-acceptance. This is what we are: We are bastards, and it’s great to be bastards. It’s like filmmakers are losing the shame of portraying Brazil as it really is” (4), he could have been talking about Mango Yellow and this new breed of films and filmmakers. We just hope that there are no more “massacres” and that the mandacaru can last and continue to flourish.
Book consulted for this article
Lúcia Nagib, O Cinema da Retomada: depoimentos de 90 cineastas dos anos 90, Editora 34, São Paulo, 2002
- Hans-Thies Lehmann, “Of post-dramatic Body Images”, body.con.text, 1999, p.42
- Jairo Ferreira, Cinema de Invenção, Embrafilme/Max Limonad, São Paulo, 1986, p. 35 and pp. 61-62
- Eduardo Coutinho interviewed by João Bernardo Caldeira, curtaocurta (February, 2001) http://www.curtaocurta.com.br/entrevista0201.asp
- Karim Aïnouz interviewed by Ed Halter “Rio Men Have Curves”, The Village Voice (July 2 – 8, 2003) http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0327/halter.php