Their Eyes Were Watching You

If a century of movies has taught us anything about watching and being watched, it’s that we should be more careful.

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François Ozon’s Dans la maison

Cameras watch. Microphones listen. Invented as gadgets to amuse an audience—and profit its inventors—the movies have had an uneasy relationship with their ability to capture and replay the lives of others. More than a century ago, people across the world passed in front of the Lumières’ camera. Some stared, trying to divine its purpose. Others tried to avoid the contraption either knowing and not wanting any part of it or not knowing yet still preferring to slip out of view. Others were indifferent or unaware, never even looking. No matter how they felt about it, it was too late. They were already caught on film. In what remains we can still see their faces and make determinations about the expression in their eyes, their dress, how they move, long after they’ve gone.

Fast forward to now and cameras peer at us from the corners of elevators, parking garages, cafés, city streets, data piling up by the terabyte with the vague promise of keeping us safe. With the tiny lenses embedded in our computer screens and the handheld device nearly perfected, we have become complicit in our own spying, willingly recording our movements, cataloging our thoughts, posting them where they can be freely accessed, or clandestinely hacked. On the upside, we can more easily bear witness, but viewer (and viewed) have always needed to beware. The proscription on prying eyes is ancient; Perseus, Orpheus, and the wives of Lot and Bluebeard all got in permanent trouble just for looking. If a century of movies has taught us anything about watching and being watched, it’s that we should be more careful. From the keyhole shot in Lois Weber’s 1913 short Suspense to James Stewart’s telephoto lens in Rear Window, from the deadly tripod of Peeping Tom’s 16mm movie camera to Jake Gyllenhaal’s unblinking newshound Nightcrawler, watching is downright creepy and quite often deadly.

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Watching a Lover: La captive
Like Vertigo’s Scottie wheeling around San Francisco in pursuit of his elusive Madeleine, Chantal Akerman’s camera is initially in collusion with Simon, closely tracking the inscrutable object of his strange affections down the narrow streets of Paris and the labyrinthine hallways of his creaky-floored home. Using Ariane’s friends to secretly control her movements, interrogating her repeatedly about her whereabouts, spying her while she sleeps, Simon is like a CIA agent of love who has tasked himself with catching her in a lie. Based on Marcel Proust’s La prisonnière, the fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time, La captive is a study in unhealthy obsession and its paltry rewards. (“I see you,” Ariane tells Simon, with her eyes closed.) By the end, the prisoner of the title is as much the tracker as the tracked.

Watching the Family: Á double tour
Another kind of obsessive love entraps the characters in Claude Chabrol’s first color film and first essay into the thriller genre, Á double tour. A little bit Hitchcock, a little bit Sirk, a little bit Belmondo, Chabrol’s study of the dangers of looking employs very few reaction shots, keeping the actors in the same frame while they circle each other, plotting self-destruction. The film begins with the oldest transgression of looking, a nearly naked fresh-faced maid hanging out the manor window in her underwear. The gardener watches from the hedges, the son watches through a keyhole, the milkman tells her to get dressed. Meanwhile the mid-life crisis husband keeps his mistress on full view in the adjacent house as the wife’s bitterness is angrily reflected in the vanity mirror and the French-door windowpanes. The only real love in the house is captured in quick silhouette, a warm yellow glow backlighting a dark stairwell just long enough for an urgent, surprising declaration. Amid it all, a murder still must be committed and then solved. Once the narrative falls skillfully together, whose crime and why were in plain sight from the very beginning.


Watching a Stranger: Gigante
You can’t really blame him for watching. It’s his job. Jara is a young oversized security guard at a massive supermarket in Montevideo, Uruguay, and, beginning at 11 pm, he enters the monochromatic midnight of surveillance monitors, keeping an eye on the bakers, the butchers, and cleaning ladies of the graveyard shift. Sometimes they pilfer and he overlooks it; sometimes he intervenes. When one of the new staff catches his eye for different reasons, he begins to observe her outside work as well. Jara learns little about Julia on his stakeouts, but the narrowly framed world he’s become accustomed to suddenly opens up into the wide spaces of the day-lit city. Gigante’s stalker is largely benign and his creepiness is leavened with humor—when he realizes, for example, that he’s hiding beneath a grocery store’s security camera. Eventually his spying becomes rather sweet but, as it turns out, altogether unnecessary. He could have avoided it all by simply revealing a bit of himself in the first place.

Watching the Neighbors: The Tenants
Looking doesn’t always lead to understanding, never mind any corrective. (Just think Antonioni’s Blowup and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, or, tragically, “I Can’t Breathe.”) Those living in South America’s former dictatorships know this too well and there’s an extra uneasiness about the act of watching. (Stuffed into Chevy Novas in the middle of the night and thrown out of airplanes in the middle of the desert make a people touchy about being monitored by others.) But now there’s a new social order, with São Paulo’s tightly packed working-class bordering an even more tightly packed slum in Sérgio Bianchi’s The Tenants, and other people’s lives are inevitably visible. When loud un-neighborly types move into the house next door to Valter and his small nuclear family, dark suspicions circulate up and down the street. Everybody’s watching, through the kitchen’s louvered windows, out the big bus, on the television. (One woman pulls up a beach chair on the sidewalk to get a better view.) Valter’s the only one who doesn’t want to see. When he finally looks it’s out of a salacious curiosity, and he learns that secrets are not just what’s piled up out back in the dark, but what’s right in front of you in broad daylight.

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Watching the Watchers: The Prowler
Movie characters like the suddenly soft-hearted Stasi agent in The Lives of Others or Philip Seymour-Hoffman’s well-intentioned spy in A Most Wanted Man may be watching for our own good but they’re not the ones in control. Clearly, the state cannot be trusted with even a peephole onto our lives, something Joseph Losey knew in 1951 when he made this film noir. A cop, tired of being one, sets his sights on a better life, with someone else’s wife, and uses his (limited but effective) power to serve himself. The plot is set into motion over the credits: a shapely young woman alone at night draws the shade against a pair of prying eyes. The cops arrive, and she’s got another problem entirely, with the startling appearance of a uniformed Van Heflin—as insistently unblinking as Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom—through a living room window. Later on, creeping around outside the house of the object of his desire, Heflin cuts a windowscreen and makes a racket to draw the husband outside. Two gunshots later and we can guess the outcome. When the lovers escape to a ghost town in the desert, their new neighbor-less view looks out through an enormous gaping hole in the wall—what’s rotten now resides inside and must be exposed. Cowritten by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo and made just before the HUAC-hunted Losey left for Europe, The Prowler foreshadows the danger lurking today behind every computer screen.

Those Eyes Watching You: Dans la maison
All those eyeballs scanning the café over their laptop screens aren’t wondering so much about you as they are wondering what they can put down about you. The Grand Budapest Hotel’s (first) storyteller played by Tom Wilkinson, describes a writer as someone who doesn’t make things up so much as take them from the surroundings, and then, as his grandson shoots off a toy luger, issues a pronouncement that you later realize is a warning: “To him who has often told the tales of others, many tales will be told.” From The Front Page to Deconstructing Harry writers have gotten into all kinds of trouble for putting “what they know” on paper. A good story has to ring true and what better truth than something that actually happened? François Ozon—keeping pace with Woody Allen’s a film-a-year rate—adapted a Spanish-language play by Juan Mayorga for his adroit, unjustly overlooked Dans la maison about a young writer and his jaded mentor who’s grown tired of reading the work of his talentless students. The apprentice, the precocious teenage Claude, spins a riveting, soap-operatic yarn based on his visits to the house of a classmate, each set of pages ending on a tantalizing cliffhanger. The teacher begins to share these stories with his wife and they both become squeamishly riveted. Ultimately a jab at cultural elitism, Dans la maison also pokes at the ethics of looking (and sharing) someone else’s private world, while proving both are fodder for comedy and some pretty typical sorrow. Ozon’s warning, however, is not so much directed at the teller of tales, but at the writer’s accomplice—it’s the reader who needs to beware.

— Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published May 12, 2015, on the editorial pages of Fandor’s website and reprinted on HuffPost.

On the Street Where He Lives

Kleber Mendonça Filho Films Locally, Stirs Globally with Neighboring Sounds

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If he had been asked as a child to draw a picture of a taxicab, Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho says he would have drawn the Yellow Cab ubiquitous on the streets of New York City, and in American films. The film critic turned filmmaker, who grew up in Recife, the urban center of the state of Pernambuco on Brazil’s sunbaked northeastern coast, says his childhood was steeped in “images of all kinds from faraway places, mostly Hollywood.”

American cinema’s influence is evident in his fiction feature debut, Neighboring Sounds (O som ao redor, 2012), his country’s submission for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which induces a slow-burning anxiety like the widescreen suspense of Roman Polanski and John Carpenter. “Some films are like microbes in your head,” he tells me in an interview in October 2012 after Neighboring Sounds played at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival. “Whatever you do after you see it comes back to that film.”

Utterly fresh, compelling, and sinister, its widespread appeal and bounty of accolades—multiple festival awards and inclusion on many critics lists, though ultimately not an Oscar nomination —can also be credited to its parochial nature. It captures the disquiet of modern urban life by portraying a narrowly drawn world, one that resonates universally but is distinctly Brazilian.

It opens with a series of black-and-white archival photographs taken on a sugar plantation (a microbe, Mendonça Filho says, planted by Eduardo Coutinho’s classic 1984 documentary about the devastating effects of the Brazilian military dictatorship on the labor movement in the Northeast, Cabra Marcado para Morrer). Sugar cane fields, field hands with their families, workers’ quarters, the plantation house with its wide porch and long rows of shutters. The final still in the series depicts a group of scrubbed-faced females proudly holding up the work credentials that entitle them to unemployment and retirement benefits.

In the next moment, we are close on the spinning heels of a shorts-clad pre-teen roller-skating through a concrete urban terrain, a closed parking lot and playground inside one of Recife’s insular apartment towers that are currently overwhelming traditional single-family homes with their tile roofs and front doors that open onto streets. The camera follows her through the jump-roping, hula-hooping children until the fence line, where a wallflower row of uniformed nannies, the metaphorical descendants of the document-wielding ladies from the sugar mill, keep watch from a distance. These two disparate worlds—one rural in black and white, the other urban and in color, one horizontal, the other inaccessibly vertical, of the servants and the served—are inextricable. “That’s how I see the street,” Mendonça Filho explains, “what happens in the countryside is mirrored in the city.”

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Random events are juxtaposed with carefully placed foreshadowing, only we can’t tell which is which. Everything serves to unnerve. Cars squeal into each other in the middle of a tree-lined intersection. A faceless stranger quickly slips through a house whose owner is on vacation while two other intruders make use of the bed for their own illicit encounter. One boy bounces a soccer ball outside while another plays video games inside. A man fearlessly takes a midnight swim in waters, we are warned, that are shark infested. When the real terror is finally revealed, you’ll long for repeated viewings to pick out the masterfully laid clues.

The soundtrack is a subtle collage of stray city noises: pounding, drilling, sawing, grinding, cracking, popping, and occasional short bursts of popular music from a mobile cart that sells CDs like an Old World peddler sold pots. Reminiscent of Lucrecia Martel’s 2001 La ciénaga the soundscape effectively menaces throughout but never crescendos into a musical score or a pop tune. (Though we are treated to the buoyant “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” sung by Queen and a lovely happy birthday song by Brazilian classical composer Villa-Lobos).

In one scene, a young girl dreams that dozens of shirtless boys, barely distinguishable from the night, are quietly invading her family’s courtyard, a nightmare Mendonça Filho tells me he had as a kid. The look of the scene traces back to Carpenter’s rarely screened Assault on Precinct 13. “I couldn’t avoid it,” he says. “The way he shoots places in widescreen. The way he shoots the suburbs in Halloween. He introduces you to the streets, the houses, the doors, the windows, the people. It’s real, realistic, almost mundane. Then he brings in the fantastic elements, the terror, the horror.” The whole film has the this-could-happen-here feel of Carpenter’s 1980s titles, themselves descendants of Hitchcock’s legacy of inducing fear of the ordinary. Mendonça Filho takes it a step further, revealing the very structure of society as terrifying.

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Bia, the warm heart of the film, is based on a woman that Mendonça Filho had already portrayed in Eletrodomésticas. A critique on the burgeoning consumer culture of Brazil’s rising lower classes, the 22-minute short contains some of the exact setups (sometimes performed in the exact same rooms): the use of the vacuum cleaner to diffuse marijuana smoke, the washing machine’s centrifugal cycle as a tension-relieving device, among them. “Brazil had recently rid of inflation; everyone was happily buying all these appliances and junk,” recalls Mendonça Filho about the 2005 film. “The first Bia was less lovable, less human, more of a symbol of this consumerism.”

He revived her—along with her two children—using a local Pernambucano actor, the marvelous low-key Maeve Jinkings, making the character more likable and, according to the filmmaker, similar to his own mother. “I wanted to make her organic, made of meat, so you could touch her arm, feel her skin, and make her more loving, with her kids.” The children come across as mature beyond their years, dealing calmly with an insomnia-afflicted, weed-addicted mom who, among other episodes, has a spontaneous hair-pulling fight with her sister. Bia’s main preoccupation—a neighbor’s Weimaraner whose endless barking keeps her awake all night and on edge all day—is based on an ongoing incident in the director’s own life. Bia’s kitchen is the filmmaker’s own kitchen. Her street, his.

Mendonça Filho’s choice of actors is almost revolutionary for Brazilian cinema and introduces a cast of outstanding talents to international audiences, most notably Irandhir Santos, the entrepreneurial night watchman (who has supporting roles in Elite Squad 2 and Cinema, Aspirin, and Vultures). Television and movies, at least popular ones, tend to use the famous faces from the country’s media-making capitals, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, which favor the light-skinned, blue-eyed thespians from the southern states largely settled by northern Europeans, even if the character hails from less cosmopolitan areas. Accents, which vary greatly around Brazil, are often exaggerated and become a source of mockery, in the way that heavy southern accents are used in the United States to signify “hick” (and slow-witted). Sadly, they are often as badly done; think Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or Sally Field in Steel Magnolias. “It plays to stereotype,” says Mendonça Filho. “The problem is people are making these films that don’t know much about it.”

The only actor in Neighboring Sounds who is not local is Florianopolis native Gustavo Jahn, who plays the real estate agent and nephew of the street’s powerful patriarch and who, we learn in the film, had the opportunity to live abroad. “Unfortunately, we do not have enough local film or television or theater to support a school,” Mendonça Filho tells me, so he used many nonprofessionals for the supporting roles and extras. “We were laughing so hard sometimes, other times [were] deeply moved,” he says about the open casting call. “Two very nervous 12-year olds came to audition, holding hands, and wanted to do a scene from High School Musical, which they did by imitating the São Paulo accents of the overdub actors. It was both delightful and creepy.” (Their bit made it into the final cut and their screen tests became part of the bonus features on the DVD release.)

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The film draws on the myths and history of Brazil’s arid, empty northeast, the location of a bloody battle of secession in Canudos and the hinterlands where the folk hero/one-eyed bandit Lampião plundered and killed with his wandering band of cangaceiros like an equatorial Jesse James, inspiring ballads and literatura de cordel. These references are as discrete as the clues in the script and can be missed by outsiders. When one security guard, blind in one eye, is compared unfavorably to Lampião who was shot down Bonnie and Clyde style in 1938, he responds: “But before that, he took so many with him.” Brazil, Mendonça Filho reminds us, is never too far from its past.

The buzz generated by Neighboring Sounds around the world may bring the director far from home for his next project—although not too far from his cinematic comfort zone. He met Mark Peploe, collaborative screenwriter on Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, and Little Buddha, when they both served as jury members at Locarno in the summer of 2012. After seeing Neighboring Sounds in a special screening at the Swiss festival, Peploe found an cinematic affinity with Mendonça Filho, and the two began to discuss a script Peploe had developed with Michelangelo Antonioni that has been languishing since the 1990s. Based on a short story by the great Italian director, it features a character who takes a lover from the lower classes, an upstairs-downstairs dichotomy Mendonça Filho clearly understands. “It’s not the kind of film that is being made today,” he says when I spoke to him again this past December. “It’s very tense; it reminds me of Polanski in the ’60s.”

— Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published at Fandor in January 2014 and reposted in May 2016 with the opening of Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius at Cannes


Beyond the Bleeding Lede

Caetano Gotardo staunches the sensationalism in The Moving Creatures

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The Moving Creatures

We inhabit a pulp fiction universe. News, magazine features, unscripted TV, crime-time series, movie trailers are all splattered with the bleeding lede and dug-up dirt tailored to grab and hold our attention, until the next salacious thing comes along. We plumb new shallows with click-bait, which constantly screeches at us with empty promises of substance, or at least something juicy. Few get past the gushing artery. We simply tie it off with a few key words—Lone Gunman, Bad Parent, Pederast—shake our heads and click on.

Even as the stories that form the basis of this triptych film are “ripped from the headlines,” The Moving Creatures shuns the sensationalism and soap-opera histrionics normally employed in their telling, and retelling. To make his first fiction feature, writer and director Caetano Gotardo even eschews the who-what-when-where of nut-graph journalism to reframe the stories and refocus our attention on other facts. As Gotardo told Cinética magazine when his film was released two years ago, “We only get a piece, one point of view, and never see them as a whole …. What interested me was the environment, what was around these situations, the everyday.”

Before any proverbial dead body or tragic circumstances are disclosed (but never actually shown), we meet families, observe mundane rituals, are privy to future plans, not to answer how could this have ever happened but to slow down our reaction to it, inhibit the rush to judgment. Each of the three vignettes closes with a lament sung by the central character who is not the culprit nor a victim but rather a mother who has been thrust into a trauma completely out of her control. The songs have a flat melodic line and like the stories themselves do not reach emotionally manipulative crescendos yet are still deeply felt.

Part of a loose film collective based in São Paulo called Filmes do Caixote (literally, “crate” or “bin”), Gotardo has maintained a close affiliation with fellow students from the University of São Paulo School of Communication and Arts (ECA). They share ideas as stories are incubated, critiquing scripts as they are developed, and then, if possible, take part in some aspect of each other’s productions. For example, Moving Creatures’ editor Juliana Rojas wrote and directed Trabalhar Cansa (Hard Labor), a minimalist horror movie that exhumes centuries-old social structures that still undergird contemporary Brazilian society. Her Hard Labor writing partner Marco Dutra also wrote Moving Creatures’ music with director Gotardo, who, in turn, edited as well as played a small role in Hard Labor. Filmes do Caixote collaborators, which include two filmmakers in Rio de Janeiro, also work outside the collective and continue to make shorts, as Rojas told one interviewer in 2013, “it’s all part of the same artistic pursuit.”

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Trabalhar Cansa

None of their films have yet to break through on Brazil’s theatrical circuit despite national quotas for domestic film exhibition. They have toured national festivals, garnering some critical attention for dealing obliquely but effectively with what many hope will remain unaddressed. A few of their movies have been chosen for exhibition abroad, including Gotardo’s short Areia (“Sand”), which opened the 2008 Critics’ Week at Cannes, and Hard Labor, which debuted in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard in 2011. The most well-known to date of the collective’s output and released on DVD by the art-house distributor Lume Filmes, Hard Labor did not reach much of a wider public, facing familiar competition at the box office and in streaming queues: slick comedies starring popular actors of the monolithic Globo network and the superhero action movies out of Hollywood. The Moving Creatures—in Portuguese, O Que Se Move (literally, “What Moves”)—won best fiction feature and best actress for Fernanda Vianna (the mother of the third story) during Rio de Janeiro’s IV Director’s Week. Still, it is practically impossible to rent. Perhaps distribution by the U.S.-based Cinema Slate will spark renewed interest in The Moving Creatures at home.

Even so, it will remain difficult for audiences primed for pulp fiction aesthetics. The suspense created in the initial story generates an expectation for greater tension in the next—which could be blamed on our own (my own, anyway) previous conditioning. Rather than upping the ante from story to story, Gotardo carefully built emotional bridges between them, linking the despair in the concluding dirges to a similar emotional state in the following story. “[T]he cut is something violent, an abandonment,” the director explained to Cinética’s interviewer, “it was important that the characters echoed each other.”

With The Moving Creatures, Gotardo reaches for something necessary. If the stories we choose to tell inform our world, how we tell them is equally important. The perpetual casting of heroes and villains might satisfy some primordial urge but while we continue to be outraged by one and wait to be saved by the other, we ignore other facts. If we slowed down, looked more carefully to consider events and characters as a whole, as porous to the surroundings as the tree root is to the ground, as the cloud is to moisture—maybe if we told and retold that—we might not only foster a more compassionate way to view the world but also to shape one. Whatever else it is, The Moving Creatures raises hope that we might.

— Shari Kizirian © 2015

Originally published in September 2015 on Fandor’s Keyframe blog


Animal Essence: Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull

Dismantling preconceived notions of Brazil’s northeast while allowing the region’s distinctiveness to come through

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Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull

Brazil’s Pernambucano cinema continues to flourish with the latest film by Gabriel Mascaro, Neon Bull (Boi Neon), which took the Horizon prize at the Venice Film Festival last year and recently opened in its home country against a crush of Oscar nominees. Many of the films produced in this region—anchored by the coastal northeastern city of Recife—upend the stereotypes that still make up the television and movie industry’s one-note portrayal of its people and landscape: downtrodden hicks living in an arid wasteland. Like the many artful films of Mascaro’s compatriots, not the least of which are Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds and Mascaro’s fiction feature debut August Winds (2012), Neon Bull dismantles preconceived notions of the northeast and its inhabitants while allowing the region’s distinctiveness to come through.

Itinerant cowhands, small cogs in the country’s agricultural economy, travel from rodeo to rodeo with a herd of white bulls. Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) preps the great beasts for their nightly shows and Galega (played by Neighboring Sounds actress Maeve Jinkings) drives the truck and tends to daughter Cacá (Alyne Santana), who makes clear that she prefers horses to the bulls. Their lives are a constant improvisation. The truck-bed carries the bulls from town to town as well as doubles as their sleeping quarters. Makeshift kitchens are set up near the bull pen or corral, whenever they stop. Even the family unit, held together by something other than blood, is complemented by other cowhands along the way, one, in another gender role twist, who straightens his long brown hair each morning with a flat iron. They travel together, eat together, drink together, dance together, share the occasional wisdom or joke, all the time caring for the bulls and manning the shoots that release them into the arena where they are brutally toppled by men on horseback.

The cowhand Iremar is the center of Neon Bull and, between rodeos, dedicates himself to creating fashions for Galega to wear moonlighting as an exotic dancer. He scavenges fabric and mannequin parts in the dumping ground of a textile factory and pilfers cow tails from rodeo mud to substitute for hair. His sketchpad is the well-worn pages of a skin magazine, the naked bodies models for his creations. As the center Iremar does the most to rejigger stereotypes. He’s shown washing his clothes while Galega lazes on a couch, is knowledgeable about perfume, and is as rough with the bulls as he is gentle with Galega’s daughter Cacá. But no one is one thing or another in Neon Bull.

Mascaro redirects our imaginings of the sertão away from the typical portrayals of despair, poverty, and religious zealotry and away from the cracked dry earth and scrubland as seen in the films of Glauber Rocha, who made myth of the area’s landscapes and demigods of its Wild-West style bandits in the 1960s. In one long take, Iremar crosses a dumping ground near a textile factory to collect the head of a discarded mannequin. The etched earth so long associated with this equatorial geography is covered in scraps of brightly colored fabrics, Iremar’s feet sinking deep into what is actually mud. In another brief sequence, their truck rolls along a high bridge over a deep ravine and nestled among the hills is a sprawling modern factory. Another throwaway moment shows an outcropping of large gray rocks typical of the sertão painted with a trompe d’oeil of a cresting bright blue wave, an inventive advertisement for one man’s local enterprise, “Tropicaus.”

Mascaro even recasts one of (American) cinema’s most iconic images, transforming the widely cited doorway shot from The Searchers from one of alienation to belonging. Iremar sits quietly, knees up to his chest on the threshold of the truck-bed, the softly windblown trees and earthy browns in focus outside. Where the solitary Ethan Edwards is exiled, Neon Bull’s cowboy is allowed to exist comfortably in both realms, or it could be that the barrier between the realms has been erased. The characters are constantly marked off by fences, slats of the truck bed, the crude wooden corral fence, metal bars of security gate at the textile factory, but they always manage to cross them.

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Maeve Jinkings in Neon Bull

Neon Bull doesn’t ignore the area’s problems but highlights them in subtle often humorous ways. Just how far Iremar is from his fashion-designing aspirations is illustrated when he tries to order ten professionally printed labels for his clothing creations. Coronelismo, the restrictive hierarchy of landowners that still runs the northeast, flashes its ubiquitous power when a man who might as well be dressed in jodhpurs unceremoniously swaps one cowhand for another because he needs his skills as a horse whisperer. “It’s all been arranged,” he says as he hurries along the exchange, as if it’s nothing to tear away the beloved Zé in the early hours of the morning and replace him with a stranger. Accustomed to such things the family adapts to its new shape.

Mascaro’s striking imagery will stick with you long after the movie ends. The suede-textured flesh of the bulls against a yellow sunset. A bull carcass, its ribcage exposed, skewered on a giant spit. Cacá coiled in sleep under lace mosquito netting and leaning over the corall railing in twilight, dangling a glowing plastic pegasus with purple fabric wings as if to transform the bulls by magic into horses.

Some imagery recalls Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux, its silhouettes of a two-footed bull and the long shots of people in the landscape. But while Reygadas seems to be evoking the metaphysical, Mascaro is more interested in the material, constantly reminding us of our meat and bone, as closely tied to the Earth as the shitting bulls and the ejaculating black stallion. Galega has sex where the bulls quietly chomp hay and performs in platform shoes outfitted like hooves. There’s an extended sequence of a dozen or so stark naked cowhands bathing en masse, with slapping flesh and splashing water echoes of the bulls’ muffled breathing, groaning, stumbling, snorting.

Mascaro’s most masterful upending has nothing to do at all with Brazilian stereotypes but is more universal. An immersion in the sights, sounds, and textures of nature, Neon Bull shows us how close we humans are to beasts, not so we shun it, tame it, or disguise it, but so we finally see that it is good.

— Shari Kizirian © 2016

 Originally published March 24, 2016


Small World, Big Cinema

Films from Brazil’s Northeast at the 2012 Festival do Rio

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Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds

Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have always dominated Brazil’s film industry. Films that make big splashes on the international festival circuit, City of God, Tropa de Elite, and others before them generally come from one of these hubs. Production facilities, prized vistas, and the majority of the acting talent are located there, where the telenovelas also are made. Posed to become some kind of Pollywood, Paulínia, a town outside the city of São Paulo, is home base for an industry lately churning out movies for the popcorn crowd, all of which seem to star the prodigious Selton Mello, writer, director, and protagonist of Brazil’s 2012 Oscar submission, O Palhaço (The Clown.)

But even in the silent era, several geographic “film cycles” emerged in other parts of the country. Humberto Mauro, from Minas Gerais, is the most famous example, his fiction films being among the few silent features to survive. Manaus in the Amazon, the state of Rio Grande do Sul, land of the gaucho, and Recife, capital of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, all boasted industries, albeit small, far from the urbanized south. With the Brazilian government’s sustained support of the film industry through generous tax incentives and funding opportunities available through state-run agencies, an entire new generation of filmmakers has emerged, and Brazilian cinema is again becoming as diverse as the country itself.

At this year’s Festival do Rio, two films in particular are descendants of the Recife Cycle, all tapping into the northeast’s rich history and folklore. One film is already a hot property on the international festival circuit; the other is destined for the domestic market. (A third, much older descendant, 1953’s O Canto do Mar, part of the Alberto Cavalcanti retrospective, which I discuss in “Fourteen Don’ts by Can-Do Filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti”).

Gonzaga: From Father to Son, which opened the festival on September 27, is Breno Silveira’s second biographical feature based on the lives of beloved Brazilian musicians and is expected to deliver the same kind of box office as Silveira’s 2005 smash hit, Two Sons of San Francisco, about sibling sertanejo musicians. Silveira hails from Goiás, the state out of which the federal district Brasília is carved, and was cinematographer on a number of notable Brazilian features, including the above-mentioned Carlota Joaquim, Andrucha Waddington’s Me You Them (2000), an understated comedy about a woman in the northeast backlands of Brazil living with her three husbands and infused with the lilting music of Gilberto Gil, and José Henrique Fonseca’s Man of the Year (2003), a fast-paced urban mystery-thriller shot in widescreen and in super-saturated colors.

Small World Big Cinema02.Wordpress
Breno Silveira’s Gonzaga: From Father to Son

Silveira begins his biopic of Luiz Gonzaga, the son of an accordion maker who popularized traditional northeastern music, on a shot of the cracked dry earth of the northeastern sertão, an image that has become the iconography of Brazil’s arid backlands in the way that John Ford’s shots of Monument Valley represent the American West. In his performances, Gonzaga adopted the dress of Lampião, the famous Pernambucano vigilante, immediately recognizable by his upturned leather hat, who became a Robin Hood-type folk hero in the early 20th century. The big-sky vistas in Silveira’s films are reminiscent of the landscapes of Luiz Barreto’s O Cangaceiro (The Bandit of Brazil, 1953), about Lampião, and Glauber Rocha’s Cinema Novo films, Black God, White Devil (1964) and Antonio das Mortes (1969), about backland justice.

Gonzaga gives the Hollywood treatment to the northeasterner’s story, exploiting a familiar trope of the talented boy from nowhere with nothing but hopes and dreams who overcomes obstacles, and sustains heartaches, to finally make it big. This storyline resonates with the many Brazilian migrants who left the drought-wracked scrublands looking for prosperity in the urbanized south. Most found only a different kind of misery, in the favelas, which Silveira gives us a small taste of in Gonzaga’s early years in Rio, busking for change on the street and marrying a dime-a-dance girl who later dies of tuberculosis.

The subtitle, “From Father to Son,” refers to Gonzaga’s firstborn, Gonzaguinha (Little Gonzaga), a composer and musician in his own right known for his protest songs during the country’s vicious military dictatorship. The tension between father and son frames the story of Gonzaga’s rise, which is ensured when he returns to his northeastern roots and records the folk tune, “Asa Branca,” turning it into a pop culture commodity and paving the way for other northeastern forms of music, like forró, to break into the mainstream.

The other festival film is already familiar to many international audiences. O Som ao Redor, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, garnered the FIPRESCI Prize at Rotterdam, which was an early champion of the director’s work and funded the script development of this his first fiction feature. Released as Neighboring Sounds in the English-speaking world, it incited American critics to superlatives (“best Brazilian film since the ’70s”) when the film made its U.S. premiere last spring at New York’s New Directors/New Films series.

Set in the director’s hometown of Recife, the capital of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, the film is made on a much smaller scale than the blockbuster-style Gonzaga. Mendonça Filho has almost all the action taking place on one city block, where one-story middle-class homes cluster at the feet of sleek, modern high-rises. The film begins, however, far from the city, with a series of black-and-white archival stills of a sugar cane plantation and its workers, the faces of these folks just one or two generations removed from the characters we are about to meet.

A taut web of interlocking stories, Neighboring Sounds explores the tensions among people living on top of each other, concerned with security and other quality of life issues. The unease is enforced by the soundtrack, punctuated by urban noises: an incessantly barking dog, street vendor carts sporting amplified sound, screeching tires of speeding cars, the water pump, the washing machine, the television, etc. It’s not all sinister, as Mendonça Filho has a light, humanist touch, sometimes using humor to dispel suspense.

Bia, a housewife deprived of sleep by the neighbor’s noisy Weimaraner, lets the water delivery man in the house. As he goes to the kitchen to put down the heavy bottle, she furtively locks the front door. For a moment, we sense danger. Then think, is this an affair? The reason she had a hair-pulling fight with a neighbor earlier in the film? Turns out, he’s her dealer, providing the marijuana that provides tension relief. Mendonça Filho builds the entire film out of such suspenseful scenarios, and we never know which ones will resolve themselves harmlessly, humorously, or end in violence.

In another scene, two freelance security guards call on the man who owns most of the property they are proposing to patrol. One, who has a bum eye, is asked about his suitability for such a job. He immediately defends himself by referring to Lampião, whose own right eye was permanently blinded by an incident with a tree branch: “[He] still managed to bring down a lot of people.” Mendonça Filho reminds us more than once that even on these modern city streets we are never far from the feudal power structure of the backlands—omnipotent colonels, exploited poor, and the avenging outlaw lying in wait.

Several other notable Brazilian features have come out of this northeastern cycle, in the last decade. Claudio Assis’s Mango Yellow (2002), reminiscent of Caro and Jeunet’s stunning 1991 debut Delicatessen, brings together a strange bunch of locals grubbing around on society’s fringes. A public functionary uses the government-issue van to deliver purloined carcasses in exchange for a cache of weed from the burly man with a dead flesh fetish. The bar owner, who sleeps on a bed that fits exactly the dimensions of the backroom where it rests, is dog-tired of being groped, every single day, by her drunken customers. The swishy cook is in love with the butcher who’s cheating on his wife, the fundamentalist Christian with a vengeful streak. All have some connection to the rundown Texas Hotel, with mold growing on the walls as garish as the characters they house. Assis skillfully weaves their destinies into a portrait of an entire underclass stranded in their stations in life.

Frequent collaborators Karim Aïnouz and Marcelo Gomes’s wonderful road movie, I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You (2009), combines documentary footage with a narration by a homesick geologist surveying the backlands for a major public works project. His major concern, however, is coming to grips with his own loneliness. The audience is rarely let outside the narrator’s head, privy not only to the cataloguing of the data he collects (the kind of rock and their densities) but also his running inner monologue, one minute cursing his situation, the next relieved to be alone “It looks like rain,” he complains, as we look out his windshield onto another cloud-laden sky, “then it never rains.” He turns the radio dial but can find nothing worth listening to. Only rarely are we let out of the intimate cocoon with the narrator: once when our geologist, now completely strayed from his assigned task, interviews a prostitute he meets at a local market and, a second time, when a leather worker takes a break to sing a folk song. (Quite possibly an obscure reference to Lampião, who grew up doing leather work on his family’s farm.)

Marcelo Gomes’s 2006 road movie Cinema, Aspirin, and Vultures (co-written by Aïnouz) takes place during World War II in the same sun-bleached backlands. Beautifully shot in the sepia tones of the sertão, the film pairs Ranulpho, a crabby native northeasterner, with Johann, a good-natured German pacifist roaming the Brazilian countryside with his itinerant cinema, using travelogue films to sell aspirin. “Not even bombs reach here,” grouses Ranulpho to Johann, who’d rather not hear the radio reports of the distant world at war. Random hitchhikers occasionally ride along and seem to be let out in the same nowhere from which they emerged. In a small town along the way, they encounter a modern-day colonel (who, incidentally, is named Claudio Assis). Ranulpho immediately sees through the man’s thin veil of gentility, revealing his malevolence, and has a bit of nonviolent revenge with Assis’s obliging wife.

Expect to see more films with northeastern themes by northeastern directors to come out of Brazil in the future. Gomes’s latest film Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica premiered at Toronto in September, Aïnouz is in post-production a new film, and Mendonça Filho told me he’ll pick up work on a new script after he finishes touring with Neighboring Sounds, which most recently played the London Film Festival. If Brazil continues to support its film industry in this way, fostering new talent across the country, the future may well bring many new voices from regions we’ve yet had the chance to explore.

—  Shari Kizirian © 2012

 Originally published October 2012


Fourteen Don’ts by Can-Do Filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti

“without a cinema, there cannot be, today, a great nation”

Cavalcanti’s O Canto do Mar

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Alberto de Almeida Cavalcanti, often billed simply as Cavalcanti, was a truly international filmmaker, working in France, England, Israel, East Germany, Romania, and his home country. Fresh from architect school in Geneva, he began a long career in film as a set designer for Marcel L’Herbier, at a time when art still trumped commercial concerns. He went on to direct his own avant-garde films, beginning with Rein que les heures (1926), a symphony film about a day in the life of the city of Paris. When talkies became the industry norm, he became an expert in sound recording and was Paramount’s man in Europe, shooting remakes of Hollywood movies in Portuguese and French (to the chagrin of some of his former colleagues). In 1934, as part of the newly established GPO film unit in England, he became, among other things, the go-to sound guy, designing a musique concrète-style soundtracks for Coal Face (1935), a short documentary about Britain’s coal industry, and Night Mail (1936), easily the GPO’s most famous product. He headed the unit after Grierson’s departure in 1937 and, according to historian Charles Drazin, he “cast a long shadow” over GPO, even after he had left.

The didactic purposes of the unit had grown tiresome for Cavalcanti, who preferred the term “realist” over documentary, and, in 1940, he joined Michael Balcon’s Ealing Studio, where his realism/artworld sensibilities and technical proficiency made another lasting impact. He oversaw the production of the studio’s wartime documentary output and also directed an astonishing variety of feature films himself, including an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947), the war movie, Went the Day Well? (1942), based on a Grahame Greene story about a sleepy English hamlet infiltrated by a stealth battalion of German soldiers, and the charming Champagne Charlie (1944), set in London’s music halls and featuring the great Stanley Holloway (who later played Eliza Doolittle’s father in My Fair Lady). He also directed a section of Dead of Night (1945), in which he inaugurated a now well-worn cinema trope of the mad ventriloquist and his creepy, domineering dummy. And, his They Made Me a Fugitive (1947) combined his social-issue concerns with noir visuals and a crime-world storyline, laced with self-deprecating British witticisms impeccably delivered by Trevor Howard and Sally Gray. Balcon gave due credit to Cavalcanti in his memoirs for Ealing’s signature style: “It was Cavalcanti’s close association with me which provided the force from which emerged what are now thought of en bloc … as the Ealing films.”

Throughout his film career, his social and political concerns shine through. From Rien que les heures, which focuses on the city’s work-a-day world, to Nicholas Nickleby, a quest for suitable employment that reveals just how unfair the exchange of labor for wages really is. Even in Champagne Charlie, whose frothy narrative is propelled primarily by the performance of drinking songs, dramatic tension is derived from a drawing room-dressing room romance and the low-class music hall’s survival in the face of a powerful, disapproving aristocracy.

Cavalcanti’s prestige abroad ultimately brought him home to Brazil, where he was asked to run the newly established Vera Cruz Studio in São Paulo, a mid-century attempt at developing a national cinema using Hollywood studio practices—high-production values and a star system—to tell Brazilian stories. While there, he was involved in Adolfo Celci’s O Caiçara (1950) and Lima Barreto’s O Cangaceiro (The Bandit of Brazil, 1953), among the first Brazilian productions to compete at Cannes. Before leaving Brazil, under pressure from a conservative government blinkered by Cold War anticommunism, he directed his own Cannes competition film, O Canto do Mar (1953), a remake of his 1928 French silent En rade, and an early entry in the Brazilian genre of films about the country’s impoverished northeast, shot on location in Pernambuco and featuring nonprofessional actors.

England and Brazil have drawn recent attention to Cavalcanti, with BFI Southbank’s summer program of his films, the London Film Festival’s “Dark Ealing” program going on now, and a selection of his films at the recently concluded Festival do Rio. Writers on both sides of the Atlantic have lamented that no biography has yet been written of this man who was a major force in three national cinemas. In his own book, the 1951 Filme e realidade (Film and Reality), he flatly states that “without a cinema, there cannot be, today, a great nation,” and encourages Brazil to pursue documentary as a form to tell its stories. “Hygiene, agriculture, thousands of other issues await. They are more absorbing than adultery, the detective novel, cheap folklore, easy sentimentality, and false poetry.” Then he gets right down to telling how, or rather, how not, with a list of 14 Don’ts for the documentary filmmaker, which, true to Cavalcanti form, easily applies across genres.

  1. Don’t portray general subject matter. Write an article about the post office but make a film about a letter.
  2. Don’t deviate from the principle that there are three fundamental elements of documentary: the social, technical, and poetic.
  3. Don’t neglect your plot, nor rely on chance during filming: when your plot is ready, your movie is made. To start shooting, you just begin it again.
  4. Don’t rely on voiceover commentary to tell your story: the images and the soundtrack should do that. Commentary is annoying and funny commentary even more so.
  5. Don’t forget, when filming, that each take is part of a sequence and each sequence is part of the whole: the best take inserted out of place is worse than the most banal one.
  6. Don’t invent camera angles when they aren’t necessary; they are distracting and destroy emotion.
  7. Don’t overuse rapid cutting; an accelerated rhythm can be just as monotonous as pompous long takes.
  8. Don’t use music in excess; if you do, the audience stops hearing it.
  9. Don’t overload your film with synchronized sound effects: sound is best when used suggestively. Complementary sounds are the best soundtrack.
  10. Don’t commission a lot of complicated optical effects: dissolves, “fade-ins” and “outs” help to punctuate your film. They are your commas, semicolons, and periods.
  11. Don’t shoot a lot of close-ups: save them for the climax. In a well-balanced film, they appear natural; when excessive, they tend to choke a film and lose meaning.
  12. Don’t hesitate to deal with human elements and human relations: human beings can be as beautiful as other animals, as beautiful as machines or a landscape.
  13. Don’t confuse your topic: a true story can be told clearly and simply. However, clarity and simplicity do not necessarily negate the need for dramatization.
  14. Don’t lose the opportunity to experiment: documentary achieved prestige through experimentation. Without experimentation, the documentary loses its value. Without experimentation, the documentary would cease to exist.

—  Shari Kizirian © 2012

Originally published October 2012 on the editorial pages of Fandor

José Padilha: Truth and Daring

Despite his impressive track record in documentary, Padilha recognizes the benefits of fiction as a wider reaching and more appealing vehicle for conveying what most people prefer not think about.

Padilha on the set of Tropa de Elite
José Padilha on the set of Tropa de Elite (Photo by David Prichard)

José Padilha’s two fiction features about the police who patrol the frontlines of Brazil’s drug war broke box-office records for domestic films in a country dominated by Hollywood-produced fare. The first, Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad, 2007), earned $20-million, the most for any Brazil-made films released that year, as well as garnered the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival. Its sequel, Tropa de Elite 2 (2010), was the country’s submission for the 2012 Academy Awards and earned an unprecedented $103 million, more than twice the box-office take of the next highest ranking Brazilian-made film, a gender-reversal comedy starring two renowned telenovela actors; almost three times Dois Filhos de Francisco, a fictional account of the lives of two beloved Brazilian musicians; and more than six times 2002’s City of God, the last Brazilian feature to become an international hit. Still, Padilha would rather make documentaries. In a 2009 interview he told me that he would have made a nonfiction film from the best-selling book co-written by former members of the specialized police force, if he hadn’t feared for his life.

Having studied math and physics in school, Padilha later switched from an unsatisfying banking career to filmmaking, figuring that documentaries would allow him to combine his interests in science and reality. “I thought making a documentary would be easy,” he admits, smiling. He was raised in an elite cultural milieu that included his godfather, playwright Nelson Rodrigues, brother of sportswriter Mário Filho, whose name graces Rio de Janeiro’s storied soccer stadium (nicknamed Maracana). Rodrigues’s provocative plays are credited with modernizing Brazilian theater in the 1940s and have been adapted often for film and television. Rodrigues’s own sons made films and Padilha’s father, a scientist turned businessman, executive-produced two of them. Padilha says he “grew up around film sets,” but when it came time to make his own, no decent film school had yet been established in Brazil.

Padilha’s background in finance helped him to maximize the country’s generous tax incentives, established in 1994, to fund his first project. Knowing it was difficult to raise money in the U.S. at that time, he enticed Oscar-winner Nigel Noble from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to direct a documentary based on Marcos Prado’s award-winning photo series about charcoal production. Padilha also was aware of Noble’s impatience for television commissioning editors who interfere in aesthetic decisions. “Nigel was famous for throwing a roll of negative at a National Geographic producer. We recognized the same spirit in each other,” Padilha says. Noble agreed to make The Charcoal People and, at the same time, teach the aspiring filmmaker. “It was a naïve move,” says Padilha, laughing. “[It] turned out to be the most expensive film school ever.”

The Charcoal People by Nigel Noble

The resulting documentary is a beautiful, moving portrait of the laborers who subsist making charcoal and an elegy to the forests sacrificed for the process. It went on to compete at Sundance. “We thought it was easy,” he confesses of his budding career. National Geographic’s Explorer Channel then commissioned his next project, to be based once again Prado’s photographs. “Initially, [they thought] who are they? What guarantees these Brazilians won’t take Nat Geo money and run,” Padilha tells me. He called up Noble and asked him to contact the channel on his behalf. Os Pantaneiros, about the vanishing cowboy culture and wildlife habitat of Brazil’s sprawling wetlands, became the most popular doc on Brazilian TV at the time. Padilha and Prado’s partnership, Zazen Productions, has since yielded award-winning documentaries by both directors, Padilha’s Tropa de Elite features, and, expected in April of 2012, Prado’s first fiction feature, Artificial Paradises, about the ecstasy generation.

Padilha is still best-known in the United States for the Emmy-winning Bus 174 (2002). The BBC Storyville-commissioned film makes use of plentiful news footage shot of a bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro, including the image of police shooting and killing one of the hostages. Padilha reconstructed the chaotic scene and intercut it with a narrative of the life of the hijacker, a street kid who had survived the infamous Candelária massacre in 1993. It is not only a skillful condemnation of Rio police’s bungling and cruelty but also revealed to Brazilians, who were prone to vilify the hijacker, the cycle of poverty that led this hopeless young man to violence. The incident was adapted into a fiction film by Bruno Barreto, Última Parada 174 (2008).

Garapa (2009) covers a different kind of systemic violence. Made to put a human face on the statistics of chronic hunger, it follows three mothers in Brazil’s drought-stricken northeastern state of Ceará as they deal with the prolonged absence of food, drunken fathers, and indifference of politicians who would gain little by helping a population who lack the documents to vote. Padilha shot on 35mm black-and-white film using only available light and finished it with no musical soundtrack, creating a kind of poetic cinema of deprivation. The film, named for the mixture of sugar and water used to stave off hunger, bears intimate witness to these families’ heartbreaking reality. Padilha told me that each family’s story unfolds with few temporal liberties taken, as he wanted to avert criticism of trying magnifying the problem in the editing room. After its premiere in São Paulo in 2009, he told the audience: “I get no pleasure showing this film.” Despite its artistry, the film is very hard to watch. One Brazilian journalist wrote after seeing it, “I’m not a masochist, but to take a beating by Padilha has only been good for Brazilian cinema.”

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Secrets of the Tribe

The next beating was sustained by an academic discipline. Secrets of the Tribe (2010), his second BBC commission, is a rat-a-tat-tat juxtaposition of illustrious talking heads debating accusations of genocide, pederasty, and other atrocities leveled at anthropologists in Patrick Tierney’s book-length exposé, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. The interviews quickly digress into childish personal attacks. “Anthropology’s methodology is totally flawed. Each anthropologist finds exactly the evidence to fit their paradigm,” says Padilha. “To destroy the data you have to destroy the person.” The documentary would be comical if the situation wasn’t so tragic for the Yanomami, the native culture that has been the subject of intense study since “first contact” was made in the 1940s. In Secrets, the Yanomami finally get a voice: “You people,” one tribesman says at the beginning, “should be ignorant of us.”

Despite his impressive track record in documentary, Padilha recognizes the benefits of fiction as a wider reaching and more appealing vehicle for conveying what most people prefer not think about. Both of his Tropa de Elite films incited spirited discussions in the national media about the use of force by Rio’s BOPE, the elite squad of the title, which has largely been praised by the middle and upper classes who value their own safety first. Last year, when the city began expelling drug dealers from certain favelas and installing an occupation force, Padilha appeared on a panel news show discussing the pacification process. News footage captured during one of the invasions could have been a scene in either Tropa de Elite: a group of unarmed men, some bare-chested, escaping through the tall grass were picked off from a helicopter by police with automatic rifles. Once you purge the slums of drug dealers, I recall Padilha saying on the program, you are left with the police.

Reflecting on Padilha’s body of work so far, it’s tempting to see a parallel with his godfather, no stranger to controversy himself. Unknown in the United States, Rodrigues wrote what he called “unpleasant theater,” plays that strip away society’s polite veneer, revealing hypocrisy, corruption, and depravity simmering just beneath. That is to say, Rodrigues pissed off a lot of people, in particular the Church’s bishops, and many of his works suffered censorship and critical vituperation. As the world has recently seen club-wielding, pepper-spraying cops assaulting peaceful protesters across the United States, it seems fitting that Padilha’s first project for Hollywood is slated to be a remake of Robocop, whose script is currently in development. Maybe a Padilha-style beating will also be good for American cinema.

—  Shari Kizirian © 2012

Originally published in February 2012 and reposted on Fandor in February 2014 for the opening of Robocop


A Camera in Hand, an Idea in Mind

Eryk Rocha’s archival documentary “Cinema Novo” pulses with the lifeblood of Brazil’s vital cinema movement.

Clip from Carlos Diegues’s Os Herdeiros in Cinema Novo

In the 1950s a group of filmmakers from across Brazil unhappy with the Hollywood-style aspirations of its national industry got together and decided to make a change. The stories in glossy packaging that might seem universal to Paramount and MGM had little or nothing to do with Brazilian reality and helped foster a blindness to it and an ineptness in improving it. Just as upstarts in Italy and France had created two of the most influential cinemas of the twentieth century, Neorealism and the Nouvelle Vague, cinephiles, journalists, critics, film professionals, and aspiring directors in Brazil agitated for a new language. The lightweight cameras, faster film stock, and portable sound equipment that made street shooting possible in all kinds of light freed filmmaking from the studio, and Cinema Novo was born. Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Caca Diegues, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Leon Hirszman, Paulo César Saraceni, Glauber Rocha, and others hand-carried their cameras (well, the daring cinematographer Dib Lutfi actually did a lot of the “carrying”) onto city streets, up the steep and narrow favela passageways, out into the vast sertão, coastal fishing villages, and rural backwaters to bring distinctly Brazilian stories to Brazilian screens.

These are the basic facts, which you can pick up in any rudimentary world cinema history or even on Wikipedia. But its spirit, from its heady beginnings, as it matured with the growth of the individual artists, then rebounded in the face of political repression is not something that can be conveyed by chronological bullet points. Eryk Rocha, son of Cinema Novo’s most famous creator, Glauber Rocha, has spent the last decade sifting through archives for clips from this non-doctrinaire school of cinema, which blurred fiction and documentary, put the poor and working class in the center frame, cast black and Indian and northeastern actors as protagonists, elevated folklore, and smashed the myth of a monolithic culture inhabited by an elite descended primarily from Europeans. Rocha selected the familiar and obscure, the black-and-white and color, 4:3 and widescreen, television interviews and production footage, stitching together a history that pulses with the vigor of the movement itself.

For Cinema Nova, which screened in November 2016 as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Contender series, Rocha worked again with Renato Vallone who edited Rocha’s ode to Brazil’s national pastime, Sunday Ball, and uses some of the same techniques, letting seemingly disparate clips jar each other or seamlessly glide one after the other, juxtaposing themes, matching movement, and allowing the soundtrack from one film to speak for another. In a long, overhead shot, Luíza Maranhão runs frantically through the sand dotted with palms along some unnamed shore, a cangaceiro on horseback cutting through thickets of cactus in the sertão close on her heels from another film. The pursuit continues in yet another film, eventually tapering into the slowing footfalls of a desperate man in a suit jacket breathless in some stark urban locale. Later, Black God, White Devil’s Othon Bathos calls out for “two shots of gunfire” and rifles from two subsequent films oblige, crumbling a large rockface in another film entirely.

In one of the most exhilarating segments of Cinema Nova, a young Fernanda Montenegro reveling in a steady downpour in Leon Hirszman’s A Falecida is spliced into Ana Esmeralda mid-twirl under a rainfall of confetti in Luis Person’s São Paulo, Sociedade Anônima, which in turn segues into a blissed-out, sparkle-faced Anecy Rocha (the filmmaker’s aunt) in Walter Lima Jr.’s A Lira do delírio. The sequence doubles as an homage to the women of Cinema Novo, who are used to their role as muses. In what seems a gentle rebuke to the chauvinism of the time (not just in Cinema Novo), Rocha later lets an interview clip play through to an awkward moment. During a cross-cultural gathering of directors, the Brazilian and French filmmakers are introduced to the camera—including direct cinema pioneers Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin—when the cameraman almost does a double-take before holding on the Venezuelan director of Araya, and the only woman in the room: “Oh, I forgot,” says the interlocutor, “Margot Benacerraf ….” Makers of African descent were even rarer.

Rocha sticks mainly to the films of the 1960s, a period he has correctly said is the most fecund of the movement but also includes snippets from Cinema Novo’s antecedents in the silent era, Mario Peixoto’s dizzying Brazilian classic Limite and films by Humberto Maura (who also made 300 short documentaries during his long association with the National Institute of Educational Cinema). Glauber Rocha called Mauro “the godfather of Cinema Novo” and the veteran filmmaker even wrote the Tupi dialogue for Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s 1971 satire, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchmen. These filmmakers often worked on each others’ films throughout their careers and Cinema Novo captures the shared warmth of these filmmakers with footage of them joking around, having drinks, and playing ping pong (the one always smoking the cigars is Ruy Guerra, director of 1961’s Os fuzis, or The Guns).

The movement suffered a stunning setback when dark conservative forces maneuvered their way into power, ending Brazil’s pro-worker democracy in 1964. The filmmakers still managed to make and release films, even after 1968 when an even harder-line faction within the military, fearful of increasing protests, invoked law and order to further override constitutional protections and tighten control of the country’s resources. It embarked on a deadly witchhunt, imprisoning, torturing, and killing the opposition, which included writers, playwrights, singers, and filmmakers. Cinema Novo directors again changed their filmmaking styles in response—mostly from exile—hoodwinking censors with allegorical films like the above-mentioned How Tasty and the searing satire, Macunaíma, adapted from the 1928 novel by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade after his brief detainment by the dictatorship. Macunaíma features prominently in Cinema Novo, with clips of Grande Otelo dropping from the womb, fully grown, onto a dirt floor and, then later transformed into Paulo José, unleashing an arrow that plummets an overfed specimen into the human feijoada stewing in the pool below.

Some reviewers have expressed frustration that few of the clips are identified. I had to do a bit of digging for some names and moments that I mention here, even as I’ve seen many of the titles over the years. Rocha lists the quoted films in the end credits, but they go by too fast to do anyone any good in the theater. But this is not a film for that kind of note-taking—its purpose is not to itemize but incarnate. Yet you will still leave the theater with enough information in your head to start exploring on your own (Vidas Secas by Pereira dos Santos might be a good place to start). And, you’ll want to, as the documentary has a deep resonance beyond its historical subject matter.

While Cinema Novo was well received by intellectuals at home and abroad, garnering prizes most notably at Cannes, the films rarely made a dent in the theaters of the day. They set out to show Brazil to Brazilians but faced two daunting obstacles: an exhibition circuit dominated by Hollywood imports and public perception that films made in-country were of poor quality. In fact, some Brazilian films released domestically included Portuguese subtitles because sound recording quality was so low. Even as quality increased and the outside world bestowed its imprimatur, the perception remained that these movies didn’t measure up, or, maybe, didn’t reflect back the kind of Brazil audiences wanted to see. Despite governmental support in the form of tax breaks and exhibition quotas renewed with gusto in the mid-1990s, these problems persist today. Brazilian comedies or historical dramas about popular figures made with well-known names do well, but it’s a once-in-a-blue moon film that can outdo the latest CGI marvel. But box office isn’t the only goal and, if nothing else, Cinema Novo and this namesake documentary demonstrate that small ripples eventually make waves.

Completed in a year that saw Brazilian president and former political prisoner Dilma Rousseff impeached for a budgetary sleight of hand that pales in comparison to the corruption of her deposers, this documentary comes at a crucial time for the country and its artists. Introducing the film at Cannes 2016, Rocha, whose own father was marked for death by the military regime for voicing opposition abroad, condemned the impeachment as nothing short of a coup, rightwing forces within the government achieving what they could not at the ballot box. The next day at Cannes another Brazilian film premiered, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, about the ongoing assault of greed on the livability of daily life (which also screened as part of MoMA’s 2016 Contenders series). Mendonça Filho used the opportunity of the red carpet to tell the world the truth about what was happening back home when he and some compatriots (including Aquarius star Sonia Braga and Neighboring Sounds star Maeve Jinkings) held up signs that read: “A Coup d’Etat Took Place in Brazil.” The action earned him the ire of vocal members of a government-appointed committee convened to select the country’s Oscar submission, which later declined to consider his film even as it would have provided a competitive edge. Two other strong candidates, Anna Muylaert’s Don’t Call Me Son and Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull, withdrew from consideration in solidarity. These are small, courageous gestures of the kind that Americans themselves might have to start practicing in the coming years and hope they generate even a portion of the ripples made by Cinema Novo.

— Shari Kizirian © 2016

Originally published November 18, 2016, on the editorial pages of Fandor