The Chicago Latino Film Festival premiered in the meaning-loaded year of 1984, and numerous films it has presented over the years have turned the tables on the all-controlling Big Brother, as filmmakers cast a bright light on political, social, and economic realities all over Latin America, as well as communicate the unique cultures of Latino communities around the world for interested audiences. Brazil is a country that will get its glaring place in the sun with this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio; I Swear I’ll Leave This Town offers an indirect, but pungent look at the social and political shenanigans that likely are afoot at this very moment.
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town is set not in Rio, but in Renife, the home town of the film’s director and a big city that sounds like the Brazilian equivalent of Chicago. It has more than 3.7 million people in its metropolitan area and is a port city that gets its name from the stone reefs that line the city shores. Those reefs provide a metaphor for the stone wall the film’s main protagonist, Joli Dornelles (Bianca Joy Porte), hits up against as she tries to start her life over after a long stint in rehab for a severe cocaine addiction.
The film’s opening scene shows a nude Joli trying to escape from the hospital, fighting two guards, and eventually turning a fire extinguisher on them before being subdued. As he looks on a straitjacketed Joli, who insists she’s cured, the medical director (Luis Carlos Miéle) decides to curse her by granting her wish to leave and predicts that she’ll be back sooner rather than later. Like all addicts, the worst possible scenario for recovery is to return to the milieu in which they were using—and, of course, that’s exactly what happens to Joli.
Joli’s boyfriend, Hugo (Sérgio Marone), fetches her by private helicopter and returns her to her well-heeled politico father, Antonio (Zécarlos Machado). Even though he must have expected her arrival, Antonio and the throng of people gathered on the expansive lawn of his modernist estate for a party treat her like a pariah. He gives her the toughest-love greeting I’ve seen in many a day and orders her to be on call whenever needed to help his campaign to become mayor of Renife.
Every attempt Joli makes to start her life over outside the orbit of her father is dashed before it really starts. He makes sure she loses her job at a restaurant, and when he finds a spoon her friend Manuela (Ana Moreira) brought over to her apartment to cook crack in, he rejects her honest pleas of innocence and has a thug drug her with a tranquilizer. She wakes up in his house. From that moment on, virtually every move Joli makes is controlled by her father, from making commercials to support his candidacy, to accepting Hugo’s marriage proposal, to heading up a recovery program for drug addicts from poor neighborhoods.
Director Aragão has created a free-wheeling, hallucinatory tale that peers inside the kaleidoscope of corruption, sexism, hypocrisy, and classism that characterizes parts of Brazilian politics and society. In today’s atmosphere of celebrity confession and public absolution, Joli could be seen as an indulged brat whose every fall will be cushioned, but her only real privilege was to be shunted away for medical treatment instead of locked in prison when the pain of her life had her reaching for a coke spoon. The depths of her enslavement to her ambitious father are truly horrifying to witness from the inside. Antonio wouldn’t know what to do if she were ever really well, and his role as saboteur seems perfectly in character with his self-serving, snobbish attempts to solve Renife’s problems by obliterating the riff raff and building luxury condos and retail stores on top of their ashes. He doesn’t hesitate to use violence to undo a damaging remark Joli made on live television, nor does Hugo, when he punches her out after she starts laughing uncontrollably following a hand job she forces on him. Indeed Hugo’s engagement to Joli seems pretty darn close to a proxy marriage to Antonio. In the end, her only defense against her father and Hugo and is to slip their bonds by going insane. Joli descends into catatonia, and Antonio agrees to have her brought around through the barbarity of electroshock therapy. It would have been better for him if he’d left her staring mute and motionless into space, but what fun is it to torture someone who can’t react.
Aragão thoroughly scrambles Joli’s world, plunging the audience into her sense of disorientation along with her as his brilliantly variable camera roams freely and his narrative becomes unhinged. Joli’s sexual activities and provocations, including a lengthy masturbation scene and a humorous attempted seduction of her auto mechanic, are reminiscent of the anarchic sexual freedoms found in the Brazilian classic Macunaíma (1969). In general, the film seems energized in the same way as many of the politically and socially provocative films of the Cinema Novo movement that Aragão says influenced his approach to I Swear I’ll Leave This Town. Bianca Joy Porte does most of the heavy lifting in this film, and her magnetic performance deservedly won her a best actress award at the 2014 Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival.
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town is a confusing and often disturbing experience, but it’s also a funny, exhilirating tribute to the power of the oppressed to survive. To those who break the rules for their own gain, be forewarned—what goes around comes around.
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town screens Saturday, April 9 at 8 p.m. and Monday, April 11 at 8 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
“Life is a casting off,” Arthur Miller wrote for the character of Linda Loman in his towering play Death of a Salesman. In context, Linda is consoling her despondent husband Willie about the fact that his favorite son Biff will not inherit their house when they die to raise his own family because he has done nothing to establish a life for himself. Linda reminds him that we gradually lose everything, and in the end, have no real say about what future generations do with what we have left behind. “It’s always that way,” she says. But is there no way for something to endure? The Invisible Collection suggests that the one thing that remains after all else has fallen away is memory, and that remembering that which we love has particular power.
Beto (Vladimir Brichta) is a young Brazilian who is enjoying life in Salvador with his circle of 20-something friends. They smoke pot, joke with each other, drink, and dance like young people everywhere. After playing a game of telling what they’d like to be reincarnated as, they go clubbing. When they are ready to move on to another hot spot, Beto is called out of his car by some guys to whom he owes money for hauling his sound equipment around. His friends decide to drive off without him. The next time he sees them, they are lying under white sheets, all dead following a horrific car crash. Overcome with feelings of grief and survivor guilt, Beto is given an opportunity to get out of Salvador and earn some money for his financially struggling mother Iolande (Conceição Senna) by coaxing a former customer of his dead father’s antique store to part with some valuable prints for a German exhibitor.
He travels to the town of Itajuípe in a region filled with cocoa plantations, where the rich collector lives. When he gets there, he finds that a fungus the locals call “the witch plague” has decimated the cocoa fields. His wealthy plantation owner/collector, Mr. Samir (Walmor Chagas), is now blind and financially strapped, and his daughter Clara (Clarisse Abujamra) is keeping what’s left of the plantation going with a skeleton crew. With Clara and her mother Saada (Ludmila Rosa) openly hostile to Beto’s attempts to meet with Samir, the young man seems unlikely to fulfill his mission. Eventually, his stalking of the plantation house bears fruit, as he spies Samir on the veranda and approaches him. Evoking his father’s friendship with Samir, Beto gets an invitation from the old man to come back the following day to view his prized collection of prints. What awaits him will help assuage his grief and motivate him to return to his life in Salvador.
Memory is a slippery thing. I’ve discovered more than once that I remember an incident from my childhood that my brother has forgotten entirely, or that we remember an incident differently. It’s hard to know why memories fog and change, but without them, life doesn’t seem worth living—just ask people who are slowly going blank from Alzheimer’s disease. Many people try to achieve immortality through their works and monuments—novels written, wings of hospitals funded and named, appearances in movies made. Yet it is the personal relationships that we forge over a lifetime that carry on our legacy in a hundred large and small ways. My voice sounds like my mother’s. My neighbor inherits and carries on the family business with the same customer service she learned from her parents. A friendship forged years ago fuels the hubby’s interest in poetry. An A+ grade a teacher gave me on my unconventional approach to a writing assignment gave me the confidence to write in my own way. Conversely, a comment I made on a high school student’s blog has stayed with him and informed his outlook as he goes on to become a filmmaker. When we speak with our authentic voices and feel with our authentic feelings, the threads we send out anchor us to the world far better than a weathered statue with a name that, in time, only historians will recognize.
Beto experiences the churning of memory during his stay in Itajuípa. He awakens groggy and disoriented from a dream of his friends dancing in the nightclub on the day of their death. He reminisces with a cab driver who hauls him to the plantation day after day about coming to the region with his father. Later, Beto dreams of one of those trips, an incident in which Clara angrily soils his shirt with fermented cocoa turned into messy snacking in the back seat of his father’s car. Director Attal understands the meaning of certain dream appearances that soothe us with fond memories of things past and connect us with our present.
Not all things past are soothing, of course. As Beto wanders through the empty workers’ quarters on the plantation, with a living reminder of the minority workers who must have slaved for the white plantation owners embodied in the person of Wesley (Wesley Macedo), a poor, black kid who tags along with Beto, the harshness of history edges into the picture—an invisible collection of a different kind. This movie is not, however, terribly interested in making any strong political statements; it is more of a piece with such films as Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (1958), an elegy for a formerly grand lifestyle in which art means more to Samir than his plantation. When we reach the climactic scene in which Samir examines his collection in his mind’s eye with the joy of one who has memorized every line, color, and figure in every matchless piece of art, we can’t help but be moved by the love that brightens his world of blindness. Clara and Saada see that by trying to shield him from sharing his collection with Beto or anyone else, they have been robbing him of the memories that express his humanity at its best.
I was profoundly moved by the genial performance of Chagas, and enjoyed watching Brichta unwrap his character both from his carelessness before the accident and his distance after it. I thought the women in this film were treated with less understanding and logic. Iolande is characterized mainly as an unstable, selfish woman, Saada as a rude and unreasonable caretaker, and Clara, a mass of anger and hardness. It takes Beto to set them all to right, though Iolande seems a lost cause, and that tinge of sexism mars the film for me—but not enough to turn a blind eye to the film’s poignant pleasures. The Invisible Collection has left me with a fond memory of my own.
The Invisible Collection screens Thursday, October 17, 8:40 p.m., Friday, October 18, 6:15 p.m., and Tuesday, October 22, 3:30 p.m at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. Director Bernard Attal is scheduled to attend the Thursday and Friday screenings. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
Stranger by the Lake: A lake in summer is the setting for a close exploration of the mating rituals of gay cruisers and the fatal attraction that envelopes one of the regulars to the lake. (France)
Brazil, as a country, is generally divided into five regions: the North, the Northeast, the Central-West, the Southeast, and the South. So when director Eduardo Nunes names his first feature Southwest, it must be assumed that we are entering a place more of the imagination than of representation. We will see many things that behave as they do in the real world, but we must also be prepared to open ourselves up to illogic, magic, the impossible, to experience what Nunes has in store for us—a fairy tale with as much grace and ghastliness as anything offered by the Grimm brothers.
Right from the opening shot, the opposing forces of water and earth—the unconscious and the conscious—that will work on our heroine throughout the film are mixed. It is night, and a horsedrawn cart is seen moving along a dirt road through a veil of reeds in the foreground, bringing a old woman (Léa Garcia) who could be mistaken for nothing but a shaman to an inn. She is greeted at the door by a nervous younger woman, Concepção ((Dira Paes). They enter the inn and watch as the innkeeper empties a coffeepot and starts filling it with water. She and the old woman climb some crooked steps to the second floor. The old woman, Iraci, disappears behind a door as Concepção stands outside in the hall fretting and then runs downstairs to fetch the pan of hot water the innkeeper has prepared. Ah yes, a birth is about to take place.
Unfortunately, when Concepção enters the room, we see with her the wide, dead eyes of the mother-to-be. Iraci is chanting and brushing evil spirits away from the baby still trapped in the mother’s womb. She asks Concepção what the girl’s name was. “Clarice” is the answer. Soon, the cart is taking the women and, miraculously, the baby away from the inn. Iraci places the baby in the bow of a rowboat, climbs in, and rows to her house on stilts in the middle of a lake.
The villagers have fallen on hard times, as the fish and salt they harvest from the lake—formerly part of the Atlantic Ocean—are both diminishing. They blame Iraci, generally acknowledged to be a witch, for these misfortunes. Some curious children row out to her house, and 9-year-old João (Victor Navega Motta) climbs onto the wooden stilts to have a look inside. He sees a girl about his age between the slats; he forces a wooden shutter open, and a quick cut finds him sailing humorously into the water, presumably from a forceful shove. Soon thereafter, the girl emerges and rows her boat to shore.
The rest of the film follows this girl who says her name is Clarice as she goes from a child who has not yet learned a language to an old woman, apparently in the span of a single day. As she progresses through childhood (Rachel Bonfante), young womanhood and middle age (Simone Spoladore), and finally, old age (Regina Bastos), we learn the story of the dead woman in the inn whose spirit and memories the miracle Clarice seems to embody.
While Iraci does indeed seem to possess the powers of magic, the film casts her more as a fairy godmother as it mixes pre-Christian and Christian symbology. Iraci ties a seashell on a string around the baby’s neck, a symbol of the feminine unconscious that moves through her and protects her even as she emerges to her own conscious history by coming into contact with her family and the village. The part of the film during which Clarice as a young woman appears to be raped by her costumed and disguised father (Julio Adrian) occurs during Folia de Reis (Three Kings’ Day), a celebration of the birth of Christ; the miracle Clarice is born in an ancient inn with Concepção (Conception) as witness.
The script, written by Nunes and Guillermo Sarmiento, is exceptionally smart in slowly revealing Clarice’s story and requiring her to fulfill her destiny. Clarice ends up in her own room with her family. She sits on the floor looking into a box of ribbons when she sees her father peering in through the partially open door. She runs to the door, slams it, and locks it. Later, her mother (Marina Lima), grieving over the death of her daughter (“She was also named Clarice,” she says when the young visitor reveals her name), tells the young woman Clarice that her daughter started talking nonsense one day, a clue that she revealed who the father of her child was. Her tormented mother says only that she fears being alone to suggest why she and her rapist husband are still together.
Later, Clarice sees that the villagers have finally acted on their fear of the witch by burning her house. Clarice rows out to the house but reaches it just as it collapses in flames; she cannot return to her fairy godmother and must die as she was meant to, finding peace that she has been able to see her loved ones, experience the joys and sorrows of life one more time, understanding some of what happened to her. It is implied by Clarice dying as an old woman that a truly full life is one that experiences peace and understanding, if only for a single day.
Shot in widescreen black and white by Mauro Pinheiro Jr. to emphasize the extrareality of the situation, this film is absolutely stunning. Every frame is carefully composed, like an illustration in a book of fairy tales, yet the film also offers some wonderful discoveries of life in this region of Brazil (Pontal do Massambaba, near the district of Monte Alto in Arraial do Cabo). I was fascinated by the salt “farms” and the simple way the workers extract the salt from the water by spreading the water to aid evaporation and then shoveling the salt into wheelbarrows.
Nunes, a former sound designer, uses his skills to assemble as many as 80 audiotracks to create a film that is as luscious to listen to as watch. For example, when Iraci and Concepção enter the inn, he shoots from a high angle, revealing only a corner of the windmill that creaks eerily and rhythmically, a true wheel of fortune turning for one particular life. The performances are as understatedly telling as the screenplay, with Simone Spoladore, in particular, giving a virtuoso performance and Victor Motta very appealing as Clarice’s brother and playmate.
Nunes should be a strong contender in the New Director competition of this year’s film festival. See why by making sure to put the mysterious, beautiful, and moving Southwest on your festival schedule.
Southwest will screen Friday, October 7, 8:15 p.m., Saturday, October 8, 12:30 p.m., and Tuesday, October 18, 2:45 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)
Going green has become a fad again in the United States. Since we produce 30 percent of the world’s solid waste, making our country the No. 1 garbage generator on the planet, it would be great if this newest marketing scheme could signal sincere progress, but let’s just say I’m not holding my breath. One country that isn’t even among the top 30 nations in solid-waste generation, but has a recycling industry that has become much more high profile is Brazil. This heightened interest can be traced directly to Vik Muniz, a fine-art photographer who likes to compose subjects out of mixed materials (for example, covering parts of photos with sugar and then rephotographing them) and who is the guiding force behind the project chronicled in Waste Land. Muniz embarked on a two-year project at Brazil’s Jardim Gramacho dump, the largest landfill in the world, where he chose several “pickers” to photograph and then created his mixed-media photos using materials from the dump itself. In the process, both he and his subjects were changed for the better.
Pickers do what almost no environmentalist would conceive of doing—they wait for dump trucks to deposit their loads, dig through the garbage for recyclable materials, and sell it by weight to recycling plants that send their trucks to the dump to haul the materials away. The job is, obviously, dirty and physically demanding. It can be dangerous—Tiao, a young, idealistic picker, had a dump truck hatch fall on him, breaking three limbs and causing gaping wounds that are now deep scars. The work can also be soul-wrenching—Suelem, a mother of two who has been picking at Gramacho since the age of 7, vomited when she found a dead baby among the garbage. Indeed, dead bodies aren’t all that unusual at Jardim Gramacho, which is surrounded by rival gangs that go to war periodically. The presence of vultures at Jardim Gramacho very graphically emphasizes that pickers work among mortal remains of all kinds. And yet these people prefer this work to the only other choices open to them—selling drugs or becoming prostitutes.
Muniz, who grew up poor in São Paulo, understands the great divide in Brazilian culture. “Some people who live here really do think they’re better than other people,” he says incredulously. For his part, he is looked at askance by the pickers, who can’t understand what he’s up to. He’s not exactly sure himself what possibilities will present themselves, but he grows used to the dump’s stench quickly and begins to make friends with some of the pickers who will become his photographic models.
Valter, the elder statesman of the pickers, has been working at Jardim Gramacho for nearly 28 years. His illiteracy kept him from finding other work, but he’s proud of the fact that he is helping the environment: “If you save just one can, 99 is not 100.” Many of the pickers try to keep this upbeat frame of mind about what they have to do to survive; Zumbi, who went to work at the dump to support his family after he lost his job, says he’d be proud if his son became a picker, but hastens to add that he would rather his son were a doctor who could care for the pickers or a lawyer who could represent their labor demands. Magda exclaims that the people on the bus she takes home sniff at the odor coming off her, but she reminds herself that she’ll shower when she gets home and sleep comfortably knowing she does honest work. Only Isis is frank about how much she hates working in the dump.
The most dynamic of the pickers is Tiao. He can read, and picked Machiavelli’s The Prince out of the garbage, which gave him the idea to organize the pickers union. Muniz, perhaps inspired by Tiao’s activism, decides to photograph him in imitation of David’s painting The Death of Marat, and we watch as Tiao and Zumbi carry a discarded bathtub out of the piles of garbage and Tiao, guided by a picture of the painting, assumes the pose of the slain Marat.
Once Muniz chooses the photos he wants, he projects them many times their original size onto the floor of what looks like an airplane hangar. He purchases recyclable materials from the pickers who he instructs, using a red penlight, where to place the objects to highlight the shadows and objects in each photo. Once they are done, he takes a large-format photo of the finished product. The photos will be auctioned in London, with all proceeds used however the pickers deem fit.
An interesting conversation takes place between Muniz and his wife Janaina Tschape in which she argues that if the pickers are exposed to the good life for the short time they will be in the world spotlight and then left again to their own devices, it would ruin them and leave them worse off than before. It’s an oft-voiced concern in fish-out-of-water scenarios, but such reservations tend to be self-serving and deterministic. The pickers aren’t generally ashamed of the work they do, but they aren’t deluded. They’ve been forced by necessity and lack of skills to do what they must to survive, and some of them are not doing very well at all. Many people like them would make a go of a better opportunity if only they could catch a break (think of where the middle-aged, unemployed, homely songstress Susan Boyle is now after finally getting a chance). After hearing this conversation, it did not surprise me to learn in the “where are they now” wrap at the end of the film that Suelem, the most troubled and vulnerable picker, had dropped off the map; the rest of the pickers had gained enough motivation and self-respect to better their lives through literacy and job-training programs, some made possible by the auction funds; and Muniz and his wife had divorced.
The community Muniz and documentarian Walker focus on is tight-knit because they must be. Their lives are hard, their status close to that of untouchables, and their options very limited. But their humanity is intact, and it is a huge pleasure to see them blossom when they go to an art museum for the first time in their lives to see their photos being displayed. Times are hard in America, too, and we’re likely to see more and more people dumpster-diving for food and recyclables they can sell. Let’s remember that we are all people with the potential to become our best selves if only others will see us and give us a chance. I’m very, very glad I got the chance to meet the pickers of Jardim Gramacho and a gifted and generous artist like Vik Muniz in this uplifting, informative, and humane film. It’s one of the year’s best.
Waste Land screens Sunday, October 10, 4:30 p.m., and Monday, October 11, 8:40 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
If you thought Brazilian music in America started with Carmen Miranda and ended with Antonio Carlos Jobim—not far from my previous belief, though I go as current as Flora Purim and Airto—Beyond Ipanema is just the pulsing primer for you. David Byrne, Devendra Banhart, M.I.A., Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé, Seu Jorge, Thievery Corporation, Bebel Gilberto, CSS, and Creed are just some of the artists of the rediscovered past and forward-moving present that Beyond Ipanema presents in the most entertaining lesson you’ll ever have. The film’s short 80-minute run time means you’ll have to pay attention, but filmmakers Barra and Dranoff have a musician’s sense of timing—they know when to add a humorous lick, a rest, a bridge to the driving beat of their survey of Brazilian music from about the 1940s to the present. I’ve retained more from this beautifully composed, highly informed film essay than anyone subject to as many golden moments as I am should.
The film begins by stating a rather startling fact—while other countries are known for exporting raw materials and material goods, Brazil’s major export is not sugar or coffee, but culture. It all started with Carmen Miranda, who is given the credit she deserves for putting Brazil on the map. This woman, who has such camp appeal today, was a huge star in Brazil before she was a hit on Broadway. In her film contracts, she stipulated that she be allowed to sing 1-3 songs, as well as have some spoken lines, in her native Portuguese. Despite the projection of caricature, Miranda, it seems, injected some of the real Brazil into the foreign consciousness.
The Tropicália movement followed in which bossa nova reigned supreme. Tropicália was much more than music, however; it was an entire cultural movement that arose in response to the political repression of the late 1950s and 1960s (cinephiles will recognize cinema novo as part of this movement). The film Black Orpheus won Cannes in 1959, exposing the world to the bossa nova sounds of Jobim and Luiz Bonfá. João Gilberto was also a driving force in the creation of bossa nova; his friendship with jazz musicians Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, who traveled to Rio on a goodwill tour, catalyzed American jazz artists into experimenting with the complex rhythms of bossa nova. In 1964, competing against the likes of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, the album Getz/Gilberto won four Grammys, including album of the year and record of the year for the song “Girl from Ipanema.” The song also launched the singing career of Gilberto’s wife Astrud. This would be the first, but certainly not the last, fusion of Brazilian music with other forms of music.
David Bryne tells of his own discovery of Brazilian music, particularly the eccentric artist Tom Zé, whose career had stalled in Brazil. Zé is the funniest of the many bemused and amusing Brazilians who are interviewed for this film. He holds up his 1975 album Estudando o Samba, the first of his albums Byrne heard, and says it saved his life. Byrne also resurrected the 1970s Brazilian psychedelic band Os Mutantes. Later in the film, Devendra Banhart says he agreed to play at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival because Os Mutantes was scheduled to appear.
DJs, attracted to the Brazilian rhythms, started to sample and mix Brazilian music, creating a new audience for a bossa nova/samba-inflected hip hop. Out of the poor favelas of Rio came favela funk. Artist M.I.A. had just wrapped an album when she heard a favela funk recording. She says she called her producer and said, “Wait, the album’s not finished!” Seu Jorge became the first black Brazilian to gain international fame with his album of David Bowie covers. Now a new Gilberto, João’s daughter Bebel, has embarked on a successful singing career. My fave rave, Flora Purim, appears on camera marvelling at the new sounds and interest in Brazilian music: “I feel like I’m 25 again!”
The wacky owner of the New York record store Tropicália in Furs, Joel Oliveira, does a brisk business with collectors. He gives a Japanese collector in his store a hard time: “Five albums? Is that all you want? You used to buy 100 at a time.” The shopper says the recession is worse in Japan than in the United States. In an aside to the camera, Oliveira confides, “He owns everything else.” Later, we watch him jump for joy when he sells a rare proto Os Mutantes album to a fan in California for $5,000. The happy new owner is shown in the closing credits.
Beyond Ipanema, called a labor of love by Dranoff, who attended the screening, went way beyond my expectations. The soundtrack is more like a sampler, with parts of songs instead of full performances, which was slightly frustrating for a neophyte like me to more contemporary sounds. But it certainly has made me curious to seek this music out, and that is what Dranoff, with his A&R hat on, was certainly driving for. I urge anyone with an interest in Brazil, its music and culture, and the wonderfully original artists who make it to make a point of catching Beyond Ipanema.
I always like it when awarding organizations get it right, and when the Big Three of the Western film world—AMPAS, the Golden Globes, and the Cannes Film Festival—named Black Orpheus Best Foreign-Language Film, Best Foreign Film, and Palme d’Or winner, respectively, they most certainly got it right. This Brazilian/French/Italian coproduction reimagines the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a doomed romance between descendents of freed black slaves in the hillside favelas (shantytowns) surrounding Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. In doing so, Black Orpheus connects this pre-Christian story with the Christian Passion in a place watched over by a giant figure of Christ.
The title card shows a Greek frieze from antiquity into which the figures of Orpheus and Eurydice have been chiseled. Then we are plunged immediately into a favela readying itself for Carnival. Musicians in bright, satin costumes create a pulsing African beat to which the townspeople sway, even women carrying large bundles of laundry on their heads. Soon the music gives way to the quieter rhythms of village life, scored by Luiz Bonfá—specifically, “Manhã de Carnaval,” which becomes the running theme song of the movie. We meet a smiling Serafina (Léa Garcia) watching two boys, Benedito (Jorge dos Santos) and Zeca (Aurino Cassiano), flying kites. The arrival of a streetcar pulls us into the plot.
Streetcar driver Orfeo (Breno Mello) conveys passengers, including the young and beautiful Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), into town. Orfeo is a natural flirt who has left a string of lovers all over town, though one of them, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), has pushed him aggressively into a promise of marriage. Filmic love triangles are plentiful, but one member of the triangle usually knows at some level that a grand passion is in the offing. I am reminded of Gene Kelly as he pursues a reluctant, then compliant Leslie Caron in An American in Paris. Black Orpheus confounds this formula by having Orfeo flirt with and then dismiss Eurydice as too young; for her part, Eurydice is single-minded in her desire to get to cousin Serafina’s home, and Orfeo is an unwelcome roadblock.
Orfeo returns to his home, which adjoins Serafina’s, and his menagerie of animals—a reference to Orpheus’ ability to charm all the beasts with his music. He has gotten his precious guitar out of hock in time to play at the Carnival festivities. Zeca brings Benedito to Orfeo, claiming that Orfeo makes the sun rise with his songs. Benedito asks Orfeo what songs he plays—are they religious? No, says Orfeo, “I just make them up.” He then starts to improvise a song, the aforementioned “Manhã de Carnaval,” improvising lyrics about the rising of the sun and love. Eurydice hears the song, and in keeping with the Orpheus myth, is enchanted. When Orfeo discovers that she is now his next-door neighbor, he tries to seduce her. She runs. When he catches up with her, she is crying. “I was attracted to the song,” she says. Orfeo—a handsome and virile man—is not accustomed to women appreciating his creative inner life, and his heart is touched.
Sadly, Eurydice is a troubled young woman. She has run away from home; both she and Serafina know that if her guardian finds her, he could kill her. Eurydice has an additional worry right where she is. Previously, when Mira and Orfeo went to the marriage license bureau, a clerk, jokingly referring to the myth, says “Orfeo loves Eurydice,” without knowing there really is a Eurydice in town. Mira has noticed Orfeo’s transfer of affection and vows to kill Eurydice.
The vital heart of Afro-Brazilian culture is on display in this sweetly intense film. There isn’t a musical note or drumbeat struck that there isn’t also a swaying or dancing group of people responding. Although young, Eurydice comfortably allows the music to reach inside her. She and Orfeo dance with pleasure in a scene that communicates love of life rather than merely sexual or romantic intrigue. We’ve seen love dances before—again, I’m reminded of An American in Paris—but in Western films, the dances always tell the story. In this film, the dance is part of the story, part of a life in which both women and men find pleasure and expression. There’s no need for a Gene Kelly trying to persuade men that dancing is macho. How foolish this would seem to these Brazilians.
The film reaches a peak during the actual Carnival parade. Orfeo, dressed in gold like a Greek god, is the major domo of his town’s dance crewe whose theme is the rising sun and who dress rather ironically in colonial garb. During this celebration that ushers in a period of sacrifice leading up to Easter, Orfeo and Eurydice will enact another such sacrifice. Eurydice has seen the figure of a man dressed as Death (Ademar Da Silva) before the parade; frightened, she runs to Orfeo, who promises to protect her always. During the parade, Eurydice has taken Serafina’s place; veiled, she can dance with Orfeo without Mira being the wiser.
Unfortunately, Serafina and her dumb boyfriend can’t resist coming to the parade, and Serafina calls to Eurydice. Both Mira and Death, who has been watching Eurydice, take after her, but only Death manages to separate her from the crowd. In the empty trolley depot, they play a truly frightening cat-and-mouse game, moving in the troughs under the tracks and above the ground on the trestle structures, Death glowing red with menace. Orfeo reaches them; Eurydice yells his name. He throws a switch for more light, but only succeeds in electrocuting his beloved.
The descent of Orpheus into Hell is handled in a truly wonderful way here. An elderly streetcar conductor named Hermes (the messenger) takes Orfeo to the Bureau of Missing Persons (guarded, of course, by a dog named Cerebus), a building empty save for a janitor sweeping up miles of paper recording missing persons who are never found. Again, this seems a subtle reference to the Sacrifice of the Cross by which all humanity is saved. However, Orfeo seeks Eurydice in a pre-Christian ceremony in which spirits possess the singers and dancers. At Hermes’ urging, Orfeo joins in the singing, and Eurydice’s voice comes to him. He wants to see her, but she warns him not to turn around to view the source of the voice, or he will lose her forever. Impetuous, he disobeys her and is told by the old woman whom Eurydice has used as a vessel that she is lost to him forever.
Orfeo insists on seeing Eurydice, and in a beautifully shot and symbolic scene, descends a spiral staircase to the morgue. In an unnecessarily comic scene involving a morgue worker with a cold, he finds Eurydice, claims her body, and lets her “lead” him wherever she will. He walks with her body up a bluff, thanking Eurydice for taking him on a beautiful path surrounded by flowers. He will be met on this path by a furious Mira, who will decide his fate. The tragedy played out, life renews itself as Benedicto, Zeca, and a very young girl dance to Bonfá ‘s “Samba de Orfeo” and wait for the sun to rise.
The fabric of one corner of Brazilian life is on full display in Black Orpheus, including actual footage of Carnival that seems to have been shot by Camus. Camus has a spectacular eye for the majesty that is Rio, utilizing the natural beauty to accent and lend power to this timeless love story. At the same time, comic interludes of varying degrees of success reminded me of Shakespeare’s construction of tragedies. Music, both primitive and contemporary, fill this film; besides Bonfá, Antonio Carlos Jobim contributed music, including the now classic “A Felicidade.”
Finally, we have the sensitive lovers themselves. Breno Mello was a soccer star appearing in his first film; while he and the rest of the nonprofessional cast are sometimes awkward, Mello’s heartbreak over the loss of Eurydice is deeply touching. Marpessa Dawn, an American dancer with acting experience, is the shining light of this film. She manages to be a real person despite the whole weight of cinematic love stories pressing in on her. In a rather touching, though coincidental coda to this film, Mello died this past July, and Dawn followed only six weeks later.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the hubby was friends with Marpessa when they both lived in Denver. He said she had a serenity and confidence that drew people to her. He did not know she starred in Black Orpheus, and had never seen it. One week, it was playing at the Ogden, and Marpessa told him about it and agreed to meet him for the screening. The house was packed, and the hubby couldn’t find her. Finally, in the dark, he called, “Marpessa, are you there?” A disembodied voice called back, “I’m here.” When he told me this story, I immediately said, “You were Orpheus!”
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Brazil was a country enslaved to a military dictatorship—and, miraculously, in the middle of a cinematic renaissance. Brazilian filmmakers, inspired by Italian neorealism and the French New Wave, declared they would create a new type of cinema for their country—Cinema Novo (Noh voo). Films of this movement tackled social issues and promoted “tropicalism,” that is, a peculiarly Brazilian sensibility rather than an imitation of European aesthetics that was more usual among Brazilian films. Criticism of the military regime, which had been fairly open in the beginning years of Cinema Novo, increasingly had to become allegorical, often hearkenly back to traditional Brazilian literature in order to camoflage the filmmakers’ disdain.
Nelson Pereira dos Santos made a masterpiece in 1963 called Barren Lives (Vidas Secas), a straight-on view of the cruel lives of a poor Brazilian family in the country’s arid, barren Northeast. By 1971, when How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman premiered, Pereira dos Santos had been forced to retreat into allegory, substituting the incursions of the Portuguese and French into Brazil for the harshness of the current dictators. Although Frenchman is missing the simple beauty and emotional core of Barren Lives, the film achieves something quite remarkable—a straight-on view of Brazilian tribal society as it clashed with the duplicitous Europeans out to rape it of its natural resources.
The film takes place in 1594. The Tupinambas Indians have allied themselves with the French. Their enemies, the Tupiniquins, are on the side of the Portuguese. We see French and Portuguese fighting each other in crude skirmishes, and fighting amongst themselves as the leaders wish to maintain order and European civility while certain of their number prefer to take advantage of a native society unburdened by sexual repression. A Frenchman (Arduino Colassanti) is found to be “mutinously” fornicating with native girls, and he is captured and executed by being pushed off a cliff into the ocean while bound in chains. A letter written by the head of the expedition claims he was unchained and chose to jump to his death, our first look at the duplicity that surrounds the conquest of Brazil.
Miraculously, he survives the fall, only to be captured by some Portuguese and Tupiniquins. When the Tupinambas raid the camp in which he is being held, they seize him and bring him back to a vengeful chief Cunhambebe (Eduardo Imbassahy Filho), who is convinced he is Portuguese and decides to enslave him and kill and eat him after 8 moons (8 months) have passed to avenge the deaths of many Tupinambas at the hands of the Portuguese.
A French merchant (Manfredo Colassanti, Arduino’s father) comes to the village, and the French captive pleads with him to convince Cunhambebe that he is not Portuguese. The merchant says emphatically that he is Portuguese for reasons still obscure to me. He advises the captive to sit back and enjoy himself. He will be an honored guest for the next eight months, will have Seboipepe (Ana Maria Magalhaes), a woman presented to him on the first night of his capture, as a wife, and probably will escape. Slowly, the captive establishes a routine and quickly goes native, shedding his clothes, shaving the top of his head, and eventually fighting alongside the Tupinambas to defeat the Tupiniquins.
He believes he can win his life back by being loyal and helpful to Cunhambebe. He secures 10 kegs of gunpowder from the merchant in exchange for some buried gold and jewels. Unfortunately, both men become greedy and fight over the treasure. If the captive believes he can secure his freedom by presenting the chief with gunpowder, why is it necessary for him to have treasure? This is one of the ways this film shows how truly illogical and irrationally acquisitive the Europeans are.
But the native Brazilians aren’t let off the hook. Cunhambebe declares that he will never forgive anyone who has wronged him and his people. An instinct for violence thus seems to perpetuate itself in the Brazilian bloodline, which is one of the observances of the film’s intertitles that give the views of Europeans from that time. This depiction of bloodlust is, perhaps, a veiled critique of the modern Brazilian dictatorship that put its own values above the good of the Brazilian people.
Given the title of this film, I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that the captive is indeed killed and eaten. We think, like he does, that reason will out. But the native Brazilians have as much use for reason as they do for clothing. We are given a preview of the ceremony as he and Seboipepe enact it as a prelude to making love. Of course, the Frenchman tries to run, but Seboipepe shoots him with an arrow and fills their canoe with leeches to prevent his escape. In his final moment, he yells that his killers will be destroyed by his people, an oath he has been told to say by Seboipepe, one that he has become man enough to utter with conviction, and one that comes to pass. Pereira dos Santos thus takes a final swipe at the dictators of Brazil, heirs of the European conquerers who were continuing to destroy the essence of Brazilian life.
If you’re not familiar with Cinema Novo films, this engrossing film would be a good place to start. It’s sure to give you an appetite for more.