The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: February 25 - March 4, 1999

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Brazil '66 to '99

Taking a tour of "Cinema Novo and Beyond"

by Chris Fujiwara

"CINEMA NOVO AND BEYOND," At the Coolidge Corner and the Museum of Fine Arts, through April 11.

Brazil has two familiar cinematic faces. One is the carnaval mask, brilliantly colored and heavy with promise; the other stares bleakly out of poverty and underdevelopment. "Cinema Novo and Beyond," a retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art and the Brazilian Ministry of Culture, is a rare opportunity to explore in depth how these images -- and many less familiar ones -- have functioned within the Brazilian cinema.

Along with several commercial and critical favorites, the series includes a number of extraordinary films that have been all but unknown except to specialists. This number will, unfortunately, be smaller in Boston than it was in New York. MoMA showed 60 feature-length films and 15 shorts. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Coolidge Corner Theatre have reduced the series to 27 features and four shorts.

The Cinema Novo movement of the early '60s first put Brazil on the map of world cinema. Working on low budgets, the Cinema Novo directors made a virtue of poverty, rejecting the slickness of, for example, 1958's Black Orpheus (a French production) in favor of a jagged expressiveness that matched the preferred settings of the Novo films: urban slums and the drought-plagued sertão, or northeastern backlands. According to Glauber Rocha, the most famous of the Cinema Novo directors, "these sad, ugly films, these screaming, desperate films where reason does not always prevail," reflected political, aesthetic, and ethical necessity. Nelson Pereira dos Santos's seminal Barren Lives (Vidas secas, 1963; February 28 at 2 p.m. at the Coolidge), a harsh drama of peasant life, will get a rare revival in this series; so will another legendary early Cinema Novo work, Ruy Guerra's The Guns (Os fuzis, 1963; March 12 at 6:30 p.m. at the MFA), in which a group of soldiers descend on a small town to defend a food warehouse from the starving local population.

The three major Glauber Rocha films will all play at both the MFA and the Coolidge. In Black God, White Devil (Deus e o diabo na terra do sol, 1964; March 3 at 7:30 p.m. and March 7 at 4:30 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner and March 4 at 7:45 p.m. and March 6 at 3:40 p.m. at the MFA), Manuel, a peasant who has killed his master, flees with his wife to join a peasant revolutionary group led by the messianic Sebastian. To crush the rebellion, the church and the landowners hire notorious jagunço (professional killer) Antonio das Mortes. In Rocha's sprawling, violent film, experience and myth are one; social and spiritual forces are alive, not abstract. Rocha's disorienting rhythms and fluid visual patterns are direct expressions of a basic disorder. Over the duration of a single shot, the line between earth and sky rises and falls many times as the handheld camera pans, wanders, and dips erratically.

One of the '60s' essential political films, Rocha's uniquely unsettling Land in Anguish (Terra em transe, 1967; March 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner and March 31 at 6 p.m. and April 4 at 4 p.m. at the MFA) is about Paulo, an urban intellectual and poet caught up in the political upheaval of the republic of Eldorado. The film's movement repeats that of Black God, White Devil: like Manuel in the earlier film, Paulo switches allegiance from a religious authority figure (a demagoguic senator repeatedly shown brandishing a cross at the head of a procession) to a secular one (a liberal governor), ultimately to reject both. The least that can be said of this densely layered, labyrinthine film is that it avoids the clichés of Hollywood/Costa-Gavras-style movies about politics: the hero is a contradictory figure, represented better by a zigzagging line than by the curving ascent toward lucidity that's the classic cliché of liberal drama. Giving pain and disillusionment gestural, unmetaphorical expression, Land in Anguish veers repeatedly close to melodrama but transcends it to become something like a spoken opera.

Antonio das Mortes (1969; March 10 at 7:30 p.m. and March 14 at 4:30 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner and April 8 at 5:45 p.m. and April 10 at 1:30 p.m. at the MFA) brings back the backlands manhunter from Black God, White Devil and places him in a landscape of paved roads and oil trucks. Hired by a blind landowner to rid the area of a pesky cangaceiro, or sertão bandit, Antonio undergoes a conversion and decides to take the side of the peasants against the landowner.

It may be true, as filmmaker Gustavo Dahl said in 1978, that "in Brazil we have not yet had our La dolce vita or Lola Montes, great films of spectacle that also exploded cinematic language," but Antonio das Mortes comes close. Rocha's first film in color, Antonio uses color to heighten and clarify the folk-poetry-documentary aspect that's been present all along in the director's work. The narrative loses the inchoate quality it had in the two earlier films and resolves itself into Brecht-like blocks of ritualized action. Characters move as if in a trance across different layers of ribbon-like, flowering compositions. Of Rocha's three great films, which Rocha himself described as "the disasters of a violent transition," only Antonio points to the other side of the transition, the formal integration that all this violence was heralding and preparing for.

Cinema Novo underwent significant transformations in the late '60s and '70s, until, by 1977, director Carlos Diegues could say, "Cinema Novo as a group no longer exists, above all because it has been diluted into Brazilian cinema." Two late-'60s films shown in the series mark different aspects of this development. Rogério Sganzerla's The Red Light Bandit (O bandito da luz vermelha, 1968; March 18 at 6 p.m. at the MFA) comes out of the Underground Movement, which sought to surpass the Cinema Novo in marginality, radicality, and what it called a "garbage aesthetic." According to its director, who was 23 when he made it, the film is a combination of "Western, musical, documentary, detective story, comedy, chanchada [Brazil's indigenous form of the musical], and science fiction." The "tropicalist" phase of Brazilian cinema emphasized a similar mixing of genres along with a heightened theatrical, parodistic style and an ironic attitude toward Brazil's image as an exuberant tropical paradise. Joaquim Pedro de Andrade's Macunaím (1969; March 14 at 2 p.m. at the Coolidge), the first Cinema Novo film to achieve widespread popular acceptance, is an epic fantasy in the tropicalist vein about the adventures of a man born full-grown in the jungle. He journeys to São Paulo, where he becomes the lover of an urban guerrilla who possesses a magic stone; he also finds a magic fountain that turns him white.

The series will revive three films that confirmed Brazil's place in the international film market in the late '70s and '80s. Sonia Braga, to this date Brazil's biggest international star, is the main attraction in Bruno Barreto's Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Dona Flor e seus dois maridos, 1976; April 7 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. and April 11 at 4:30 p.m. at the Coolidge) as a widow who remarries but is sexually unfulfilled until the ghost of her first husband comes to visit. Renowned Brazilian horror- and sex-film director José Mojica Marins undoubtedly could have got more mileage out of this situation than the boring Barreto does, and while I'm on the subject of Mojica Marins, why are none of his films in this series? When will the MFA give us an opportunity to see 48 Hours of Hallucinatory Sex?

Hector Babenco's Pixote (1980; March 31 at 7:30 p.m. and April 4 at 4:30 p.m. at the Coolidge) is Brazil's entry in world cinema's children-in-criminal-underworld genre. Babenco's lush style renders ceaseless degradation strangely comforting, and the film's chief interest lies in its making explicit the homoerotic element typically buried or disavowed in juvenile-delinquency films. Most entertaining and enduring of the three hits is Carlos Diegues's Bye Bye Brazil (1980; March 24 at 7:30 p.m. and March 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Coolidge and March 25 at 8:00 p.m. at the MFA), a deceptively cheerful tropicalist parable about the misadventures of a performing group in search of a paying audience in the sertão.

Foreign Land (Terra estrangeira, 1995; February 26 at 8:15 p.m. and February 27 at 4:15 p.m. at the MFA and February 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the Coolidge), directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, exemplifies the internationalism that's characterized art movies since the '80s. (A good number of the films in the series are from the '80s and '90s, but most of them were unavailable for screening.) Interweaving the stories of a young actor in São Paulo and a waitress in Lisbon, Foreign Land also interweaves three modes associated with Wim Wenders: the movie in which farflung strangers are inexorably drawn together by intercutting; the movie about an innocent lured into crime; and the road movie. It's easy enough to say that Salles and Thomas make a better Wenders film than Wenders does these days (something that's probably also true of Salles's recent hit, Central Station), but Foreign Land stands up on its own as a sharp, sometimes touching study of intercontinental nostalgia.

"Cinema Novo and Beyond" is a significant event. Any chance to see a Glauber Rocha movie should be seized; then there are the films like The Guns and The Red Light Bandit that most of us have, at best, only read about. New prints are promised of everything. It's a great opportunity to discover the heroic period of Cinema Novo and the complexity and variety of recent Brazilian filmmaking.

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