Premiere Brazil! 2012
July 12-24 at MoMA
The tenth installment of Premiere Brazil! shows Brazilian filmmakers looking to understand and to preserve the past, while existing in their country’s rapidly changing present.
The Last Cangaçeiros focuses on Brazil’s social bandits, or “cangaçeiros,” a group that emerged in the late 19th century in the northeastern part of the country. Their chief, Lampião, who was ambushed by the police in 1938, has been immortalized by Cinema Novo filmmaker Glauber Rocha, and is often described as a Brazilian Robin Hood. In this gripping new documentary, Wolney Oliveira presents Durvinha and Moreno, one of the last of Lampião,’s group. As the two nonagenarians reveal their past, Moreno’s faith in the spirit of the cangaço remains unshaken. But Durvinha gave up her babies to priests, unable to care for them in the desert, and lost her lover, also a cangaço, in a shootout, and so speaks bitterly about the heavy price she paid for defying the law. Oliveira includes the archival footage originally shot by Benjamin Abrahão, a pioneering Arab-Brazilian filmmaker, who had unprecedented access to the bandits, documenting their grooming routines and posing them for photos in elaborate, Indian-inspired outfits. The myth of dashing bandits, out-daring, outsmarting, and out-shooting their opponents, is contextualized by the testimonies of the ex-militia who hunted them, by historians, and by the women kidnapped in girlhood to be bandit brides, bringing an important period in Brazil’s history vividly, and at times humorously, to life.
A more intimate reckoning with the past takes place in Look at Me Again, a documentary road movie, by newcomers Claudia Priscilla and Kiko Goifman. Silvyo, about to undergo a sex-change operation, travels through Southeastern Brazil, to meet the daughter she gave birth to before starting hormone therapy. Silvyo’s brazen, folksy humor and garrulous personality help frame this story as a picaresque adventure and a journey to self-realization, but the painful reunion with the estranged adult child brings the present into direct conflict with the past.
The past also haunts the coolly stylized Heleno, a feature about soccer player Heleno de Freitas, directed by José Henrique Fonseca. To emphasize memory’s pull, Fonseca structures his narrative in flashbacks, frequently cutting away from Heleno’s final days in a psychiatric clinic, ravaged by untreated syphilis, to the egotistic brawls and profligate lifestyle that cost him his chance at representing Brazil in the 1950 World Cup. The black-and-white cinematography evokes the glamour of the bygone years, inflecting the present with a fluid, hallucinatory cadence of dreams.
The dream-like quality is also manifest in Eryk Rocha’s Passerby, in which a 68-year-old retiree, Expedito, passes his time by walking the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Rocha’s vision is nearly subcutaneous, so closely does he film the details of women’s bodies, to communicate Expedito’s rapturous looking. Shot in black-and-white, the lyrical odyssey features a soundtrack in which construction noise, street music, Expedito’s breathing, and the radio he listens to on his headphones comprise an opus of transitory sounds. In Rocha’s telling, Rio both intrudes in its residents’ lives and alienates them. Expedito’s loneliness amidst multitudes is all the more poignant since among many beautiful faces, he searches for a resemblance to his deceased wife. And since the past is intimately tied to the present, carnality and other fleeting pleasures are linked to mourning: like the forever changing Rio, Expedito experiences moments of renewal; but his celebration of his boisterous city is bittersweet, since he, unlike it, must come to terms with his mortality.
In Songs, renowned documentarian Eduardo Coutinho also strikes a reflective note, showing how a person’s intimate memories can be encapsulated in a single song. Coutinho’s interactive approach, coined as “cinema conversation,” is rooted in Brazil’s powerful oral traditions, in which ordinary stories are mined for universal truths. The single prop in Songs is an interviewee’s chair, installed on a darkened set. Coutinho’s raspy chain-smoker’s voice is heard off camera, as he asks brief, direct questions, leaving most of the talking to his subjects, whose stories revolve around the constant themes of love, heartbreak, and survival. Songs adds a new element—the interviewees sing their favorite songs on camera—but the film’s power springs from Coutinho’s time-tested ability to stage a unique experience in front of the camera, with individual stories rooted in the personal past, but recreated in the present as singular performances that reflect, and give meaning to, a culture, and a people.