Cinema Novo Renewed; "Sata," Salles, and Sparkling Stories from Everyday Life in Brazil
by Anthony Kaufman
"I think the theme of violence is legitimate, because it's a really violent country," says "Madame Sata" writer-director Karim Ainouz of the latest Brazilian new wave. "But more important than the issue of violence is that poor Brazilians are finally seeing themselves." From Ainouz's own tale of rebellion and sexual transgression in the slums of 1930s Rio de Janeiro (which opened in U.S. theaters last week) to Fernando Meirelles' celebrated Brazilian crime saga "City of God" to ThinkFilm's upcoming real-life bus-hijacking thriller "Bus 174," the mean and poverty-stricken streets of Brazil are making for a vibrant cinema.
Local audiences are flocking to witness their impoverished, stirring lives reflected on the screen (ticket sales are at 7.9 million verses 2.38 million over the same first five months of last year, and domestic market share is at a whopping 19 percent compared with 8 percent during the same period in 2002.) Hector Babenco's hard-hitting Cannes entry about prison life "Carandiru" became the highest-grossing Brazilian film of all time, even beating out "Lord of the Rings" in local theaters. "Carandiru," which opens Stateside next year from Sony Pictures Classics, just edged out another record-holder, "God is Brazilian," a comedy that debuted only several weeks earlier, from Cinema Novo veteran Carlos Diegues ("Bye Bye Brazil").
At the 2003 Cannes Market, Variety reported brisk international sales on Brazilian pictures, from the carnivalesque farce "Mango Yellow," to the silent-screen parody "Margarette's Feast," to the romantic comedy "Breaking Up." And in New York City next week, the Museum of Modern Art debuts Premiere Brazil! (July 23-28), the first of an annual showcase of films chosen from the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival, and the Anthology Film Archives will showcase Cinema Favela (July 24-31), a celebration of African influences on Brazilian film.
It wasn't always sambas and celebrations for Brazil's film industry. In 1990, when corrupt president Fernando Collor de Mello eliminated Embrafilme -- the state-owned company that helped generate a record 103 feature films in 1980 -- all film production froze (alongside most banks and businesses). In 1992, Collor was ousted, and the film scene has been on the rise ever since, receiving high-profile boosts with Fabio Barreto's "O qautrilho" in 1996 and Walter Salles' "Central Station" in 1998. Now, together with tax-incentive programs, deep-pocketed U.S. studios, money from Latin TV stations and telecoms, and the arrival of a fund run by Brazil's National Cinema Agency (Ancine), Brazil's post-'90s new wave cinema may finally be getting the support it deserves.
"But the big question in any Latin America country," warns Ainouz, "is permanence." Ainouz is suspicious of current tax-break schemes in which marketing directors, rather than the Ministry of Culture, choose films that get funded. And the fate of the funding structures may change with the recent instatement of famed singer Gilberto Gil as Minister of Culture, under the newly elected Labor Party workers' government of President Luis Inacio da Silva.
Ainouz, however, depended on Salles, whose company Videofilmes has been at the center of some of the most successful local productions. (Salles is credited as a co-producer on "City of God" and a producer on "Madame Sata.") "If it wasn't for Walter who got Canal Plus involved, the Brazilians wouldn't have come on board," says young director Ainouz, regarding the financing of "Madame Sata." "He wants to be active in forging a local community. He's really key."
Salles is also at the helm of one of the fall season's most anticipated cinematic properties, "The Motorcycle Diaries," the Che Guevera road epic starring international It-boy Gael Garcia Bernal as the legendary people's hero. Salles' brother Joao Moreira Salles is a noted documentary filmmaker, as well, and the two siblings signify the country's intertwined burgeoning commercial and nonfiction industries. Even the celebrated "Carandiru" has an award-winning documentary corollary in Paulo Sacramento's "The Prisoner of the Iron Bars," which goes behind the scenes of the real Carandiru House of Detention -- the biggest jail in Latin America.
"Edificio Master," also produced by Videofilmes and showing in New York next week, is another of Brazil's recent doc sensations. Directed by 70-year-old master Eduardo Coutinho, the film is an extended series of simply shot interviews with the residents of a low-rent Copacabana mega-building. The result yields more than a few heartbreaking stories of everyday life and provides "an act of mirroring," as Ainouz says, for ordinary Brazilians. Particularly affecting is an interview with an honorable child-like prostitute ("I'll be happy when I'm dead," she says with a winning smile, "and my suffering comes to an end").
Premiere Brazil! also unveils João Jardim and famed D.P. Walter Carvalho's "Window of the Soul," which looks at the nature of sight and those who lack it. Between interviews with an extraordinary array of blind and near-blind characters and such luminaries as Wim Wenders and Oliver Sacks, Carvahlo's self-conscious camerawork blurs, bends, zooms, and macros in an evocative attempt to recreate the processes of seeing. The film confirms the status of Carvahlo's own highly trained eye, after a series of visually scintillating work on such narrative films as Salles' "Behind the Sun," Ainouz's "Madame Sata," and Babenco's "Carandiru."
Jose Padilha, director of the suspenseful documentary "Bus 174," acknowledges the connection between both fiction and nonfiction movements in Brazil. "There are a lot of filmmakers who shoot fiction work with a documentary feeling, because of the handheld camera of Cinema Novo. It comes out of Glauber Rocha's work," he adds, referring to the maverick filmmaker who famously called for an "Aesthetic of Hunger" to accurately reflect the hardscrabble life of Brazilians. Rocha's politically activist cinema is represented in the New York series with his 1969 landmark outlaw story, "Antonio das Mortes."
Picking up most from Rocha's underdog spirit in the Premiere Brazil! selection is perhaps "Two Lost in a Dirty Night," a rugged melodrama about two Brazilian immigrants trying to survive in New York, from director Jose Joffily (whose 1996 "Who Killed Pixote," screening at Anthology next week, is based on the tragic story of the child actor who starred in Hector Babenco's 1981 bracing street-life Brazilian classic "Pixote.") At the recently concluded seventh Brazilian Film Festival of Miami, "Dirty Night" co-star Debora Falabella deservedly won the HBO New Talent award for her searing role as a crack-addicted female hip-hopper who lives as a teenage boy named Paco.
But it's Brazil's new generation of commercial and video directors that are generating the most marketable heat with their crackling visuals and accessible stories; they include most notably Fernando Meirelles, who leveraged his "City of God" success into a must-see Brazilian TV series "City of Men," and the camp at Conspiracao Filmes, which includes Jose Henrique Fonseca (current local hit "Man of the Year"), Claudio Torres ("Redeemer"), Lula Buarque de Holanda ("Casseta & Planeta Go to the Oscars"), and Andrucha Waddington ("Me You Them" and the upcoming "House of Sand," starring Fernanda Montenegro of "Central Station" fame).
There may be another movement in the making, however, more akin to the stripped down desperado style of founding father Glauber Rocha. "There is a great group of young directors that came out of the local film school Universidad Federal Fluminense," says Ainouz. "And they publish 'Reverse Shot'" -- a Brazilian film journal that can be found at www.contracampo.com.br (in Portuguese). One of the critic-filmmakers, Eduardo Valente, won a prize at Cannes 2002 for his short "Orange Sun." "They write a lot and they see everything," continues Ainouz. "It sounds very '60s, but they're really smart," he says. "That's the future of Brazilian film. And I don't think it's a faraway future."