Pictures for the People

A series at the Walker reveals the revolutionary power of Brazil's Cinema Novo

While they have molded some astoundingly rich works, many Brazilian filmmakers and their creations remain nearly unknown, strangers to their own screens--confined, when lucky, to universities and the international film-festival scene. (Almost none of these films is widely available on American video, and a good number have probably never had a local screening.) To put it mildly, Brazilian economic and political realities of the last 40 years have not been conducive to a flourishing national cinema. Novo had emerged in the early 1960s at a moment of optimism for cultural nationalists, a period that also bred the Tropicália movement in music. But a 1964 military coup followed by the growth of government institutions to investigate and root out "subversive" politicians, intellectuals, and artists put a quick end to that optimism and restored foreign domination to the movie screens.

Many Novo filmmakers went into exile. Rocha, for example, moved across Africa and Europe through much of the 1970s, returned briefly, then departed again to Europe, where he prepared an epic on Napoleon that was to feature Orson Welles, a fellow exile who had once worked in Brazil, in the lead role. Before this could happen, a lung infection struck Rocha down, and he was flown back to Brazil to die, while the military dictatorship still ruled.

Yet through this dark period, filmmakers held on, continuing to turn out films they knew needed to be made. Some were what Rocha had called "these sad, ugly films, these screaming, desperate films where reason does not always prevail." One such politically subversive and ugly work is Hector Babenco's Pixote (7:00, October 22) from 1980. The film takes the homeless children of São Paulo for its actors, as Babenco himself informs us as he straddles the worlds of fiction and reality in an opening prologue.

Truly, all manner of ugliness is on display here, from armed robbery to sexual violence and prostitution, as we follow prepubescent Pixote through a brutal juvenile-delinquent home back to the streets of São Paulo. This is Babenco's ironic indictment of Brazilian civil society, a demonstration of how 15 years of repressive rule had left the country in shambles. The film seems to reflect this chaos on more levels than one: It's full of inadvertent narrative inconsistencies, and discontinuous edits. But Fernando Ramos da Silva, who was killed in suspicious circumstances soon after the film was made, is unforgettable as the lazy-eyed Pixote. No bravura delivery or dialogue distinguishes his performance. Rather, the viewer is captivated by his understated--and often unstated--emotions. Even when confronting horrific acts of violence or enjoying some cheap thrill, the actor rarely squints his wide-open eyes or creases the corners of his lips. He proceeds through the film as a kind of cipher, gazing at the unspeakable atrocities piling up at his feet.

A photocopy of this flat, emotionless countenance appears on Macabea, the main character of Suzana Amaral's 1985, post-Cinema Novo film The Hour of the Star (9:00, October 22). Amid the first open elections in many years, Amaral received some funding from Embrafilme, a state institute that partially resembles the National Endowment for the Arts--as in the way the flow of money can shut like a tap. Her sparse style, surely motivated in part by the sparse material conditions of the shoot, recalls that of Jim Jarmusch (whom she'd met in film school) as well as that of the Belgian minimalist Chantal Akerman. It is a style perfectly suited to depicting the grinding hollowness of lower-class Brazilian life.

Consider an episode during Macabea's first night at her new rooming house. She wakes up coughing, pulls out a bedpan, and sits down to do her business. As she does this, she eats a piece of cold chicken. Amaral composes the scene with a few detached portraits, cutting away to the head or foot of a sleeping roommate nearby--this while the sounds of Macabea's functions and a clock tick continue on the soundtrack. The Hour of the Star furnishes several similar sequences--at the office, in a park, and elsewhere--constantly suggesting the emptiness of Macabea's life. To the extent her birth date coincides closely with the establishment of the dictatorship, this seems to constitute a broader statement about the lives of Brazilians of her generation.

Yet the film is not all about such grim banality: A bit of sweetness and vivacity emerges as Macabea discovers the wonderful world of men. Still, this all comes to naught in a strange ending sequence, which seems to suggest that ferocious social and economic conditions can destroy the hopes of youth.

After decades in the wilderness, Brazilian cinema once again seems to be gaining prominence. Although modest economic successes and new political freedoms have improved conditions for some people, the urgent, populist Novo spirit continues to inform the work of talented young filmmakers, foremost among them Salles, who is riding a string of critical and commercial successes. Last year's Central Station (discussed in a workshop with Salles 11:00 a.m., October 16) enjoyed what might be the most remunerative release of any Brazilian film--which was facilitated in part through its development connections with the Sundance Institute.

The work nonetheless remains close to its Brazilian roots, in part through the application of some familiar Novo tropes. We begin among the lower classes that circulate through the central train station of Rio de Janeiro, joining an old, exhausted woman named Dora and a young boy named Josué. Dora is played by Brazilian screen legend Fernanda Montenegro, who also appears briefly as the bedraggled landlord in House of the Star. After a tangle of events, the pair heads off north across the country.

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