As if from an Asian swell there has been a rising tide of
Brazilian cinema masterpieces. Every
month, Brazil has seen a
steady flow of high-level cinematic creation.
And every semester has ushered in
Blame only your curiosity if you’ve failed to notice it. Over the past ten years the eyes of creative filmmakers and
film theorists alike have been set on Central and East-Asia. Perspective lines have focused right. East-Asian cinemain
Japan, China, Hong-Kong and Taiwan foremosthas been challenging Western conceptions of beauty and narrative form. It
has won over audiences of cinemaphiles the world overwherever the infrastructure to project foreign films has not been
exterminated. On that issue, the American-Hollywood conglomerates, who spread their management doctrines to the film
theaters, have banked their money and contract signatures to decide on what films you get to see. And whenever they can help
it, those films aren’t from abroad.
Takashi "Beat" Kitano, Wong Kar-Wai, Hsiao-Hsien Hou, and John Woo pre-Hollywood flight, are just some of the
director names worth memorizing. Failing which, you might miss a golden opportunity at capturing artists chiseling at the
cutting-edge marble of the seventh art. Even more than representing their respective national artistic renaissances, these
filmmakers participate in the universal category of `auteur cinema’.
The Asian tigers may have refined art just as they renewed collective capitalism. Yet nothing compares with the
outstanding production of Iranian cinema. No other country over the past ten years has contributed so prolifically to retracing
the boundaries of the audiovisual art. No other culture has challenged the dictates of the post-modern American medley,
welding consumerized business principles to artistic creation, as has the land of Attar and Hedayat.
A Camera in the Passenger’s Seat
Many Westerners are dead-set convinced of the repressive nature of Iranian society in the aftermath of the Shiite
revolution. But how do you equate the following situation? In the U. S., the self-declared bastion of free speech and art, the
majority of film viewers are deprived of exposure to the world’s greatest films. They are force-fed a monopolistic potpourri of that
ol’ ultraviolence, voyeuristic nudity and fantasy representation to such a degree that Hollywood long ago became a
synonym of an insult to intelligence. Whereas in Iran you may find an astonishing depiction of a millenary civilization, whose
past contributions to the arts and sciences were left unexceeded even by Rome. This is a culture bursting into high-tech
modernity, although one that refuses to merely be co-opted into the Western system of representation and value.
American cinema no longer has anything to teach the Iranians. Not only are we the ones who have all to learn from
them, it’s learning to learn from them which has become our work. Our incessant exposure to insipid commercial products has
warped our minds. The beats that pound in our hearts echo to a war cry. This is why seeking out the films of the contemporary
Iranian masters is a duty not only to art, but to thought.
Islamist Iran never put the great filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami or Mohsen Makhmalbaf in jail. Yet Makmalbaf was
tortured at the hands of the Shah’s U. S.-trained and funded secret police. As for Kiarostami, he had to await an invitation from
freedom’s bastion to be denied the right to speak. Last summer he was refused entry into the U. S. as he planned to attend an
homage to his life’s work, organized by Harvard University no less.
As for the timeliness of Makhmalbaf’s film
Kandahar and publication of his film journal, they have given us more
information and wisdom on the plight of Afghan society than the hundreds of hours of ideological soup produced by CNN
and its cronies. If that wasn’t enough, he has brought up one of the shining lights of young Iranian cinema, his own
daughter, Samira, already the director of two critically acclaimed features.
For just cause the filmworks of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf, among several others’, whispers in the same breath as
1940’s Italian Neo-Realism. Their filming strategy allows the real to supervene as it settles into artistic form, emerging
autonomously from the human agents who set about its creation. Art matched up fully with the real in the film
Kandahar, its release coinciding with the American bombing of Afghanistan. Form spoke transparently to those intent on gazing.
As a real living object, Makhmalbaf’s work took an even more ominous turn. It appeared that Tabid Sahib, playing
the medical doctor in Kandahar, was living out a film within the film. An American ex-pat at other times known as David
Belfield, he is allegedly involved with the assassination of an ancien-regime Iranian diplomat in the late seventies. Upon
conversion to Islam, he took the name of Daoud Salah Addine and escaped to Iran. The nom-de-plume of Hassan Tantai launched
his acting career. Spot the fiction, if you can.
In a statement issued by Avatar films and published in
The Guardian in January 2002, Makhmalbaf claimed to know
nothing of the controversy. "I have made more than 20 feature films. I have always chosen my actors from crowded streets and
barren desserts. I never ask those who act in my films what they have done before, nor do I follow what they do after I finish
shooting my film. Kandahar is no exception."
As for whether Makhmalbaf would have still hired him had he known of the actor’s involvement in a political
murderer, the director stood tall. Governments tend to pardon political crimes when committed against injustice, why would the
filmmaker act the moralist? A neo-realist film aesthetic and methodology draw out the moral norms. Makhmalbaf avowed wanting
to make "a film with him about the murder that he had committed, in order to explore why it is that in the civilized and
opulent United States, a black man commits a political assassination and then escapes to a country like Iran, which has a tense
relationship with the United States. In fact it has just occurred to me that if I were to see him I will make that film." As it
also dawned on him that, while Belfield is a marked man internationally, the filmmaker’s own torturers live comfortably in the
U. S., the land of the free.
Faced with the most fascinating moral issue to burst from the art world since Giuliani banned the
Sensations exhibit, the American Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to do the public’s philosophical work. After
winning Cannes’ Ecumenical Jury prize in 2001, and a sure-set nominee for the Best Foreign Film category, Makhmalbaf’s
masterpiece was dropped from the roster. As it’s a foreign film, the issue of censorship was never raised. That’s because when it
comes to foreign films, they’re already earmarked for censorship by commercial and linguistic interests. So where does the
globalized world begin?
A brand of exclusion stands equally for the rising tide of Brazilian cinema masterpieces. Those interested in Brazil’s
golden year of 2002 have had to search long and hard to find information on the country. In every article where the
New York Times South America correspondent links the word `leftist’ to newly-elected president Lula da Silva and uses innuendo to
twist the sense of `anti-globalization former metalworker union leader’, a thousand people loose out on the chance to see a
Sure Brazil’s World Cup victory was celebrated in the international press. And if you live in Europe or NYC you’ve
probably had the opportunity of getting familiar with some of Brazil’s recent musical creationcrafted either by exiles or natives.
But it only takes a bat to flutter its wings for a glance to be sidelined.
When handsomely paid corresponds are the henchmen to belittle foreign cultures, how easy is it to keep an open
mind and broaden it evermore toward their creations? As with Iran, how many are aware of the outstanding years of cinematic
creation the country has lived?
The background to this creation is far different from the Cinema Novo movement of the 1960s, spearheaded by the
late Glauber Rocha. It had given Brazilian art its international laurels in a century pierced with thorns. The country was then
under a harsh military dictatorship. To quell the mounting social and political revolution of 1968, the generals increased the
brutality. Glauber Rocha’s films express the desperation of an entire generation seeing themselves severed from the international
Sprouting minds were forced to keep living under a centralized hold on power that set the country back to the
nineteenth century latifúndios in terms of political freedom. In reaction, these minds grew into radicals and revolutionaries,
unleashing as they did the State’s violence. Use of torture became commonplace. The rest of Latin America turned to authoritarian
rule as its landed aristocracy crushed the will to reform and distribute wealth either in the fields or the cities. The early years
of Brazil’s military rule seem polite in comparison.
Nowadays Brazil is teaching the world a lesson in deliberative democracy. Its society is still gnawed severely by
rampant inequality and the environmental catastrophe of desertification in the North-East states. Residents of its largest cities
live in a continual state of preparation for violence wrought by a generation of youth with nothing to lose but a snort of glue
or coke and padding their pockets with the green bill. Still, this country has historically ushered into power a government
with a potential to introduce social change on a scale not seen since Chile’s Salvador Allende assumed power by popular
vote in 1970.
It’s against this contemporary background that, ever since Walter Salles’s surprise Oscar victory in the best Foreign
Film for Central Station (Central do
Brasil), every month has seen a steady flow of high-level cinematic creation. And every
semester has ushered in a masterpiece.
Excuse me for flogging the poverty of American cinema to a pulp fiction. It’s a lesson that so many Brazilians also
have yet to wake up to and learn. With the exception of David Lynch, American cinema has become a medium organized only
for the ideological dissemination of triumphalist abnegation. With every additional Gladiator thrown at a crowd starved for
art, U. S. people continue in their simultaneously pathetic and arrogant self-portrait, forever in denial over the fact that their
country is now nothing less than an Empire.
Caught in the web of the victim-hero complex, Americans suffer raw of being art-deprived by the commercial control
on what gets to be shown and advertised in their Homeland secure. They prove to the world that vis-à-vis their State the
population acts so often in complicity. For lack of political opposition, Americans underwrite the nightmare its current
administration is forging around the world. The scenario there is of intensified poverty, spread of war and hatred, and a
deregulated environment. Washington intellectuals seem unable to look at these outgrowths with clear eyes, were their spirits
imbued with reading Chicago School economics and attending Georgetown University foreign policy lectures.
As Noble laureate Joseph Stiglitz put it in his last book,
Globalization and its Discontents, the presence of the
grand Logos of Channel, Calvin Klein, or even MacDonald’s on the streets of the former socialist block states (Europe’s new
power centre, as Rumsfeld would have it) is anything but a sign of economic progress when ramping corruption aided and
abetted by the IMF’s fiscal ideology sends the masses tumbling into spiraling poverty.
Brazilian intellectuals long ago understood that art was incorporation, cannibalism. Failure to ingest leads a nation’s
art to wilt from depression, if not explode in fury.
Nor has the country been spared the ravages of globalized shareholder capitalism. After all, its ruling financial clique
has been among the IMF’s star players in market deregulation. Still, as if on a bas-relief, Brazilian cinema has become
political only in a broader sense. Were one to consider five bona fide cases,
To the Left of the Father (Lavoura Arcaica),
Hans Staden, Madame Satã, Behind the Sun
(Abril Despedaçado), or the greatest Brazilian international success since
Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, City of
God (Cidade de Deus), all of these films are set in the past.
Lavoura Arcaica is Luiz Fernando Carvalho’s mood piece of a young man’s passion for his sister. Based on one of
the foremost works in contemporary Brazilian literature, Raduan Nasser’s eponymous novel, it tells the tale of a Lebanese
immigrant family’s life in the Pindorama, toward the interior of São Paulo State. The images are crafted by Walter Carvalho,
the leading innovator among DoPs working in Brazil, or anywhere in the world at the moment.
At times distorting images of lust into anamorphic ecstasy, he reminds one of Alexander Sokurof’s tonal inversions
of Christ’s passion. Caught amidst the humidity of hills and forests, in which secrecy and denial carve at the family
patriarch’s staunch insistence for the Arabic homeland values to prevail, Carvalho’s camera inches by quoting Andrei Tarkovsky at
the edge of Starker’s void.
The film’s opening draws the viewer into a rush channeled by a stunning soundtrack mainly performed by Brazil’s
premier experimental ensemble, Uakti, with sound switched into curdled milk bathing your face. Not before its 171 minutes
stretch into the finale is the viewer released from penetration by the loss of unlivable desire.
Luiz Alberto Pereira’s Hans Staden is based on the autobiographical account of a German explorer and adventurer of
the same name, The True History of his Captivity, published in the 1557. It recounts the explorer’s plight at the hands of a
Tupinambá tribe on the coast of what was to become São Paulo state. The music composed by Marlui Miranda and Lelo Nazário, is
performed by Uakti once again. Its effect is to make the film’s language, spoken in Tupi, into a universal expression.
Staden had in fact learned the language, a trading lingua franca, after three years in Brazil. I can think of no film so
intelligently designed on earlier Amerindian life that has been produced in either Canada or the U. S.. Hans Staden’s nobility
is acknowledged by the Tupis, the privilege of which for a prisoner is to be eaten. The Tupis grace the "Friesian" explorer
with foremost hospitality. He is given a wife and allowed full participation in daily and spiritual life, as he awaits his fateful
moment. When illness starts ravaging the tribe, Hans Staden not only steals his fate by fleeing to Europe. He witnesses the
future devastation that disease would inflict on all American native nations without exception.
Madame Satã, directed by Karim Ainouz, is another film shot by Walter Carvalho, this time taking on Fassbinder’s
Querelle as deconstruction. Set in the hot Lapa district of Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s, swarming with
malandro hustlers, it traces the origins of a transsexual who would become one of the great celebrities of Rio’s Carnaval, dancing as a star with
numerous samba schools. A masterpiece of acting,
Madame Satã stars Lázaro Ramos, whose pathologic outbursts are only offset
by his finesse, artistic grace and brooding sexuality.
Living from the gregarious gender-bending cabarets that brought Brazilian transsexuals their international fame, Satã
becomes a hunted animal. He has slain an intoxicated gay-hater, who taunts him as if by a prohibitive messenger of God sent to
keep the marginal deep within the Styx. The film is an aural experience. Music and chatter reverberate through the narrow
alleys spreading under the bleach-white aqueduct that today hosts the roots samba revival. Through the heat and sweat, sex
and murder, the hands of the narrative leave the
cavaquinho and cuíca to pound drums built up multiplying
five-hundred-fold as the film sambas to climax.
Walter Salles was involved in Brazil’s recent tide of cinema from the startas was his family. In 1996, brother Murilo
Salles shot a stunning tale of regular teenage banditry,
Como Nascem os Anaw6kx (How Angels are
Born). It may only be seen these days by subscribers of Brazil’s fine cable channel, Canal Brasil, but this film anticipated the theme of kid-adults turned
into psychopathic killers as if fed on a diet of rampant poverty. Their late-father, founder and former head of Unibanco, one
of Brazil’s major investment banks, was a patron of the arts for many decades. His lavish house, an architectural wonder in
the heights over Gávea, is now open as an art and photo gallery, seating one of Rio’s best small-scale cinemas. A music
center has also recently been added to a research wing that had previously funded projects such as Claude Lévi-Strauss’
Odyssean Saudade for Brazil.
Whereas the name of most art patrons are lost within the stone and paint and glass of which their funds release the
creation, Salles passed his patronym onto cinema in the work of his sons. In
Behind the Sun, Walter sets a story written by
Albanian author Ismael Kandare in the legendary
sertão backlands. It’s a historical journey into the gang-related violence today
tearing apart Brazil’s urban fabric. The setting juts straight out from the initial chapters of Euclides da Cunhaa
Rebellion in the Backlands (Os
Sertões), but focuses on the plight of two clans condemned by the Law of Talion to seek retribution generation after
murdered generation for the killing of past loved ones. Walter Carvalho is again behind the lenses, this time venturing alone into
the infernal representational maelstrom as if following a caatinga plant’s off-shooting stems.
Carvalho’s astonishing work as director of photography should incite the reader to see his own documentary on
blindness, featuring Hermeto Pascoal and Wim Wenders. Indeed, Brazil’s documentary production has been second to none.
This year has seen two outstanding features, Edifício Master
and Ônibus 174, both set in contemporary Rio de Janeiro.
The outstanding films discussed above may innovate on fiction, representation and narrative through historical palettes. But
the documentary formwhether classically demarcated or integrated into fictional narrativesborrows present-time as
its instrument for staining tears with blood.
As a blood banquet, City of God reaches paradisiacal heights of filmic expression. Dovetailing so many features
composing this rising tide of cinema, its historical backtracking encapsulates what Brazil’s current renaissance is all about.
The samba and the funk, the poverty and rebellion, intensify the grind of living in two of the hemisphere’s largest cities,
need I say megalopolises. Much is still being written on the film and its social import, and more will surely be said. When I
think of its hip action, and its sanguine humanism, I grow into a victim, subdued by the syncopation of legendary samba
composer and cantor, Cartola.
His Psalm of Psalms beckons to art "Chora, disfarça e chora"Weep, disguise and weep. And I do so neither
because of what lies within the film’s form, nor owing to what attacks from without the cinema’s doors. No, I cry and clap and
scream because art exceeds life here in neo-realist form, reaching into the pantheons of creation and eternity as if set afloat on
Yemanja’s barque gliding beyond the underworld.
Norman Madarasz is a Canadian philosopher based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He welcomes comments