Brazilian filmmakers sometimes cast a punishing gaze toward the social ills of their country. It’s a feat of uninhibited self-examination that can make the viewer unsettled but also subdued by the beauty and mystery of this country, the directness of the image and the stirring tales of woes encountered by the characters who populate them.
Starting tomorrow and running through to May 18th the Cinémathèque Française will be showing a retrospective of Brazilian cinema featuring classic films like Roberto Farias’s 1962 “Assault on the pay train,” Jorge Bodanzky’s fly-on-the-wall-styled “Iracema” (1976) as well as more recent ones like Jose Padilha’s guns-blazing “Tropa de Elite” (2007) about the clashes between Brazil’s SWAT force and the populations living in favelas. Several documentaries also punctuate the selection such as works by the recently-departed Eduardo Coutinho and Joao Moreira Salles (Walter Salles’s brother) who directed a film called “Santiago,” released in 2007.
I spoke by phone with the Cinémathèque’s Bernard Payen, the exhibit’s curator and an eminent mind on film. He parsed together a lofty one hundred films that stretch all the way from the first silent films to the modern era. “Here in France, Brazilian cinema is not well-known, so the idea was to show not only the classics but also novelties and rarities in order to expose the richness of Brazilian-made cinema,” he told me.
Approximately ten years ago any follower of Brazilian cinema would’ve bet the house on it: a renaissance was taking place, birthing a new generation of filmmakers. Directors like Cao Hamburger, Karim Aïnouz, Claudio Assis, Heitor Dhalia and Esmir Filho, buoyed by the successes of Walter Salles and the Fernando Meirelles-directed “City of God” (2002), were making an internationally-marketable independent cinema that emitted a crackling burst of self-confidence and would insure their place at world-class festivals. Before this, the pungent social dramas of Glauber Rocha, the Argentine-born Hector Babenco, Nelson Pereira do Santos and Julio Bressane and others before them had been fixtures on the festival circuit for decades. And yet, the last ten years have been more sparsely populated by one-hit wonders and obscure indies that are hot at the festivals but get zero distribution push.
But Payen strongly refuted my assertion of a waning Brazilian cinema: “If you look at Locarno, Toronto, Rotterdam, and Berlin [festivals], young Brazilian cinema is very present. Films like ‘Casa Grande, ‘Permanencia’ (Leonardo Lacca), Gregorio Graziosi’s ‘Obra,’ these are all films with genuine narrative and formal strength,” he told me. “As far as I am concerned, there’s something happening in Brazilian cinema. That said, I understand others’ [festival programmers] constraints with programming, so it will take time for these young, new filmmakers to emerge,” Payen added.
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Programming an entire country’s film history is hard to do. When I mentioned the fact that “Central do Brasil” and “City of God,” both of which are featured in the selection, had gotten plenty exposure already Payen remarked that,” these films mark a turn, at a time when Brazilian cinema was losing speed. They gave it its identity back.” He added that, “having said this, there’s a right way to showing these films [to the public]. Programming is about creating a buzz, something memorable. So I planned an event around ‘City of God, by inviting Paulo Lins, who authored the book on which the film is based, to introduce the film next week. That same night we’ll also be showing “City of God – ten years later” by Cavi Borges and Luciano Vidigal.”
According to what Payen told me, many of the films to be shown this month and next were culled from the collections of the Brazilian Cinematheque and Rio’s Museum of Modern Art’s cinematheque. He dipped in the Cinémathèque Française’s own extensive catalog to supplement the rest. One hundred films in all. If those don’t provide a right education on Brazilian-made cinema they will undoubtedly afford the viewer a long-lasting impression of what is one of the world’s richest cinema.
Brésil! Une histoire du cinéma brésilien, la Cinémathèque Française, Paris, March 18-May 18 (with the support of Air France), phone: 01-71-19-33-33. (image: Daniel de Oliveira in 2008’s “A festa da menina morta”) (full program, in French).