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Filmed by Varda at the height of Nouvelle Vague's very short period of success with both critics and audiences, this short is a black and white silent comedy -- incorporated, in a slightly different version, in Varda's first feature "Cléo de 5 à 7" (1962) -- whose major interest today is the presence of a young Jean-Luc Godard (post-Breathless) as the protagonist. Emulating Buster Keaton's deadpan face and Harold Lloyd's fancy-clothed bespectacled romantic, Godard loves, disputes and saves his lovely fiancée, played by his then wife and muse Anna Karina (in a blond wig), and discovers that his somber vision of people and the world may very well be caused by his constant use of...dark-lensed glasses!
Varda tells us in her DVD introduction to this short that she wanted to show her friend Godard's beautiful, sad Buster Keaton eyes, always hidden behind his thick shades in everyday life. And she reveals to us what we've always suspected about JLG: that coupled with that genius wit, robotic voice and viperous lisping tongue there was a pair of sensitive, sad, soulful eyes. The short feels today like a heart-warming photograph of complex people allowing themselves to be slaphappy for a moment (even Eddie Constantine smiles!) and proves Varda's very special talent for capturing people's warmth and life-affirming vocation.
Unusual Marker stuff
Unlike most of Chris Marker's films, "Junkopia" has absolutely no dialog or voice-over text. We just see images of strange, weather-beaten sculptures randomly gathered on a windy seashore, reminiscent of familiar animals and objects, and which we gradually perceive to be made of common debris that were washed ashore in Emeryville beach, in the San Francisco area (where Marker was filming the "Vertigo" episode in "Sans Soleil"). The electronic music -- mixing radio waves, Arielle Dombasle's singing voice and synthesizers -- only adds to the eerie, otherworldly feeling, as if those figures belonged to a post-hecatomb Easter Island. It surely deserves to be seen (it's only 6 minutes long) and is available online at the very interesting ubu.com site.
Vive la baleine (1972)
Marker and the whales
Chris Marker's usual mix of "borrowed" pieces of different film textures (film, video, animation, photographs, paintings) serves as a poetic, passionate and very sound warning against the widespread, business-like, matter-of-fact killing of whales around the world. If today its message may sound obvious to most of us -- almost everybody is aware of the danger of whale extinction, though of course there are still killings out there -- it can still be enlightening as to the appalling methods of whale-hunting worldwide through the ages, as well as the very special place that this big cetacean has occupied in human mythology, history, economics and art, the "challenge" of little men killing the biggest animals on the planet, and making the mo$t of it.
The quality of the images vary tremendously, and for sure there are scenes that will make you cringe with horror (not unlike Geroges Franju's 1949 one-day-in-a-slaughterhouse "Le Sang des Bêtes"). Marker's incomparable talent for weaving his commentary with creative insight, historical research, wit, irony and common sense elevates this short film above the routine ecological documentary.
Le souvenir d'un avenir (2003)
Memories of a Future
Cinema's greatest essayist-artist Chris Marker pays homage to French photographer Denise Bellon (1902-1999) by making an incredibly beautiful, insightful montage of her photos of the 1930s and 1940s to show how the "great illusion" of post-WWI European peace gradually deteriorated into the horrors of WWII. Co-directed by Bellon's filmmaker daughter Yannick, "Le Souvenir d'un Avenir" combines Bellon's breathtaking images, Marker's nec plus ultra insightful/knowledgeable/poetic/ironic commentary (narrated by Pierre Arditi in the French version and by Alexandra Stewart in the English version), and a montage that can only be compared to great music.
Linked to the Surrealist movement and the legendary generation of photographers who worked (as she did) for the Alliance Photo Agency, Bellon showed through her images the signs of the ponderous, eerie calm preceding the big storm. Marker ingeniously reveals the links between apparently "innocent" images and the appalling realities that lay underneath -- the 1930s cult of calisthenics and physical health that indicated the Nazi (and Scandinavian, let's not forget it) theories of racial superiority and the Soviet cult of the strong proletariat; the formal and ideological clash between French and Soviet art at the Paris' World Fair of 1937; her photo of a gypsy bride on the cover of a 1939 Paris Match issue that also (and incredibly) included excerpts of "Mein Kampf" in which Hitler called gypsies and other "low" ethnicities "half-simian".
Like Marker throughout his own career, Bellon showed exceptional sensibility, intuitiveness and intelligence in being at dangerous spots in critical times: one moment she's in the then French colonies of Morocco and Tunisia, photographing the slave-like training of natives as future war troopers (the expendables ones) and the bordellos recruiting Tunisian women for the "repos" of the French military; then, she's at the German maneuvers in Finland that experimented with the heavy weaponry and war strategies soon to ensue; then she's at the Aran Valley in Spain, documenting the little-known, ill-fated uprising by Spanish Republicans against dictator Franco; then, in Paris, documenting the influx of French "ploucs" that initiated the policy of using (and abusing) low-class and immigrant labor force.
But "Le Souvenir d'un Avenir" is not a film-à-thèse: its political, cultural and sociological insights are just as historically sound as they are the product of Marker's superior and very personal sensibility and vision. It's also very moving, as there are many pictures of Bellon's two daughters (filmmaker Yannick and actress Loleh) in various phases of childhood and adolescence, against the changing backdrop of post-war France.
Made when he was at the age of 80(!), Marker's masterful art of transforming historical research into revelatory interpretation using images, words and sounds shows no signs of fatigue, and "Le Souvenir d'un Avenir" is the undebatable proof: it's probably his best since the masterpiece "Sans Soleil".
A Casa de Alice (2007)
Overrated investigation on the middle-class has some fine acting
"A Casa de Alice", the first fiction feature film by docu-maker Chico Teixeira, wouldn't be far from your regular soap opera if not for the way the camera investigates the characters -- instead of concentrating on facial expressions and dialog, it's the body language that interests Teixeira and that ultimately gives us the insight on the various characters (not unlike Susanne Bier's camera).
There's nothing about the story/plot/characters that you haven't seen before, except maybe that ALL the characters are ambiguous: Alice and her husband have affairs on the side; Alice's old mother has ailing eyesight but is the only one who sees every sordid thing that's going about; Alice's oldest son, Edinho, is a G.I. who's a male prostitute in his spare time; the middle son, Lucas, is granny's favorite but also a petty thief (that includes stealing from granny); angel-faced Junior, the youngest son, knows how to get the things he wants by being calculatedly adorable and cute. The ambiguity also applies to the supporting characters, like innocent-looking devilish neighbor Thais, or Alice's soft-talk lover Nilson.
There's serious misery-index in the film: everyone's frustrated and unhappy and in love with people who don't love them back. The single exception -- the one requited love -- is the urgent, possessive, alternately delicate and passionate bond (it's not clear whether actual intercourse is involved, though there are strong suggestions) between brothers Edinho and Junior. The camera lingers three or four extra beats on their mutual gazing and caresses and obvious horniness for each other -- so much so that their relationship nearly takes over the film.
The acting is fine all around, and Carla Ribas goes all the way in her bravura performance (she has won an array of awards for it), though she isn't quite convincing in the physique du role department: we're always aware she obviously doesn't come from the same world as Alice -- her fine skin, her voice, her accent belong to a higher social class. Theatrical legend Berta Zemel, as the elderly mother, shows all her skill in an almost silent part. But the finest, most thrilling acting comes from the three boys (all of them first-timers) who play the sons and nail their shadowy characters with perfection, with not one false note: they're the main reason to see "Alice".
The final third and the denouement are impossibly contrived (I don't want to enter spoiler territory); in such a realistic slice-of-life piece, it comes as a real disappointment. Anyway, the film may serve as a curio for non-Brazilian audiences who wrongly identify Brazilian films solely with favelas, drugs or gory violence -- Brazilian films about the struggles, dreams and frustrations of the middle classes are a century-long tradition and a big part of Brazilian cinema. Connoisseurs will certainly recall many that have more strength, insight and depth than this intermittently interesting, slow, grim, overrated and undeniably finely-acted "A Casa de Alice".
Linha de Passe (2008)
Walter Salles's most mature, satisfying film
Walter Salles's first Brazilian feature film since "Abril Despedaçado/Behind the Sun" (2001), "Linha de Passe" -- in which he shares direction credit with Daniela Thomas for the seventh time -- is a contemporary neo-realist essay that confirms Salles's humanist concerns. In these our times of cynicism, nihilism or downright pessimism, Salles's unbending belief in compassion, resilience and man's intrinsic goodness might seem naive or filled with Christian piety. But he's no preaching Pollyanna: he looks up to the great humanist filmmakers (Renoir and Rossellini on top) yet he never compromises in cheap schmaltz, happy-go-lucky naiveté or Hollywoodized feel-good endings.
Inspired by the insightful TV documentaries co-directed by Walter's younger brother João Moreira Salles, "Futebol" (1998 - revealing some of the shady business/management practices in Brazilian professional soccer) and "Santa Cruz" (2000 - about the sweeping spread of Protestant cults in Brazil, especially among the poor), "Linha de Passe" takes the structure from Visconti's "Rocco and his Brothers" -- a mother raising four sons striving for dignity and a better life in a big, oppressive city -- and transposes it to an ugly, lumpen neighborhood (Cidade Líder) in the outskirts of São Paulo.
The family is poor, not destitute: they belong to the working-class that's near-bottom but not quite. Forty-something house- cleaner Cleuza is pregnant with her fifth child (we never meet the fathers). Her four sons are teenagers Dinho, a gas station attendant who joins a Pentecostal cult in his search for purity of body and soul; sly Dênis, a motorcycle courier whose desperate need for money to help raise his baby son (he's separated from the boy's mother) and pay for his bike leads him to crime; closed-in Dario, who at 18 may already be too old to pursue his dream in professional soccer; and super-smart pre-teen Reginaldo, whose black skin makes him an outcast even in his own family, as he obsessively goes for bus rides in search of his unknown bus-driver father.
The plot, structure and dialog may seem occasionally déjà vu, and the screenplay (by co-director Thomas and TV-writer George Moura, with "City of God"'s Bráulio Mantovani's "collaboration") doesn't quite succeed in developing the five individual stories with equal creativity and strength (Dinho's thread is the best, Dênis's the most contrived). Clichés surface whenever middle- and high-class characters are involved. And, as usual with Salles, water symbolisms abound: the rain, the soul-cleansing shower scene with Dinho and Dario, a baptism in the lake, culminating with a maddeningly obvious clogged sink, symbolizing the "clogged" lives of the characters.
Despite all that, there's a LOT going for "Linha de Passe". The setting and locations are among the film's finest qualities: away from the over-explored favela environment and its usual combo of guns, drugs and violence, the film focuses on one often overlooked geographic and social landscape of Brazil's class structure. It's also a miracle of casting, from the right physiognomies (the five protagonists really look like they share DNAs) to the careful attention for accent-nailing, something very rare in Brazilian films (actors from different parts of Brazil speak with accents typical of São Paulo's periphery). Their performances are dazzling, especially when you consider that, excepting Vinícius de Oliveira (Dario), they're all feature film first-timers. Sandra Corveloni, surprise winner of 2008 Cannes Best Actress Award for her role, is the spine of the film as the weather-beaten, end-of- the-rope mother trying to hold her crumbling family together. The four boys are impressive, but José Geraldo Rodrigues is simply stunning as soul-searching Dinho: he's a seriously talented actor (it's also the best, richest role).
Salles's tone is, as usual, melancholy but never maudlin; he's too classy to stoop to audience manipulation. He's found in D.P. Mauro Pinheiro ("Cinema Aspirinas e Urubus") the ideal cameraman for this film, away from the beautifying images that compromised parts of his other films -- the imagery here is dry, desolate, akin to some of the best recent South American movies by Lucrécia Martel, Pablo Trapero or Pablo Stoll. The emotional power comes out of staring at "real" people in real locations, in the best neo-realist tradition (the scenes at the soccer stadium are especially compelling). The carefully planned editing fully succeeds in keeping the 5 stories alive and interconnecting in fine rhythm. Gustavo Santaolalla's spellbinding, deceptively simple music proves once again that he -- more than any other contemporary film composer -- owns the secret key to open hearts and minds without ever sounding obtrusive, overblown or mawkish.
"Linha de Passe" wisely and democratically offers "open" denouements for each character's thread: it's OUR job to come up with the conclusions, and they'll depend on our (in)ability to believe there's still light at the end of the tunnel (for some of the characters, at least). But Salles+Thomas's affirmative position comes clearly in the shape of the closing credits' song: the classic samba "Juízo Final" by Nelson Cavaquinho ("The sun will shine once more/ Light will reach the hearts/ The seed of evil will burn out"). It's the same song that we heard at the closing credits of Jorge Durán's moving humanist manifesto "Proibido Proibir" (2007). It's no "coincidence": the song is there, as it was in Durán's film, because -- if we're ANY human -- we leave the theater feeling that, unlike the tons of junk movies which desensitize us in the name of "entertainment", we've just seen a film that ACTUALLY has urgent, important things to say. And says it sensitively, insightfully, poignantly.
Os Desafinados (2008)
Out of tune alright - and not just slightly
"Os Desafinados" is a long-cherished personal project from experienced director Walter Lima Jr (he began making films in 1965) and his first film in seven years -- his last was the awful "Um Crime Nobre", with Ornella Muti. "Desafinados" is so obviously a labor of love that its almost complete failure only makes our hearts sink deeper: it's hesitating, confusing, under- achieved and schmaltzy. And interminable -- 139 minutes of relentless tedium.
The title derives from Antonio Carlos Jobim+Newton Mendonça's landmark song "Desafinado" (a.k.a. "Slightly Out of Tune"), and it's a fantasy tribute to the generation of young Brazilian musicians who, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, invented a new, cool, sexy musical style -- the bossa nova -- that spread like an epidemic and still remains influential around the globe. The film is also an "inside" mea-culpa piece about the Cinema Novo generation, of which Lima was an active but not quite top-talented member. Far from being insightful (for the older generation) and revealing (for the younger), "Desafinados" just seems sloppy, muddled and lifeless.
To begin with, there are serious problems with the script. The film is a sketch collage of factual events, personal memories and notorious anecdotes with plain fiction, but everything is dead, like old jokes told by someone devitalized. There are signs of major re-cutting, with probably many scenes left out (especially in the first third) because the story moves by bumpy jumps -- but it's still endlessly long. Composite and imagined characters share a contrived co-existence. The love triangle between the characters of Rodrigo Santoro, Cláudia Abreu and Alessandra Negrini never rings true, because Negrini's character barely exists to begin with, and we can never believe ANYONE would dump gorgeous, sophisticated Abreu to go back to plain hometown girl Negrini.
Worse, there's no excuse that Lima used the tragic real fate of bossa nova pianist Tenório Jr -- who, during a 1976 tour in Buenos Aires with Vinicius de Moraes was abducted and probably assassinated under still mysterious circumstances by the Argentinian military regime; his body's still missing -- in a such a superficial, casual way. The film suddenly alters its tone from light romantic musical comedy to political tragedy but the result is phoniness. To top it all, the discombobulated denouement with Santoro in a double role is SO far-fetched and maudlin that you'll have to revise your list of top-awful film finales.
Then, there are BIG casting problems. In a film obviously made with an eye on the international market, there are supporting actors playing U.S., Argentinian and French nationals with NOT ONE of them nailing his accent right. The cast is a motley crew of non-acting musicians (Jair Oliveira, the bassist, and André Moraes, the drummer) and non-musician actors struggling to play their instruments for real, with very distracting results: Santoro's spider-like, stiff hands could never belong to a fine pianist, André Paes Leme's awkward fingers lack the agility and grace of a real guitarist's. Cláudia Abreu plays a flutist/singer and is dubbed on both counts (except when she and Santoro wreck Pixinguinha's classic "Carinhoso" with their non-singer voices). Her dubbed singing voice (by Lima's real-life daughter Branca Lima) sounds mismatched and emotionally flat. At least we're lucky to be stuck with such gorgeous-looking stars as Santoro and Abreu -- she, especially, looks stunning. But we once AGAIN have to endure omnipresent Selton Mello's maddening ad lib routines at its most irritating (and he's a master at that) in the portrait of the Cinema Novo filmmaker who's a fraud (innuendos galore).
Of course, with Jobim, Mendonça et al, one can't complain about the music -- or can one? Many classic Brazilian songs are there, once AGAIN ("Desafinado", "Carinhoso", "Insensatez", "Copacabana", "Meditação" etc), and musical director Wagner Tiso's re-vamping of those songs are unimaginative and bureaucratic, and on occasion terribly contrived (the jazz club scene with the mix of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" and Jobim's "Só Danço Samba"). The two new songs are lackluster: Wagner Tiso's pastiche of a bossa nova and Jair de Oliveira's unremarkable pop-samba-soul. There's a lot of locations (Rio, Niterói, New York City, Buenos Aires) and with experienced Pedro Farkas as D.P., the film looks pretty but déjà vu -- once AGAIN we're given the standard images of tourist spots (Copacabana, the Sugar Loaf, Manhattan, the Central Park, Nueve de Julio) and we're somehow supposed to look at Rio's present-day skyline and pretend we don't see the huge buildings that were built decades after the 1960s.
But, amid all that mess, for 5 minutes the film gloriously comes to life (hence the 3-star rating): when the sham filmmaker (Selton Mello) watches the rushes from his film- within-the-film "Bala Certeira", we in the audience immediately recognize the unmistakable, dazzling style of veteran Cinema Novo cameraman Dib Lutfi (who actually shot those scenes and, not coincidentally, also shot Lima's best film, "A Lira do Delírio"). It takes us from our torpor, makes us sit up and think we're finally seeing SOMETHING. We immediately recall Lutfi's electrifying, swirling, subversive, trend-setting hand-held camera-work in such Cinema Novo classics as "Terra em Transe", "Grande Cidade", "A Falecida", "O Desafio" (to name but a few). It makes us once again acknowledge Lutfi's huge, seminal contribution to Cinema Novo's aesthetics. Those few minutes by Lutfi are so much more powerful than everything else in "Os Desafinados" -- more powerful than dozens of visually bland contemporary Brazilian films -- that it may be worth watching "Desafinados" just for those few minutes...but then, on a second thought, better watch "Terra em Transe" or "A Falecida" instead, any day.
As an admirer of Saramago's masterpiece and Fernando Meirelles's exciting talent, I went to see "Blindness" with a pure heart but modest expectations; we all know how movie adaptations of great literature can be disappointing. But I wasn't prepared for the formal and philosophical nada that is "Blindness" -- it could very well be entitled "Blandness" instead.
The problems start from the opening credits: after the names of a dozen international production companies comes the hype tag "A Very Independent Production". Following this tongue-in-cheek "manifesto", the opening scene -- of the first man turning blind inside his car -- belies it all: it looks alarmingly like an ad for the new Fiat Punto (Fiat is one of the film's backers). It's a shameless piece of merchandise placement that immediately distracts you from what's supposed to be a harrowing scene; you pay attention to the car, not the man (excruciatingly played by Yusuke Iseya, in the film's worst performance).
The "very independent production" has more than a share of compromises, including the terribly contrived Japanese couple, who seem to belong to another film, and who are there to satisfy the Japanese co-producers and market. Or the timid, squeezed-in "action" flashes (cars crashing, planes exploding) to satisfy "action" lovers (NOT the public for "Blindness"). Or the debatable decision to film in English an author who brought new heights to Portuguese-language prose, in order to employ American stars and accommodate the international market.
Worst of all, we know now that Meirelles decided to re-cut the film six times since Cannes, after test audiences were "disgusted" with "graphic" scenes. Now, how can you keep your vision (oops) trying to please everybody? Can't. The film never finds a tone, wavering between the novel's apocalyptic, sarcastic allegory of society's prejudices, cruelty, ridicule and flawed power systems, and clumsy attempts to insert sci-fi thriller touches and invest on "plot". Well, Saramago's novel is a masterpiece NOT because of the plot but for the exquisite prose and caustic politico-philosophical insights.
It would be easy to blame the film's failure solely on Don McKellar's schematic adaptation that resembles a first draft, riddled with bad dialog and pedestrian ideas, plus a narrator (Danny Glover's character) that confusingly comes in halfway into the film. But the problems are all around: César Charlone's visual gimmicks soon get tiresome (the blurring "white blindness" ultimately drains the film of all life; it takes away the visual as well as the emotional edge); Marco Antonio Guimarães's music is abysmally bland; Daniel Rezende (the superb editor of "City of God") never finds a compelling rhythm, alternating chopped scenes with unnecessary longueurs (e.g.the embarrassing "cute dog" sequence). Art director Tulé Peak nails the claustrophobic squalor of the quarantine facility, but the garbage-filled streets often look suspiciously composed.
The actors seem lost, and that's a shock considering Meirelles's former films (remember how "City of God" had all-around brilliant performances?). Though they're supposed to play stereotypes (doctor, wife, whore, etc), they lack the transformations that are the crux of the novel -- how they work out their humanity in extreme mondo cane conditions. Mark Ruffalo, of whining voice and gutless face, looks like a boy who's lost his mommy rather than a dedicated ophthalmologist who slowly sinks into depression because he's impotent to help others or himself. Danny Glover plays a weather-beaten one-eyed old man incongruously sporting a supermegawhite Beverly Hills dental job that renders him impossible to believe in. The Japanese couple struggle with ludicrous scenes and dialog. Alice Braga is strong and sexy, but her character's complexities never surface, especially the nature of her relationships with the young boy and the doctor. Maury Chaykin's repellent character is underwritten and under-explored, and he turns to overacting for attention. Don McKellar's thief is an embarrassment and Sandra Oh's cameo is a waste.
Julianne Moore spends the first half hour repeating her role of the depressed/misunderstood wife in "The Hours" (cake-baking included). She fails to convey the bewilderment as to the "why" she's the only one to keep her eyesight, but she's good when she gets into action, though she could take a break from her de rigueur slow-motion crying scene, with that weird thing she does curling her mouth upside down (my friend said "Oh, no, it's coming!"). The best performance comes from Gael García Bernal playing the amoral, jackass opportunist: he makes the most unbelievable character (how about his rise to power? And gun? And ammo?) come to life -- in his scenes, we recognize Meirelles's naughty, un-PC sense of humor.
Above all, it's Meirelles (director, co-producer and responsible for the final cut) who disappoints; his customary assertive film-making flounders in hesitation here. Perhaps he felt the burden of trying to remain too faithful to the novel of a Nobel-winner who's still alive. Perhaps he felt crushed by the brooding material; Meirelles is best when he can let irony and humor show (as in "Domésticas" and "City of God"). Though some people complain about the "graphic" sex/rape scenes, they're actually almost bashful (at least after the re-cuts). The novel's corrosiveness asked for an uncompromising, irrepressible director of Buñuel's lineage -- if there was one -- to do it full justice (the characters' passiveness/impotence recall "Exterminating Angel"). In this our time, Béla Tarr could've made it gloriously bleak; Lars von Trier could've turned it into a shattering, sardonic horror, if he got back into his splendid "Kingdom"/"Zentropa" shape.
"Blindness" is not bad at all -- it's just insipid and frustrating. Maybe Meirelles should do next a Portuguese-speaking Brazilian film again and re-fuel his soul with his own culture, language and themes. Brazilian cinema needs him badly; abroad, he's just one more talented, competent "foreign" director, and these multinational ventures often turn out muddled or impersonal (think Kassovitz, Susanne Bier, Hirschbiegel...). He can do much better, and we deserve much better from him.
Os Inconfidentes (1972)
Preaching the revolution -- with lucidity
After the huge critical and box-office acclaim of the iconoclast political satire "Macunaíma" (1969), director Joaquim Pedro de Andrade raised funds in Brazil and Italy (through RAI-TV) to make "Os Inconfidentes", a politically and artistically ambitious (though low budget) film that tries to throw new lights on the most important political event in colonial Brazil the ill-fated plotting of a coup d'état by a group of Brazilian military officers, poets and intellectuals and their failed attempt to overthrow the Portuguese Crown and establish a Brazilian Independent Republic in 1789, inspired by Rousseau and the success of the American Revolution.
The conspiracy failed due to many factors, perhaps most importantly the lack of proper organization, funds and efficient articulation with sympathetic groups. Once the coup plans were discovered, some of the conspirators ("inconfidentes", hence the film's title) were imprisoned and tortured, and one of them committed suicide in jail. Most of them were exiled, but one was "exemplarily" sentenced to death: the impetuous young dentist and low-rank military officer Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, aka "Tiradentes". In 1792, he was hanged, beheaded and quartered, his head and limbs subsequently displayed in public roads as a scary cautionary warning for potential conspirators. One century later, Tiradentes became Brazil's highest martyr and hero, of course, when Independence was finally declared in 1889.
Andrade re-stages (with liberties) the actual events in some of the historical locations (the fantastically well-preserved villages of Ouro Preto and Mariana and their amazing 18th century architecture), aiming at a contemporary political meaning -- in 1972 Brazil was living the darkest years of its violent military regime (1964-1985), with arbitrary imprisonment, torture and/or assassination of hundreds of political activists, not unlike what had happened in 1789. But Andrade wisely avoids naive revolutionary propaganda: "Os Inconfidentes" is rather an alert against hurried, hot-headed, improvisational actions by small activist groups who, though speaking in the name of the "oppressed majority", are perhaps guided by class or political esprit de corps, or utopian, unrealistic ideals (Glauber Rocha had already called attention to these issues with his 1967 "Terra em Transe"). "Os Inconfidentes" is also about the role of artists and intellectuals in the political fights of the tumultuous 1970s, when most of Latin America was stifling under violent military regimes.
Andrade had another BIG obstacle to dribble: censorship, that would never allow him to "reinterpret" the official version of History. Thus, he goes down to the actual historical sources, using as dialog material the actual letters, articles, poems and legal testimonies of the conspirators, as well as the Portuguese government's official reports on the "interrogation" proceedings (that notoriously included torture, as it did in the 1970s). "Os Inconfidentes" features erudite, archaic 18th century vernacular that is almost incomprehensible to average modern audiences, but the subtitles in Portuguese in the newly released restored DVD version are a lot of help (there are also finely translated subtitles in English, French and Spanish). Besides, Andrade takes for granted the audience's knowledge of historical facts: if you really want to understand plot and characters, you have to do your homework first.
This choice for archaic vernacular leads Andrade to let the talented, experienced cast overact (if the audiences can't understand the words, they can at least sense the urgency and despair through loud, theatrical performances), with Wilker (as Tiradentes), Pereio, Sabag and Carlos Gregório shamelessly hamming it up -- though Andrade never lets pastiche set in: it's a painful, tragic film. The film closes with contemporary official propaganda newsreel footage glorifying Tiradentes's martyrdom: we see the "power elite" of Brazilian dictatorship paying homage to a man whose ideology couldn't be farther away from theirs. It's a startling reminder of the way history is often conveniently "reinterpreted" by the men who happen to be in power.
"Os Inconfidentes" is far from an easy film but -- for those willing to do their homework -- it demonstrates that even in times of intense censorship it's still possible to deliver a powerful political message, albeit through "codified" language.
Cão Sem Dono (2007)
Blog translated to movies
"Cão Sem Dono" ("Stray Dog") is the nearest thing resembling a blog that you may see in a movie format. We follow "stray dog" Ciro (scrawny, scruffy Júlio Andrade), a lonely, depressed, boozing, struggling translator whose nihilistic dull life is turned upside down when he meets lively struggling model Marcela (gummy-smiling Tainá Müller), until she's diagnosed with a disease that forces Ciro to realize the urgency of his feelings for her, and also to face his relationship with his parents and his own nameless stray dog (much healthier-looking than Ciro himself).
Most of the film takes place in a bare, shabby flat where the couple make love and avoid talking about their feelings or the past or the future. But "Stray Dog" is a far cry from "Last Tango in Paris": it's a portrait of a Brazilian middle-class 20-something urban generation that failed to make the transition from adolescence into adulthood, marked by emotional, political and philosophical numbness and lack of goals. It's based on the novella by 27 year-old Daniel Galera, who started his career as --you guessed it -- a blog writer. The movie feels just like reading most blogs you find on the net: confessional, self-centered and disillusioned.
"Stray Dog" is just 82 minutes long, though it feels like 120. Not just for the repetitiveness of the scenes and situations, but also because we're stuck with a main character so numb and depressed we wish he were into amphetamines instead of booze and pot. The film becomes a little more lively every time anyone else is on the screen (especially the dog), though most of the actors are asked to perform in a "real-life" key (overlapping banal dialog, mumbling, poor improvising) that makes them little interesting. Fortunately, there are two or three good quotes in prose and poetry (by Sergio Faraco, among others) to momentarily save our ears from the dominant triviality. Most annoying is the film's denouement: a happy ending here was SO uncalled for and SO dissonant with the film's overall mood that director Beto Brant's solution is to do it quickly -- it's the most contrived, unsatisfying, unconvincing happy (or any) ending in recent times and a particular letdown considering Brant's former films (his previous films had quite stunning finales).
Brant's choices continue to astound many of his followers: his first three films ("O Matador", "Ação entre Amigos", "O Invasor") showed he possessed exciting wit, technique and rhythm, with a gift for taut story-telling that's very rare in Brazilian film-making. With his later "Crime Delicado", he chose to experiment with literary and theatrical textures, and though the film never really caught fire, his visual solutions still glowed. With "Cão sem Dono", Brant's talents seem completely wasted: he dives into a petty-poetry, amateur-looking, visually and aurally boring, "love's-the-cure" film that we might expect from an inexperienced 20-something filmmaker (Brant is 42).
Anyway, this film has won a number of awards, and may attract romantic, poetic-natured adolescents and young adults. Tainá Müller's beauty is a definite plus here (though her awful singing is a major turn-off) counterbalancing the fact that we have to endure the sight of Júlio Andrade's scrawny, corpse-like body wearing nothing but drab briefs through most of the film.