Saudade Cinema

Just say Mao to the left-leaning Brazilian Film Festival

With any luck, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, himself, will make an appearance at the Brazilian Film Festival. Indeed Lula would make a jolly addition to the films which, this year, express a bent toward the left-leaning policies Lula himself personifies. The charismatic former labor leader who rose to power through a populist movement, despite the handicaps of a limited education and rumors of alcoholism, would fit right in making a ruddy-nosed opening toast in Miami.

Most of the plot lines of the ten features and documentaries in competition portray underdogs, the enlightened poor, and the colorfully simple; characters such as Lula (sans alcoholic beverage in hand). With the exception of two romantic comedies, the image of Brazil in this year's selections veers away from cosmopolitan chic, and sticks to the plight of the downtrodden. There are heavy-handed portrayals of revolutionary film directors, street rappers, and fallen heroes with sparse conspicuous consumption or gratuitous sex. If the feeling is less than festive, perhaps that's part of the plan.

The feature documentary The Prisoner of the Iron Bars (O Prisioneiro da Grade de Ferro) screening Wednesday, June 9, could be a fitting example. From the outset, one is prepared for a gritty insider look at Carandiru House of Detention, the largest penitentiary in Latin America before it was torn down in 2002. In the opening credits, viewers are told that the film is actually shot by inmates. But as the film unspools, one sees well-crafted shots of the daily routine -- from the prison's organized food distribution system to the choreographed march of the clean-up crew. It soon becomes clear that the prisoners' own footage plays just a small role, such as jumpy closeups of centerfolds and overcrowded cells.

In one segment we meet Bea, a young inmate who works out daily in the boxing gym. He is strong and healthy with a solid middleweight frame. Smilingly he tells viewers he will show the gym, the grim circumstances, and a convict trying to do good. He casts a troubling pall on the entire project by saying, "There's no gym anymore. They had to shut it down, but we have recorded a couple of things."

The ensuing scene is of Bea and fellow boxer Joao sparring. Joao sports a fresh haircut for the camera, then offers: "You can see for yourself no one's smoking marijuana or doing nothing wrong."

From the boxers to the clandestine distillation of alcohol, to the black-market selling of cigarettes and the chemistry class, there is a staged quality to the scenes. An all-too-rosy picture emerges that would make an eight-year-old want to be a prisoner at Carandiru.

Especially after viewing the pictures of atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the documentary feels unreal and unbalanced. Despite the insistence that Carandiru is "a portal of Hell," the inmates filmed are clean, well fed, and sane (including the Satanist). The project smacks of a brand of brutality that is different from Abu Ghraib -- that of state-controlled propaganda.

The feeling crosses over into many of the dramatic feature films. A shining example is Under the Surface -- A Journey Up São Francisco River (Espelho D'Água -- Uma Viagem no Rio São Francisco). This film is the allegorical tale of Celeste (Regina Dourado), who leaves Rio to find her boyfriend Henrique (Fabio Assunção), an adventure-seeking photographer in Brazil's Sao Francisco River Valley.

As action-packed and prone to divine acts of intervention as a Bollywood spectacle, Under the Surface in each scene is heavily sculpted with archetypes of wise old river dwellers, good-hearted Santería practitioners, a strapping hero who is wily, honest, and hard to catch.

Under the Surface makes for easy watching, up to a point. The story is florid with mystical intrigue and the characters are, indeed, likable. Unfortunately the film is mired in successive vignettes that each offers its own moral lesson. The result, as with much of the dramatic works at this year's festival, is that Under the Surface is sunk by its own overbearing social doctrine, which is presented in a gloriously manicured and heroic light. The allegory falls just a tad short in its righteousness of the 1964 Marxist ballbuster, I Am Cuba.

Some would say that the bleeding-heart liberality is borne from the Brazilian concept of saudade, the darkly sweet pleasure of melancholy. Perhaps that's true, but aside from the comedies, no drama displays a cynical eye or ironic humor as in the classic film Bye Bye Brazil(screening Thursday, June 10, as part of the festival's José Wilker retrospective). Garrincha, Lonely Star (Garrincha -- Estrela Solitária), a biopic about fallen soccer hero Garrincha, would be an attractive sports tale were it not weighed down by saudadeand hero worship. The magnetic Taís Araújo lifts the film off the ground as the femme fatale Elza Soares, but otherwise Garrincha languishes in sentimentality. Passing By(De Passagem), the tale of three young men who grew up in the slums of São Paolo, also falls victim to sentimental suffering.

Only the comedies So Normal(Os Normais) and Sex, Love, and Betrayal(Sexo, Amor e Traição) manage to break the cycle of heavy-handed morality and heartache.

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