Time was when the annual Cannes Film Festival was about the only game of its kind. That colorful event having added a ton of gold to the coffers of Provence, it was only natural that other cities began to want their own festivals. Now one can scarcely find a town (except possibly Ojus) that does not host at least one festival per annum. And as so often happens in the Olympian regions of art, oxygen tends to run pretty thin. As you know if you've attended all or part of any festival, despite the ballyhoo you're lucky to find two or three films that stay in the mind longer than twenty minutes.
The problem is largely economic: big business versus art; major studios buying their way into the festivities; high-profile stars showing up for the klieg lights and the TV interviews. Occasionally a low-budget sleeper with no pretension to be anything but its simple, honest self will sneak onto the program, but on the whole major film festivals are nothing more than glamour circuses. Except for Sundance, which really seems to look for independent efforts with artistic aspirations, the film festival is to cinema what the rock concert is to music. It comes no closer to being a collection of the finest screen work available than are the five annual Oscar nominees.
With far less advanced hype than is customary for the "major" circuses, the Bill Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami campus will host the first Brazilian Film Festival, beginning this Friday, May 30, and running through Sunday, June 8. (For a full screening schedule, see our "Calendar Listings" section.)
This particular festival is notable for the fact that the nine offerings are not an eclectic mix chosen for a host of reasons, but rather a collection whose members share a common national origin: All were produced during the past several years, after the availability of private-sector funds made filmmaking possible again -- the industry had generally relied on government subsidies until they were abruptly halted in the late 1980s. Judging from the five films I screened, there is nothing here to match the lyrical artistry of Black Orpheus, but those who have seen the works that appeared during the three decades between the release of that masterpiece and the drying up of the subsidies can take heart that in at least two instances this festival gives us reasons to applaud warmly and to anticipate future riches. We may also rejoice that financial success has not yet washed down the Amazon into the pockets of new moguls casting envious eyes toward Hollywood; the time has not yet come for them to sink hundreds of millions into special effects and bankable stars. These films come from directors who by and large are seeking honesty in the way that the Italian neo-realists of the 1950s were seeking truth. If no Vittorio De Sica has yet emerged, perhaps our patience will be rewarded eventually.
One outstanding work is O Quatrilho (Saturday, June 7, at 8:00 p.m.), which won an Oscar nomination last year as Best Foreign Language Film. This category, by the way, is usually thought of as being somehow inferior to Hollywood's elite final five. While the winner may achieve a fair amount of recognition at Blockbuster, the losers are quickly forgotten. What a shame, and what a gift to us that this wonderful piece can now be seen in South Florida. Were it not for the fact that Miami has one of the largest Brazilian communities in the nation, this opportunity would no doubt never have come our way.
The title refers to a four-handed card game, but in this case it alludes to the interplay between the four leads: two Italian immigrant couples in rural Brazil of 1910 who take up joint residence on a large farm because neither can afford to run it alone. It isn't long before we discover that each couple is completely mismatched, a situation not uncommon for the time and locale of the story. In order to relieve families of economic burdens, people were expected to marry as soon as possible; love blossomed only as a rare coincidence.
At first the foursome functions as a small commune, meeting their simple needs by working the land. But brooding, introverted Angelo (played by Alexandre Paternost) has his eyes on bigger things. A born entrepreneur, he learns how to manipulate the burgeoning capitalist economy to his advantage; he soon has the farm paid off and invests in a number of other businesses. His bride Teresa (portrayed with smoldering, repressed passion by Patricia Pillar) is relegated to a position of unimportance in his life and compensates by casting suggestive sidelong glances at Massimo, the other young groom (newcomer Bruno Campos), whose own wife Pierina (played superbly by Gloria Pires) is far less sensuous and life-affirming than he.
Teresa and Massimo soon realize they are meant for each other, and in no time they have run away together, leaving the abandoned Angelo and Pierina to run the farm and to suppress their hidden, natural urges. Of course, it takes a while for nature to run its course, but once it does, Pierina finds herself pregnant. Where once the village neighbors and parish priest were sympathetic to their plight, public and church opinion does an about-face. Pierina is condemned openly in the church, and in the most gripping scene in the film, she confronts the priest, impelled by an onrush of passionate anger she has never allowed herself to feel.
But this is not a simple tale of moral revenge in which the abandoned pair prospers while the adulterous pair pays a price for sin. We are given a hint that Angelo has continued to do well for himself. The realigned sets of lovers have many children as the years roll by, and the film ends with formal photographs of both families, well-dressed and presumably happy. Of course, one wonders. The author, Jose Clement Pozenato, does not insist upon a point of view. He supports neither capitalism nor socialism, the economic systems vying for control in the twenty-year span covered by the story. Nor does he present Catholicism as a force of moral hypocrisy, but simply as a context within which a conscientious but rigid country priest loses compassion for a suffering woman who cannot follow what he regards as the universal, eternal rules of behavior.
O Quatrilho owes much to French novels of a century and a half ago, which may have given literature its purest form of realism. When you think of Pozenato, think also of Balzac. He has written an epic of large dimensions, admirably realized by director Fabio Barreto. You won't find special computerized effects; even the eroticism is conveyed through the stillness of the human eye, which cannot conceal the fire inside. You might want to think also of Italian neo-realists like early Fellini and Rossellini. Not bad company.
In startling contrast to the relative sophistication of O Quatrilho is Terra Estrangeira (Foreign Land) (Friday, May 30 at 8:00 p.m., Sunday, June 1 at 6:00 p.m., and Sunday, June 8 at 8:00 p.m.). Shot in black and white and strongly reminiscent of minor Hollywood film noir of the Forties, it has been screened in nearly two dozen earlier festivals throughout the world -- a fact that supports my theory about such events in general. In fact, it even won the Public's (not the critics') Prize at the Paris Film Forum in 1995. This is not surprising news -- the film is a bang-bang-you're-dead melodrama, with young lovers caught up in a web of sleazy crooks in the underworlds of So Paulo and Lisbon in 1990.
Paco (Fernando Alves Pinto) is a 21-year-old aspiring artist who longs to become a classical actor. Over the opening credits, rolling against a background of traffic rumbling on an elevated boulevard alongside Sao Paulo tenements, we hear Paco's voice reciting a monologue from Dr. Faustus. The effect is haunting, but regrettably it's the only real moment of art the film achieves.
Soon we realize that directors Walter Salles, Jr., and Daniela Thomas intend an allegory, as Paco finds himself desperately in need of money after the newly elected Brazilian president freezes all savings accounts. He is sent to Lisbon by an underworld lord -- read: Mephistopheles -- named Igor (played with smirky charm by Luis Mello) to deliver stolen diamonds hidden inside a Stradivarius. There he meets and falls in love with a girl named Alex (Fernada Torres), whose drug-addicted lover has been killed by the mob.
The plot is predictably tragic, as the hero has figuratively sold his soul to the Devil, and true love will not conquer all. There's lots of suspense in the old-fashioned sense of the word, underscored by agitated music, except in the long and slow-moving love scenes, underscored by a romantic guitar. If you're out on the town and feel "gala" by the time you reach the Cosford Cinema, you might have some fun. But don't forget to shut down your critical faculties -- and be sure to arm yourself with a bucket of popcorn. One cannot accuse the Brazilian filmmakers of an overwrought nationalism. The moral decay of Catholic Brazil in 1910 and the murky corruption of present-day Sao Paulo led me to wonder how the history of colonial Portuguese settlements might be portrayed. As I suspected, Carlota Joaquina Princesa do Brazil (Carlota Joaquina Princess of Brazil (May 31 and June 5 at 8:00 p.m., and June 8 at 6:00 p.m.) offers a quick and jaded history lesson, as it deals with the late-eighteenth-century arrival of Portuguese "nobility," which displaced the largely black indigenous population. According to this 97-minute romp, directed by Carla Camurati, the entourage, washed up on the shore like Holly Hunter and company minus a piano, comprised an uncouth, hedonistic bunch out to plunder the resources of the New World, lacking even the pretext of carrying the light of civilization into "primitive" darkness.
Carlota the Lisbon Princess (played with an unwavering insensitivity and a steadfast expression of contempt for everyone by Marieta Severo) is depicted as a dedicated nymphomaniac, married to a drunken, slothful, glassy-eyed Prince (portrayed with monotonous languor by Marco Nanini) whom she soon discards in favor of a native Brazilian named Fernando Leao (Norton Nascimiento), the most elegant male character in the film. His wife is the only beautiful woman we ever see in this flick, and one wonders why he ever bothered with the witchy Carlota, who begins to grow thick hair on her face after being stricken with a tropical disease.
Clearly the film would have us believe that the Portuguese originally did little except corrupt a civilization that had existed long before their appearance. (Shades of the revisionist attitude toward American history that was strong back in the 1960s.) The film's wacky tone is sometimes amusing, but it soon wears thin as we realize how long we're going to be stuck with these gross and unpleasant people. The tale is told in flashback by a Scotsman to a young Scottish girl for reasons that are never made clear. The script demands that she become enthralled by it, but we don't have to be.
You will, however, be enthralled by the film with a title that at first inspired me with dread: Bananas Is My Business (May 31 and June 7, both evenings at 6:00 p.m.). When I saw that it was to be a documentary about Carmen Miranda, I was even more apprehensive. Who has not seen those 20th Century Fox Technicolor musicals of the Forties and Fifties in which Carmen Miranda -- hips zigzagging, hands fluttering, mouth grinning from ear to ear, elongated lashes bobbing up and down to the rhythm of the samba, underneath a ludicrous fruit-salad hat -- sang in Spanish at world-record speeds? Remember? Betty Grable and Cesar Romero were always sitting at a nightclub table, cooing at each other while Carmen's nonstop gyrations kept pulsating in the background. Where would AMC be without Carmen Miranda and her crazy chatter, saying "mouse" for "mouth," "souse" for "south," and, inevitably, "I loff you, mi corazon"?
Those of us old enough to have seen the originals will admit that Fox and Carmen gave us our image of what South America was like. We assumed at the time that her contagious vivacity and delightful massacre of "our" language was what we would find if we ever got there; that life in Brazil or Argentina was one long carnival, one long eruption of balloons and tinsel, danced by an innocent, naive, but charming population. This film helps us to discover what we should have realized years ago, if indeed we had ever thought about it: that Carmen Miranda had nothing to do with South America, that she was a wartime Hollywood fabrication, the ultimate escape from reality.
What we could not have known at the time, of course, is that Carmen, whose tragic destiny parallels that of her contemporary, Marilyn Monroe, was as good an actress as Marilyn; she too persuaded us that she was having the time of her life up there on the screen. Both women were turned into glamour symbols, sequined Stepford wives whose souls had been pilfered while they slept.
What we certainly did not know is that Carmen's native country of Brazil did not like what Hollywood did to her. She was the Edith Piaf of Rio before Lee Schubert, who happened to catch her act one night, talked her into starring for him on Broadway. Then came her Fox movie debut, and, as she sang of the "Souse American Way," audiences laughed up a storm and clamored for more. Like the ditzy blonde Monroe was doomed to play in film after film, Miranda's persona stayed with her during her fifteen years of stardom. When critics attacked her for the monotony of her performances and suggested that she try something more serious, she answered with the song that the documentary takes for its title: "Bananas Is My Business." The grammatical error was carefully calculated to assure the American public that their "bombshell" was never going to change, was never going to learn English, even as she would never grow old or have any pain in her life. The complete version of the American Dream is this: Everyone ought to be able to get ahead and never pay a price for it.
This film, well crafted by director Helena Solberg and narrated in English, is a powerful dissection of Tinseltown: how Hollywood works as seen through the eyes of Brazil. It offers a searing indictment of the studio system and the enslavement of its stars, who were given anything they wanted except a sense of their own identity. Marilyn presumably took her own life. So did Judy Garland -- who, ironically, is shown here joyously embracing Carmen in one sequence. Carmen virtually committed suicide. She took thousands of uppers to energize those relentlessly swaying hips and just as many downers so she could sleep. At 46 she was a worn-out old woman who collapsed in front of an audience and died later that night. The actual footage of her final appearance presents an image that will stay with you a long time. Here is a film that Hollywood would never have made. If you don't mind being disturbingly enlightened, jump at this rare chance to see it. Originally shown in this country on PBS, it may now reach the large audience it deserves.
Having already been shown at the Boston and Recife Festivals, Pequeno Dicionario Amoroso (Little Book of Love) (Saturday, May 31 at 10:00 p.m., Wednesday, June 4 at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday June 7 at 10:00 p.m.) would, if it were the sole film on view at the Cosford, do little to foster hope for a Brazilian renaissance. It belongs to a genre, much adored by Hollywood, that might be termed "romantic comedy with dark undertones." Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal did this much better in When Harry Met Sally; at least their ups and downs were laced with humor and genuine characterizations. Director Sandra Werneck has chosen to hit us over the head with the all-too-predictable downhill course of a relationship that starts off with lots of heavy breathing in boudoir scenes that are unnecessarily detailed, and then languishes as the lovers (Andrea Beltrao and Daniel Dantas, both of whom are willing to expose a lot of flesh) gradually lose interest in each other. The trouble is that we lose interest in them almost from the start.
Translating dicionario as book does the audience a disservice, for it does not prepare us for the film's structure, which takes us through the entire alphabet, with each letter as the beginning of a word describing an aspect of the deteriorating relationship. (Not only that, but some letters are used for more than one word!) One may argue that the film is an honest effort to remove the glitz from romantic comedy, but I say better glitz than dull characters. The one ray of light is another fine performance from Gloria Pires, the priest-condemning woman from O Quatrilho, who plays the lead character's disillusioned-but-wiser-for-it ex-wife. If there were a Best Actress award in this festival, she would have no challengers.
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Word is that there will be one award, the "Public Prize," to be chosen from ballots that will be distributed at each screening. In addition, the producers of the festival will convene a general audience discussion after each film Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night.
All in all, the first Brazilian Film Festival offers some rewarding material, a significant number of female directors, and a commendable overriding purpose: to bring together a body of work that illustrates a flurry of activity in a corner of the film world that most of us know very little about.
The first Brazilian Film Festival commences this Friday, May 30, and runs through Sunday, June 8, at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the campus of the University of Miami in Coral Gables. Admission is $5 per screening ($3 for students). See "Calendar Listings" for more information, or call 860-2940.