By Pedro Henrique Ferreira
Talking about bodies in cinema, its physical presence on the screen, has somewhat become a common place on current debates. It might be something of a growing recent interest on phenomenology as a tool to understand and deal with contemporary cinematic experience – at least for a couple of authors (Vivian Sobchack, Steven Shaviro, among others), notions of a more tactile and sensuous approach to the image, to a certain degree, indebted to Merleau Ponty’s visual theories. It might also have something to do with the influential essays of Cahiers du Cinema about an ongoing flux aesthetic a couple of years ago. There’s also an ongoing renewal of cultural studies opening discussion on what types of bodies are shown in what types of movies. It might be, and most probably is, that there’s a particular artistic interest in how bodies present themselves on screen that mobilized such discussions at first place. Nonetheless (and it is not the intention here to retrace the origins of such a debate), it’s important to notice that such ideas have somewhat penetrated in the imaginary of cinema and there’s a relevant critic work in dealing with them, and taking them beyond the reproduction of general terms, to a more vivid discussion of ideas. Regarding this point, at least here in Brazil, the Tiradentes Film Festival of this year seems to have opened a privileged space.
The importance of the Tiradentes Film Festival for the annual calendar of contemporary Brazilian cinema has been thoroughly demonstrated in other coverages of the event in the pages of Desistfilm. It still remains one of the strongest showcases of author-like cinema in the country – a kind of compendium of some of last year’s best works, summed up with other prospects of what the future of Brazilian cinema might somewhat look like. The “Aurora” section, its official competition, is specifically an effort to propose a reading of the present situation and main cinematographic questions, formulating a kind of north compass and giving shape to it through a selection of films that should, if not exactly illustrate it, somehow respond to it or indicate visions that dialogues with its theme – cinematographic bodies, or bodies in front of the lens.
Of course, to actually talk about bodies in cinema is to talk about basically anything with a physical presence in front of the camera, and almost every movie at any given time period has shown us all sorts of people. This is what we could mistakenly take for granted if we do not examine this idea any further. What this reference seems to point out is more of a specific way of filming bodies or a particular interest of extracting an artistic purpose out of it, somewhat like the pictorial portrait, or even genre painting, where this corporal presence – its movement, volume and forms of existence – actually becomes the center of attention, in a way that every cinematographic resource – the ways of composing, lighting, rhythm and dramaturgy – is turned towards making bodies the artistic work’s propelling strength. Curiously enough, some of the greatest Brazilian films that we’ve seen on these last few years demonstrate a lurch towards this form of representation. For instance, the compelling anatomies of Inferninho’s characters, dressed up in low budget super heroes costumes, moving sluggishly across a cracked-wall, empty bar flickered in contrasted purple-pink lightnings, creates a dreamy, camp mood summed up with a strange tone of life typical of the underdeveloped, agrarian region of Brazil. And that is done solely through the presence, dramaturgy and composition of those bodies that the movie sinuously shows us.
This coverage will go through some of the movies exhibited in the Tiradentes Film Festival’s most significant feature length sections, the Olhos Livres (Free eyes) and the Aurora section. In a sense provoked by this question, we move on to the movies.
Performances and loosened bodies – The Olhos Livres section
Bodies don’t exist without a relation to the surrounding space. Being is always being-at. But cinematographically speaking, the filmmaker may choose to either inflate or simply neglect the importance of its geography, focusing mainly on the body’s performance. Two films in the Olhos Livres section of the Festival – the one dedicated to less narrative movies, openly experimental,– went as far in depleting the environment and context as staging Greek myths in contemporary spaces. Trágicas (dir.: Aída Marques) is a triptych where an actress stages in an indoor theatre, incorporating female characters taken directly from the classical pieces (Antigone, Elektra, Medea). Through a high-pitched and much verbal dramaturgy, we accompanied their particular dramas. There’s an effort in making universal all women suffering, and recurring to the occidental canons to express it, which is questionable by itself. But what’s utterly unacceptable is the device through which the movie tries to shape this universality: cutting from the theatre staging to actual nowadays footage of women who could not bury their brothers in the 1960-1970s’ dictatorship, immigrants from Congo suffering domestic violence or those mothers who lost their children to police violence in the slums. And what’s even worse, the quick editing and the close-up on these women’s eyes and mouths show absolutely no interest to their personal stories, as if their solely purpose was to illustrate what the director actually wanted us to understand from the myth incarnated by the actress. The film treats its documented material as if it didn’t matter at all. It’s as if all women suffering could be easily summarized in the elite-universal canons of Greek legends, even those of women living in social and racial conditions radically different.
The other one, Rodrigo Carneiro’s and Lucas Parente’s Calypso, searches for an even more abstract relationship with its myths. The last days of Homer’s Calypso and Ulysses before he returns to Ithaca is the trigger for a series of optical situations and sound experimentation filmed on an island in Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay, evoking a erotic use of body movement as form of expression and a declaimed, Greek theatre-like acting typical of Julio Bressane’s latest works. There’s no narrative, but presence. The sum of these body movements with the particular landscape of Ilha do Sol, the resounding poetry, mixing verses and lines from different sources, much more worried by its material effects than its conceptual understanding, the mixing of the greek with a very carioca myth – the story of the first Brazilian naturist, Luz del Fuego, who lived on that island and is shown to us through newsreels archive images filmed by Fleming, a Brazilian pioneer filmmaker – it all conspires to an entropy of meanings that might cause confusion in anyone trying to understand anything more than what Calypso actually is: a sum of powerful images and sounds, loosely connected by vague literature origins and fait divers, that awes us at moments, but seems repetitive in others. The body of the actors here is much more a tool for experimental creations much more than the vector of a specific form of sensibility or way of being in the world.
Similarly to Trágicas’s lack of interest in the documented stories it has access to, Currais (dir.: David Aguiar and Sabina Colares) also stumbles badly in its vague attempt to create a drama as a thread to its theme. While the existence of concentration camps in the northeast of the country during the Vargas dictatorship is a very, very rare finding, the movie seems to not believe it amusing enough and feels the need to add yet another layer to it – the dramatic story of a researcher travelling through the agrarian region, looking for the reminiscences of these camps. The problem, though, is not exactly the existence of the fiction narrative, but it’s misè-en-scène. If we’re talking about people suffering from hunger being taken to a miserable concentration camp, why in the world would you stage this research trip through long takes of open, well balanced and colored images of the region (at moments, even with flying drones); the main character walking tiredly in the ruins of houses, sitting and waiting against rocks, and talking with a recorder through fake, poetic lines about memory and personal discovery, as if taken from a cliche Antonioni pastiche (or may be from his worst movie, Beyond the clouds)? It seems somewhat senseless with the situation that Currais is regarding to. In a certain point, to add a scene about the researcher having fun with the ladies in a local dance seems more important to the movie than to actually dive in its theme. There’s no other definition to such a choice if not a gross political and aesthetical mistake.
Parque Oeste, the strongest experience in the section, is less about disconnected bodies or performances, and more about geographies – the evidence of it is quickly given to us through maps of a region, the propaganda of a park to be built, and the images of the community to be displaced. If the first part of Fabiana Assis’ feature length is a shocking, direct footage of the police invasion of an occupation – filled with powerful and disturbing scenes, such as the moment when the cops attack violently the community, and men, women and children lock themselves in the dark of their houses, just waiting for the massacre – it’s the second part that lasts longer in our memory, when the documentary accompanies the routine of the wife of one of the murdered men in the police invasion, as she dedicates herself to bringing together what was left of that same community against the wills of the government. There’s an actual voice of optimism, as she works day-to-day to conjure the memory of the martyrs, fighting politically for the cause and better conditions to the homeless, and making a huge effort to keep together the old neighborhood. The tragedy has made her an activist, she recognizes, against the violence of the state. On the other hand, the decoupage of the documentary reveals the surroundings of grassless grounds, ample construction in unwelcoming plains that seem taken out of Adirley Queiroz’s movies, lighted in a washed, fuzzy grayness, creating a space much less inviting that contrasts greatly with the protagonist’s desires. That optimism seems much more like a sparkling flame fighting desperately to go on amidst that earthly scenery. The characters in the movie are as bodies without a space, or with a temporary setting reckoned to never be theirs fully; but, on the other hand, they find some kind of identity helping each other and holding them close. Parque Oeste is ultimately a film about bodies without geography because it depicts an anguishing situation where the State has deterritorialized them, but they still try to maintain an identity. From this dialectics between faith and tragedy, possibilities and limitations, community ties and the aridness of space, that comes Parque Oeste’s strong sense of realism.
Intimate geographies – the Aurora Section
In a certain scene of A Rosa Azul de Novalis, the interviewed reveals to the filmmaker that he had inserted acrylic microspheres to enhance facial volume in order to be filmed, because he believed it would be inappropriate to immortalize his image with such a sad face. On his last feature, Lembro mais dos corvos, exhibited on 2018’s edition of the Tiradentes Film Festival, Gustavo Vinagre had already dedicated himself to frescos of people in their intimacy. In his new, directed in partnership with Rodrigo Carneiro, he seems to explore the same device: a depiction of a single subjectivity, in his own apartment, in a long, little protocolled interview. But what’s very specific about this bodily portraits is that it carries much more of the person’s desires than their actual reality; what they long to be is more revealing than what they are. Marcelo, this dândi-like high-class homosexual who caught HIV in his twenties, seems to be the perfect object, not only for his large knowledge of culture and arts, but actually, because he explains himself through this vast world of references: mystical explanation of his destiny through horoscope, Indian hand reading or life regression therapy, tales with references to Rembrandt, Caravagio, Christian myths, and of course, Novalis, among others. This is, of course, an invitation for performance. His brother’s death is narrated in a built-in scenery of a burial. His sex adventures are narrated in actual sex scenes. Childhood memories become back-projections on face exfoliation. As in Trágicas, Marcelo enacts occidental poetry canons, but what differs completely is that, here, there’s no full incarnation – the body never becomes the corpse of a universal political flag. Marcelo’s corporeality is ultimately a gateway to his subjective dreams and desires, resumed in the film’s last take, where the camera travels to his inside through his anus. But this bet that the character’s subjectivity (desires, memories and fantasies) could turn into vivid poetry might actually be too high. Although A Rosa Azul de Novalis is a step further than the more encased Lembro mais dos corvos – there’re some very creative scenes here – they don’t have the full strength to hold the feature alone and really make it much more than a scrambling of enacted references.
Tremor Iê (dir.: Elena Meirelles and Lívia de Paiva) seems to simulate a recent tradition of Brazilian cinema: post-apocalyptic science fiction meddled with historical landmark geography treated as ghostly layers of scenery, groups of friends existing in this oppressive reality of dark-lighted spaces and resisting against a proto-fascist enemy that only symbolically shows its face. We might seem to be in the universe of Era uma vez em Brazília, one of our greatest features in the last years, but, in reality, we’re much closer to the early movies of the Pretti-Parente duo (from Estrada para Ythaca to De punhos cerrados) – the romantic belief of pure presence and stance as a potent form of resistance, friendship as a form of survival in a brutal world, the cinematographic body as an object of sublimation. Tremor Iê comes across some great findings of image construction and temporal modulations that makes the experience of the movie worthwhile, as well as a peculiar montage and way of narrating events and building up the plot through long takes of few elements that is very refreshing.
It is a somewhat promising first feature, but, nonetheless, it doesn’t go much beyond that. It might be inspiring to see such nonconformist bodies pictured on the screen with such a strong faith that for the simple act of being there, just having the guts to put themselves on such violent public space – and the violence of cinema against those bodies being a direct mirror for those streets – would be a form of resistance or rebellion. And it might even be. But the actual portraying of those bodies don’t seem to cause us much awe, nor their gestures on scene seem to surprise us or be of real cinematic strength and give us what we’re promised. It’s great that they drum through the streets, but their drumming doesn’t seem to be anyhow fascinating or interesting; the dramaturgy of the intimate bonfire talks about police violence in protests don’t seem to carry its overwhelming weight. The aesthetic constructs of Tremor Iê seem to be attached too much, in a way that it limits its possibilities (for most parts of the film), to the idea that the affirmative political stance itself is enough.
Artur Lins’ premiere, Desvio, might be the most different film from the Aurora selection. It somehow turns to another direction. First of all, it’s less a film about bodies than a film about gazes. Its protagonist goes to the city of Patos, in Paraíba State, as he leaves the jail in a Christmas pardon to visit his family. What follows is an investigation of the life he led before he ended up arrested, somewhat like the main character of Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st revisiting the sluggish boredom that led him to drugs. The film invests much in its protagonist’s lifeless gazing shots as he meets old friends, family and habits, depicting through his eyes a way of life that seems far gone in the past. It’s through the meeting with his niece and her friends that he rediscovers the hardcore punk rock scene, where he was kind of a youth idol, and its radical ideology of living carelessly and being yourself, making your presence felt in the world no matter what, and never succumbing or relinquishing to the power of capitalism and middle-class, boring life. All these values seem to be somewhat in the past in Desvio, and that’s what seems to give the film its melancholic tone. A defeatist chord that echoes very differently from most of the Tiradentes Film Festival, where all films seem to be searching a somewhat combative attitude. It’s as if an older brother telling us that the fight has been lost – and in a country that has just suffered a coup of state and has elected the right wing, the movie seems its utmost reflex – but, as the movie seems to show us, that doesn’t mean the future is all written down.
If in Desvio, we’re met with such pessimistic view, there was not a more optimistic movie in this year’s competition than A Rainha Nzinga chegou. Junia Torres and Isabel Casimira Gasparino’s documentary accompanies the heir Nzinga, whose family was torn from their monarchic lineage since the African Slavery, as she travels to the African continent in search of her roots. The film about torn ties, identity searching and uncertainties could’ve echoed a melancholic chord – as do many documentaries of search – or could’ve been or a denunciation of the colonial process, but it’s neither of those things. Rainha Nzinga chegou is an absolutely enthusiastic, overjoyed experience, as if the queen and the movie had never had any doubt that she’d find her origin and they’d be exactly as interesting as she thought. And they are – or at least, in the velocity of a cut, all this other possibilities are thrown out. This certainty the film depicts seems to be a part of the way that big mythical family understands life and death, less as beginning and ending points, and much more as natural processes of transferring spirits and passages. It’s all illustrated by the insistence with which most of the movie dedicates itself to showing the spectator rituals of remembrance, evocations, chanter, devotion and passages. But we’re never thoroughly aware of their meaning. Much more on a phenomenological approach, we’re dragged to these events most of the time unaware of what they symbolize; what we do see is the force of chanter, the rhythms of the percussion and its beautiful execution, the utmost reverence of those bodies toward what they take part in, how they enact their own performances. And through the camera, Rainha Nzinga chegou allows us to participate in it. The documental footage is just as strong as the more “staged” moments, such as the open shot of a man, on an empty plain, creating sound with his hands and feet. The film’s beauty is the enthusiasm with its own filiation, and the great resulting performances it bequeaths to us.
In Filme de Verão, the bodies on screen of teenagers from Rio de Janeiro’s slums are less emphatic in its material presence than a gate to uncover an overall geography. Though this scenery is not as much built through a logical map than by establishing, through a fast-paced montage, an interconnected chain of objects, spaces and events– an inventory of “things” or situations that gives its meaning in a kind of flux. Jô Serfaty’s feature is a delicate portrait of the daily life of these students during their summer break. It mostly shows us banalities and moments of joy, their connections with popular culture and the way that these outside references or objects gain new meanings in that slum. No character is subjectively strong (and if they are, the movie doesn’t dedicate much to their crisis), they gain value as part of a group or bigger thread that makes them who they are. One of the protagonists, a very religious one, changes his devotion completely, but the film doesn’t particularly dive into his internal motives – the change is spoken, but not experienced as process. Contradictions and dramas do appear to inhabit the community, but they’re mere landscape; what really matters is a very specific portrait of costumes. While this vocation is what makes Filme de Verão a sweet picture of Rio de Janeiro’s young life, it is also inevitable that the spectator might feel this sort of rhizomatic inventory is much more a result of the author’s enchantment with that universe than an essential element of it. And sometimes, we seem a little bit tricked by such insistent idyllic beauty. That the film is unquestionably in love with its own premise is not a problem by itself. After all, love makes you blind, but it also makes you see – and here, this sure becomes a double-edged sword. But, at moments, the effort for such vision of the slums seems to overlap a more humane condition of the film’s characters, making them and their everyday lives less interesting, contradictory and vivid. Nonetheless a very enjoyable movie, Filme de Verão misses the opportunity of leaving us an everlasting impression of what it films and being a really great film.
This year’s much deserved Aurora winner, Vermelha is the best Brazilian film we’ve seen so far, and arguably, it might be this year’s masterpiece. Or at least, it elevates the standards very highly and raises a lot the expectation. Getúlio Ribeiro’s first feature is a depiction of a suburb life in Goiania so well executed, aesthetically and experimentally, that it reminds us of some of the best and lesser-known filmmakers in our country, a cinematographic tradition who might have never been referenced outside. It evokes, for example, Ozualdo Candeias’ gross taste for the marginal, underdeveloped, yet so realistically portraited, male working-class outskirts of Brazil; Andrea Tonacci’s digression narrative deconstructions or Edgard Navarro, David Neves and Alberto Salva’s vocation to finding the comic in simple idiosyncrasies of popular common life. Vermelha is somewhat an UFO in Brazillian cinema today because of this berth, which is also the reason that it might be somewhat poorly evaluated in international festivals who do not expect such a precarious, brute, filmmaking that, in reality, explains much more of ourselves, from a third-world, capitalist country, than any other more decorative movie.
The plot is quite simple: Gaúcho’s everyday routine, trying to fix his roof with his neighbor’s help, living with his family in the suburbs. But its aesthetic constructs are quite extraordinary. Vermelha’s bodies are as brute as they come, just like the tree root they extract from the field. There’s no effort to filter them or idealize them, make them look like something they’re not – and this is where the movie’s enormous strength comes from. They pose to us not as a political stance of any sort (ex. Tremor iê’s bodies), or as adorable excluded bodies with which we sympathize immediately (ex. Filme de Verão’s teenagers). On the contrary, Gaúcho and Beto could very well be seen as almost hateable in their immediate images – their meandering around the house, burning wood all day long, fixing the roof, hiding from the guy they owe money to, doing nothing, etc. But as we enter the world founded by the movie, all those acts take their own place: we learn how they love and hate through simples gestures of fixing a car’s motor, how they mundanely deal with death and life through an ordinary conversation or the strange appearance of a ghost. We actually learn something about ourselves (or a part of us), and how people relate to each other. Portraying these bodies in such a register is a very cinematographically political act, as strong or even stronger than any other, since these are bodies that simply exist. They exist not requesting us to feel the urgency of their being or asking us anyhow to attach emotionally to them; they’re almost as leftover ghosts from a world that ignores them, always has, and always will. But the more the keys of this universe is revealed to us, the more its singular poetry pours out and everything takes its place (even Guilherme and Santiago’s beautiful sertanejo verses). More than anything, this year’s Aurora award seems like a bold statement of what Brazilian cinema should start looking at.