By Victor Bruno
Note: Dear Reader, at the end of this article there are a few endnotes that try to elucidate and contain complementary information about some facts mentioned at the length of this text that may cause doubts and confusion in the mind of the foreign reader who is not familiar with Brazil’s reality. These notes also recommend some further reading. One more message: the number near the titles of Gilberto Freyre’s books in these endnotes indicates the year of the book’s publication in Brazil. For English translations see the suggested link. —V.B.
Casa Grande follow the path opened by Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds: it is an arrogant and resentful work disguised as sociological essay made by an individual that, coming from the exact place where the film takes place (literally, since Fellipe Barbosa, the director, lived in the same house that acts as stage for much of this picture and studied in the same school, the Colégio São Bento, in Rio de Janeiro, as does his star), intents to attack by all means the place where he was born, grew up and lives today. Not satisfied, the film also attacks the people who are from there, too. And for Barbosa there is an aggravating: one of his targets is his own family.
To say that this picture is a final adjustment of Barbosa with himself is at the best of the assumptions a lie. Actually, Casa Grande is the most limpid portrait of something that has been developing in Brazil since, I don’t know, the 1980’s. The positive reception of this film by Brazil’s film criticism and by a good deal of the cinephilic circle has a lot to do with this country’s typical admiration with anything seemingly “youthful”—that is, using the young age of someone not as a transitory condition, but as a qualitative evidence—ends up leading the public to suffer the painful martyrdom that is watching this film. True, it is not only Brazil that has this dreadful fetish with anything that is juvenile, but I am going to hold on to the Brazilian situation only.
It’s possible—no, it is a fact—that many people will buy the idea that the film sells and will watch Casa Grande seeing it as a great “essay” on the Brazilian condition and on class relations. They will also see that Fellipe Barbosa is a young and active voice from cinema.
But no one can deceive reality: Casa Grande is not a film. It is a petard of arrogance and insolence and immaturity. It doesn’t even try to hide it: Barbosa stole his film’s title from Sir Gilberto Freyre’s masterpiece book Casa Grande & Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves in the English translation).1 Sir Freyre is arguably one of Brazil’s historiography greatest scholars and The Masters and the Slaves, his first book, is his generation’s finest hour: it influenced both the most inaccessible heights of academia and Faustians government projects, as it was with the President Getúlio Vargas, founder of modern Brazil.
Since it is the intention of director and co-writer Fellipe Barbosa to affirm and reaffirm that his picture is a socio-economic investigation, nothing would be more just than to baptize it after the bible of Brazilian sociological thought. Besides, “casa grande” means “the master’s house” in Portuguese—it’s how the slave owner’s house was called back in the days of the old sugar-tree plantations during the 17th and 19th centuries. If he is attacking his own family and once the film’s protagonist relates better with the housekeeping staff, what would be better than indicate that he things his parents are true modern slave owners? It’s funny how Barbosa thinks he is so sure about the meaning of Freyre’s work: despite all the injustice he suffered in the hands of Brazil’s intellectual Nomenklatura who first hided his work and then stupidly condensed his thinking just in The Masters as a defensive move (later in life, Freyre assumed a conservative attitude that the Brazilian revolutionary academia wouldn’t accept, let alone forgive).2 If Barbosa really did read The Masters and the Slaves, he did not understand it. What he apprehended from the book was not the substance of Freyre’s writing, but the distortion that the Intelligentsia made in it. He understood what nine out of ten Brazilians are driven to understand: that the book is only about the massacre of the black slaves in their owners’ hands. But it’s silly to think that a book of this scope stops his teaching in this subject. This book is primarily about the Brazilian historic lack of spiritual sensibility of both upper and lower classes—and this has nothing to do with K. Marx and F. Engels. But it’s hopeless: Fellipe Barbosa is a young man in anger with “everything the system represents”, and these explanations maybe won’t interest him.
Of course, some of the film’s youthful angst is legit and is effect of a palpable reality (the film’s reason to be is the downfall of Eike Batista’s OGX, a company which the protagonist’s father invests money in).3 Imagine that the reality you know—which may or may not hold similarities with true reality—suddenly is succumbing all around you and you, young and lost, is suffering all those pressures that are characteristic of teenage.
That Fellipe Barbosa’s alter ego may have so many problems and is so resentful of his parents, ok, I understand. What I can’t understand, however, is that Fellipe Barbosa may be Jean. Does the neurasthenia and state of anesthesia that Thales Cavalcanti plays his character matches Barbosa’s vexation in real life or is it just a self-image that the director established? If this is it—even if every self-image is a false construction or at least an incomplete one—I can’t help but think that Fellipe Barbosa is the most boring person in the world. It’s a schizophrenic situation: his talent while directing actions scenes, or the sincerity that emanates from the scenes with Jean’s teenage friends, is infatuating because it brutally contrasts with the bureaucratic ennui he uses with Cavalcanti. Consider the scene where a boy accuses both Jean and his father, Hugo (Marcello Noaves), of being thieves. Not even the irritating habit of the filmmaker of filming almost every scene in a stationary long take can dispel the drive and the magic of this moment of sincerity, it actually helps, for the first time in the movie, the audience to feel the heat of this little changing room they are with five or six other people. Observe all the true violence, the instinct that lies in that moment.
But do yourself a favor and observe this carefully because you won’t find this magic anywhere else in this picture.
And for a film that has this cocky presumption of being an “observational essay”, the final results are catastrophic. To tell the truth, Fellipe managed with prowess to assimilate the mannerisms of Rio de Janeiro’s youth and because of this assimilation he could pull out scenes like the aforementioned fight with so much quality—they are honest and feature enough some of reality’s texture to break the bad habits of him as a filmmaker.
Now, what Fellipe, at the peak of his pride, doesn’t know is that, being a structural adolescent (the director, although older, features practically the same eternal immaturity of Xavier Dolan), he isn’t allowed to talk about the adult world and, blind by remorse disguised as “doubt”, he can’t accuse his parents of anything. And this is the cause of the embarrassing results the film delivers when it decides being a report of the “decadence of Rio’s elite”. Anyone witnessing his mother be deprived of the luxury she always disposed and becoming a simple dealer of cosmetic products would be heartbroken. But Fellipe thinks it’s just ridicule. This is the picture’s expedient: where there is commotion, Fellipe sees mockery; where there is a possibility of forgiveness, Fellipe sees hate. Fellipe can’t notice that when his father starts a shout match with a man in a Kombi late at night this is a sign of a man near a nervous breakdown facing his impotence of provide the wealth that his family always lived with. In this filmmaker’s mind, this behavior is actually the cabal proof of how the “upper class” hates the “proletariat” and can only treat the latter with contempt. For a film that is so obsessed about being deep and has so much reverence in its visual treatment, it’s regrettable that its deepness stops at the shallow concrete of a pre-established ideological discourse.
And by believing that so much sapience lies in his youngness, Fellipe Barbosa allows his audience to witness his greatest wet dream—probably something that never existed in real life (because if the movie is obsessed about being a simulacrum of the director’s experiences, so to doubt of the veracity of a moment that is a Kitsch monument on account of its gawky feeling is perfectly fitting). The scene where Luiza (played by Bruna Amaya, an excellent automaton repeater of discourses), Jean’s suburban girlfriend, scolds the boy’s entire family and gives a speech on how Brazil’s infamous affirmative actions are a blessing can only be a byproduct of the director’s daydreams. And that’s that: a young girl who angrily rebukes older people because, well, she thinks she has the cognitive key to the full comprehension of every problem of Brazil. She may be better than Gilberto Freyre himself.
There is something about Casa Grande that maybe is confusing the reader: how can a picture be so automatic, lifeless and lazy? Why its modus operandi, as I’m trying to show, is something established since the picture’s assumption and drains any oxygen out from the film (the film as a reflective organism of a reality)? And why Fellipe Barbosa uses this recourse?
The answer is that Barbosa gave up any conscious possibility of being himself. Being a byproduct of the Brazilian university and of a whole cinephilic collective culture which fosters a recalcitrated thought, it’s undeniable that the extreme rigor Fellipe uses in his framing are not evidence of his wiseness or were chosen by true will, for example: they exist because somebody else did it that way and he wants to be perceived as someone who knows that this somebody. Barbosa’s preference for framing a scene with a stationary camera and wide-lens was stolen from whom—Jean-Marie Straub, John Ford or Orson Welles? (And I’m not choosing these filmmakers at random—I’ll explain why in a future opportunity).
I’d say Straub, though Manoel de Oliveira works in similar manner. But there is a catch: when Manoel de Oliveira and Straub hold a shot for over five minutes there is a rational and sparkling clear motive for this choice.
There are other unsubtle elements that surely Barbosa stole from other filmmakers and lies with the justification of being precedents: the fistfight between Hugo and Jean seems to be straight out of James Gray’s Little Odessa. Gray is a favorite of Brazilian cinephilia—for the worst motives possible. But James Gray is a third-generation Russian Jew: his world is very different from the Gnostic world of Fellipe Barbosa.
Since I’m speaking about Gray, this: when this filmmaker recurs to a very slow and meditative cinema, with tracking shots that moves ever so slowly, it’s like he wanted to extract from his images everything he can get, from its surface to the very core. It’s like he wanted to understand the constitution of an entire country through the eyes of Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant, or through Tim Roth’s in Little Odessa and so on. The same goes to Manoel de Oliveira, a director who chased for over a century of existence the very essence of Portugal though the failures of that country (see my article “Red and green: a walk though Portugal”, desistfilm 7); in his diligences into infinity he created with beauty a rich cinema, but simple and subtle, and yet raw. For every minute of an anodyne and badly composed shot by Fellipe Barbosa there is a divine sequence (in the religious sense of the word) from Non, Abraham’s Valley and The Fifth Empire; there even are more extreme and radicals exercises such as the six hours of The Satin Slipper. For every smart-ass line as “All the architects of the Real Plan are from PUC”4—something Hugo says reaffirming his faith in the Brazilian currency right before starting his downhill journey, because oh! tragic irony!—there is old man Manoel quoting Fr. Antonio Vieira ipsis literis without sounding like fakery for a single second.
Having said it all, I would like make a final consideration. During the whole movie, Nathalie (Alice Melo), Jean’s younger sister, tires to communicate with her father and mother and gets only silence as answer. If this is some kind of “dialogue” with Ingmar Bergman I don’t know. I know what I know, and I know that near the end of the picture—the picture’s next-to-last scene, actually—a fake kidnapper calls and says he abducted Jean and chaos starts. Nathalie is the only one who can keep her cool and tries to tell her parents that the call is a hoax. This scene, full of screams and curses, is filmed again in a static camera; a frantic scene full of movements and tears filmed at formalism’s highest pint. Then Nathalie, in a redeemer act, picks a pot full of wine corks and throws it onto the ground; she finally gets her parents attention.
What scared me is that in order to not change the frame, the director Barbosa omitted Nathalie from the image. In order not to break the surrogate elegance of his cinema, the filmmaker and ex-editor stripped the redemption her character so honestly desired. In order not to break the dramatic construction Barbosa thought he was building, a deluded thought born in the same equally deluded narcissist self-image that created an alter ego as tiresome as Jean—or as João, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s alter ego from Neighbouring Sounds (and Jean is João in French; the similarities between the two pictures are infinite)—and it seems that this narcissism is becoming of urban and neurasthenic Brazilian directors.
But I’m drifting. In short, Fellipe Barbosa deprived from his character the thing she wanted the most. Fellipe is an ex-editor and he just does not know how to make the decoupage of the climax of his picture. Fellipe Barbosa condemns his father all the time in this autobiographic report—but has the nerve of dedicating this film to him—acted just like him. And if a former editor can’t build a scene of impact, isn’t it symptomatic of a deeply wrong state of things?
(C) Victor Bruno, June 2015
1 Sir Gilberto de Mello Freyre was born in Recife in 1900. Historian, sociologist (although he hated this label), philosopher, poet and cartoonist, he started his work as teacher when he was 13 years old. Arrived in America in 1918 and in 1920 defended his M.A. thesis, Social Life in Brazil in the Middle of the 19th Century. In 1930, living in Portugal, he started the preliminary researches of The Masters and the Slaves, which was published in December of 1933. In 1936 comes the book’s continuation, The Mansions and the Shanties. Other books worth mention are Sociologia (1945), Order and Progress (1959), Brasis, Brasil and Brasília (1968) and A Condição Humana e Outros Temas (1972). Freire was knighted by the Queen Elizabeth II in 1972. He passed away in 1987. For a Gilberto Freyre exhaustive bibliography see http://www.releituras.com/gilbertofreyre_bio1.asp. It freatures a section with his English published translations.
2 See Olavo de Carvalho. “Gilberto Freyre: maior que sua própria imagem,” December 25, 1999. http://olavodecarvalho.org/textos/freyre.htm. and “Gilberto Freyre: ciência social e consciência pessoal.” April 24, 200. http://olavodecarvalho.org/textos/freyre.htm. (Both pieces in Portuguese.)
3 OGX (today known as OGPar) was a company of Brazilian enterpreneur Eike Batista which is responsible for oil and gas explorations. Batista, who always have been considered one of the most brilliant executives of the country’s recent history, was in the headlines of every major newspaper in the world in 2012 when it was discovered that his offshore exploration site in Tubarão Azul, Rio de Janeiro, probably wouldn’t produce as much oil as it was announced to Batista’s investors. From the paradise of being the first Brazilian private company owner to explore oil offshore to historic humiliation, Eike currently owes almost R$ 3 billion and caused the disgrace of actionists, staff and of the population near Tubarão Azul.
4 PUC is the Pontifícia Universidade Católica (Pontifical Catholic University). There are various in Brazil, but here Hugo is refering exclusively to Rio de Janeiro’s PUC. Verily, Pedro Malan, André Lara Resende and Winston Fritsch, some of the “fathers” of Brazil’s current currency, created in the 1990’s, graduated and were or are teachers at PUC-Rio. Although at the time of production of the film the real was a strong currency, Casa Grande was released at the beginning of the grave economic crisis that wounds the country today. In July 30, 2015, the dollar costed R$ 3,37, its biggest value in 12 years.