MUBI's series New Brazilian Cinema is showing June - September, 2020.
As I write about current Brazilian cinema, Brazilian Cinemateca, the preeminent institution for preservation of the country’s film history, is in danger of collapsing. Its employees haven’t been paid for months and the reels in its archives aren’t properly protected. The country's film industry launches strikes and petitions against the government’s plan to close the organization, which would damn the cultural heritage it shelters.
How to consider the urgency of contemporary Brazilian film in this dire context? Perhaps by framing it as narratives of crises and resilience. No image inscribes itself as well into this allegory as one at the end of Landless, a documentary by Camila Freitas that premiered at Berlinale: Gusts of relentless wind punish arid earth, covering a settlement of scattered humble tents in a vicious swirl of red dust. This vision is so akin to the American Dust Bowl, it’s hard not to correlate it with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. As in Steinbeck, Freitas’s film is told in forceful notes: Hunger, sweat, and blood of the landless; apathy and greed of large landowners and lawmakers. Freitas sets up a series of binaries: Dust turns to greenery, as some five hundred families are shown to occupy and till the land that belonged to a private factory. Freitas follows these families for four years, as they pull resources, organize, and confront right-wing’s wrath: current president Jair Bolsonaro has made it easier for the “Bible, cows and guns” lobby to violently confront the Landless Movement. And yet, the image of green stalks rising from parched earth, of machinery and backs bent in dedicated toil, where previously lay fallow land, is indelible. It’s an image of hope so hardened we must look to Steinbeckian tropes to remember anything quite like it.
Brazil has made strides in embracing diversity in the past two decades, and the fight for reparative economic justice is joined by other no less important struggles. In Adirley Queirós’s Once There Was Brasilia (2017), a bold and imaginative quasi sci-fi—or ethnographic sci-fi, as the director calls it—race is the primary battlefield: The predominantly Black occupants of the military-surveilled peripheral town, Ceilândia, which Queiros’s cinema transforms into an epic-adventure zone, steel themselves for rebellion. WA4 (Wellington Abreu), a cosmonaut lost in space, comes to visit, and together they plan to invade the government’s seat in Brasilia, the Itamaraty Palace. In a wasteland cut by bars and built from scraps of metal and junk, the warriors—with memorable performances, particularly by Andreia Vieira—create an army whose gestures are both a pastiche of American sci-fi and a reimagining of Brazil, where over fifty percent of the population identifies as of Black origin, as a future land of Black superheroes.
Super-powers also play a role in the wildly imaginative fiction feature, Good Manners (2017), by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas, one of the still relatively rare instances of buoyant, stylistically polymorphic genre films in Brazilian cinema. An urban legend, a musical, a lesbian romance, and a werewolf horror, Good Manners is all of these things and more. A young Black nurse (the fantastically talented Isabél Zuaa) is hired as a nurse and cook to a lonely nouveau-riche woman, Anna (Marjorie Estiano), who has been banned from her conservative small-town family. Anna’s in an advanced stage of pregnancy, a memento of a mysterious inter-species one-night stand. The two women’s passion blooms till the tragic childbirth, but the newborn is a fantastical furry creature, which growing up must be chained at night. With gorgeously hand-painted mattes that transform São Paulo’s cityscape into a dreamy Tourneur-like ghost-land and infusion of illustrations, Good Manners is a delightful, socially-edged caper, whose heart is tender and dreamy.
Much of Brazilian cinema’s recent richness comes from LGBTQ+ directors. In the short, Breakwater (2019), by Cris Lyra, a group of lesbian friends travel to the seaside, to chat, sunbathe, hug, dance, and sing together. They also support each other through New Year’s Eve fireworks, which trigger traumatic memories of police violence unleashed during student occupations of schools and street protests. Unsentimental yet infinitely poignant, Lyra’s rhythmic short is irresistible to watch and impossible to forget. It’s also a fortuitous pairing with the short, The Orphan (2019), by Carolina Markowicz, in which a young Black gay adolescent finds enough strength among his friends at a children’s home not to be sucked into the immensely painful drama of his successive adoptions. This time, he is taken in and then rejected by a devout multi-racial couple, whose good intentions are undone by their close-mindedness. Both Breakwater and The Orphan exude hope that such a generation, tested young and resilient, should have sprung forth.
The struggles fought in the past leave indelible scars in the cinema of another director, Gustavo Vinagre. The Blue Flower of Novalis (2018), his film co-directed with Rodrigo Carneiro, is a hybrid film in which nonfiction ventures into fantasy and trauma as its shadowy double. A young gay man (Marcelo Diorio), whose entire existence seems confined to his house in São Paulo, reflects on his troubled relationships: family, lovers, his body image as an aging HIV-positive gay man. Vinagre has a great eye for subjects who need to expose but also disguise themselves, a tension between truth and smoke-mirrors that’s accentuated by the film’s still framing and frequent closeups. Vinagre and Carneiro’s method of intensely observing and sometimes instigating conversations, punctuated with fictionalized tableaux that stage key past traumas, creates a slippery choreography of gestures and poses that’s immensely engaging.
In an equally intimate albeit more straightforward vein, Maíra Bühler depicts a tender but increasingly rocky relationship of a lesbian couple living at a São Paulo homeless shelter, in the observational documentary Let It Burn (2019). Similarly to Vinagre, Bühler limits the stage of her story about two middle-aged women who discover their love late in life, having abandoned their previous families, to a single room, to bring out the merciless claustrophobia of passion, but also of poverty and of drug addiction.
With the Amazon burning at an unprecedented rate and the rapid spread of Covid in the Amazon communities, there’s no Brazilian figure of resilience more pained than that of its Indigenous peoples. In the fiction feature, The Dead and the Others (2018), by Renée Nader Messora and João Salaviza, a Krahô teenager, Henrique Ihjãc Krahô (as his fictionalized self), is visited by his father’s ghost that reveals that Ihjãc is to be a shaman, but must first prepare his father’s funerary feast. Fearful of the prophecy and his master-spirit, the Macaw, Ihjãc flees to a clinic in the nearest town, leaving behind his wife and child.
Filmed in warm, diffused 16mm, with a forest dreaminess à la Apichatpong Weerasethakul, The Dead and the Others is, on one hand, a lushly told ghost story, with woodsy shadows and shimmering-river reflections, and on the other, an achy coming-of-age drama, with flavors particular to that liminal terrain, where popular culture and Indigenous mythology meet. Caught in the frictions between urban and Indigenous life, Ihjãc must taste the bitterness of his self-banishment, before he can grieve his father and embrace his tribal responsibilities. On some level, The Dead and the Others captures the idea that no matter how painful it is to feel like a stranger in one’s own skin, this estrangement is also part of maturing.
Ana Vaz’s powerful archive-based short, Apiyemiyeki (2019), which I covered from Berlinale, centers on the visual evidence created by the Waimiri-Atroari of Napalm dropped on their villages in the 1970s by the Brazilian government, and is a perfect companion to The Dead and the Others, which includes mentions of violent attacks on Indigenous villages, and the surviving stories of devastation and murder. Such persistence of trauma is more subliminal in Maya Da-Rin’s fiction feature, The Fever (2019). The ingenuity of Indigenous storytelling manifests itself early in the film when Justino (Regis Myrupu), a recent widower originally of the Rio Grande but now living with his four children in the Amazonian city of Manaus, tells his small son a tale in which man becomes so useful to monkeys that they kidnap him to their kingdom—a story of human learning but that subverts anthropocentric dominance.
Filmed with great situational precision, which speaks to Da-Rin’s previous documentary experience, this beautifully rendered and emotionally giving film follows an Indigenous family in a state of transition, or exile: Justino works as a guard on a construction site, while his oldest daughter, Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto), passes a medical-school exam and prepares to leave for the capital. The film explores multiple internal tensions: Vanessa’s adaptation to Western medicine, for example, at odds with his father’s skepticism of it, or the more cyclical nature of Indigenous rural work, versus Justino and his son’s rigid city-job schedules. Throughout, Da-Rin keeps attentive to how the stories we inherit are the cognitive key to our reading of our environment (Justino’s sense of his city job’s aimlessness, for example, as a hunter without a pray; or the film’s conflation of a human intruder at Justino’s worksite with a myth of a prowling jaguar or a spirit ghost).
Stories that portray the urban lives of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples are still relatively sparse. The Fever is all the fresher since Da-Rin resists recycling the easy contrast, in which the Indigenous reserves are pristine static oases, against the dynamic crudeness of urban networks. Instead, the film centers on the family nucleus on one hand, and on the other, on how Justino’s workplace reinforces systemic prejudice: HR personnel, of all things, tells Justino that he might get benefits due to his “condition,” treating his Indigeneity as a disease; his racist co-worker has worked on a farm as an armed security-man, guarding against “the real Indians.”
While Fever is a complex tale of social mobility—putting progress in question but nevertheless sketched around a hard-working father and an ambitious daughter—it is also a story of a man whose profound connection to the natural world makes him rightfully wary of the humans’ predatory instincts. In this sense, like The Dead and the Others, The Fever inscribes itself as a fantasy, or a ghost story, permeated by mourning. But mourning is also a vindication of a past, and so a fertile resilient ground for future resistance.