Trying to make sense of Brazilian politics and economics is tantamount to taking a boat up Iguaçu Falls without a paddle: the harder one struggles against the natural force of the tide, the more frustrating it becomes; until finally you throw your arms up in disgust and let things flow of their own accord.
We can just as easily redirect the above commentary to refer to Brazil’s continuously evolving national cinema. In the same breath, to rationalize why the newest edition to the ongoing Orpheus film cycle failed to ignite international interest in the way its predecessor had before it may be an exercise in futility, but it’s one that, if properly done — with the requisite forbearance this often exasperating topic demands — can lead to a better understanding of the country’s complicated cultural heritage.
In light of all that has surfaced about this entertaining subject matter, where exactly did Diegues’ updated Orfeu go wrong? We can find some of the answers to this peculiarly Brazilian quandary in a lengthy New York Times article quoted earlier, authored by the work’s composer and musical director, Caetano Veloso, under the heading “An Orpheus Rising From Caricature.”
The focus of his attention centered on the multifarious forms that racism had taken shape inside his home country during the time these two stylistically different features were introduced to the viewing public; and, more indelibly, his analysis of its deeper meaning in contributing to the perception that the 1959 movie version was both a disappointing domestic failure and a grandiloquent film-committee favorite.
“I frequently see surprise – and sometimes a strange pleasure – in the eyes of people who find evidence of racism among Brazilians,” the singer-songwriter openly admitted. “But I’m always astonished that these flashes can provoke such naïve surprise.”
“Is it possible,” Caetano wondered, “that anybody would really believe that there was some place in the New World where the sins of the brutal enslavement of Africans would have miraculously vanished? Everywhere in the Americas, however, our basic humanity has found ways to assert itself, precariously but insistently, over the racist theories that supported these brutal practices.”
Choosing his words carefully yet letting them flow of their own accord, he confirmed to Times readers that “none of us have the right to throw away what has been achieved in the process. The Brazilian experience must be enriched by the criticism of the racial democracy myth, not invalidated by it.”
“Critics,” he reasoned, “used race to explain the negative reaction to Black Orpheus. To me, however, that reaction was more a result of a national anguish over cinema than over race. In the 50’s, the multi-racial middle class to which I belong was much more ashamed of our cinema than of our blacks: to hear Brazilians in the movie utter dialogue that was unconvincing and irrelevant to the narrative was a torment…
“In the end we realized that all of this was an artificial device with the sole intention of astonishing those who knew nothing about the city [of Rio] and its people.” Whether these were valid points of contention or not, let us proceed, then, on the merits of Caetano’s case: as a former movie critic and outspoken commentator on Brazilian social mores, it’s a given the still-popular entertainer knew exactly what he was talking about when it came to racial prejudice and its pernicious effect on his nation’s film art.
From the “perspective that one can understand why Black Orpheus was rejected in Brazil,” which harkens back to his claim that it “wasn’t much different from Carmen Miranda’s phony fruit headdress,” Veloso stressed the importance for non-Brazilians “to open themselves up to the realism of the new film.”
But therein lies the problem: while the locals may indeed have been content to open themselves up to this new “reality,” as such, on the big screen and in their own trouble-prone lives, foreign audiences (including many of us Americans) showed no such inclination. They preferred instead to while away their time on mindless doomsday epics, effects-laden fillers, computer-generated images, and animated extravaganzas, where the longed-for identification with ever-mounting Third World problems was confined to a passive form of escapism. No highfaluting artistic ideals about activism and politicization for this complacent crowd, that’s for sure.
This was the very antithesis of Cinema Novo’s stated aim, which was to grab hold of spectators by the scruff of the neck and assail them, both visually and aurally, with the assonance of their brutal existence, most noticeably “through the extensive employment of Brechtian and Eisensteinian techniques of distancing (such as discontinuous and vertical editing), jump-cuts and image saturation, and theatrical acting and social symbolism.”
Leaving the high-mindedness of its intentions behind, the Cinema Novo movement began to die out sometime in the mid-1970s, and for a number of reasons — some political, some theoretical — but mainly for its inability to attract and sustain a mass viewership beyond the usual tight-knit group of “intellectuals, connoisseurs, and film critics worldwide,” who lavished undue praise on the populist appeal of the genre long after its hold on Brazilian movie-makers had severely slackened.
On that ground, Orfeu, Cacá’s brash attempt at resurrecting the spirit, if not the flavor, of the Cinema Novo era at its finest, was doomed from the start. Because of the “demythologizing” process it had undergone, whereby Diegues hoped to counter every stereotypical punch that Black Orpheus had landed throughout that feature’s 40-year film-span, he more than likely frightened overseas audiences away with the intensity of his effort rather than drawing them closer to it — hardly the kind of detail destined to win the hearts of misty-eyed movie fans still clamoring for Marcel Camus’ less worldly way of doing things.
Just as quickly as it came, though, the production itself, along with the blockbuster Black Orpheus, appears to have vanished from the Brazilian stream of consciousness as well as the inventories of local video outlets (one and the same?), which my July 2008 trip to São Paulo would confirm. After scouring the shelves for weeks on end, including those of the refurbished Livraria Cultura bookstore on busy Avenida Paulista, I failed to turn up even one DVD copy, new or used, of Diegues’ more recent outing or the classic French take on the tale.
More often than not, my own inquisitiveness into their whereabouts was greeted with perplexed stares on the part of video-store employees. Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose. My arms were thrown up in disgust at the thought of leaving the city behind without having encountered either of these two elusive trophies. One would have had better luck finding an unused pair of boat paddles (so as to navigate that imaginary Iguaçu of the mind) than renting these films out for one’s personal enjoyment.
At the same Livraria Cultura, however, special collector’s editions of the works of Arnaldo Jabor, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, and Carlos Diegues himself, in addition to Glauber Rocha’s controversial Terra em transe (“Land in Anguish”) and Deus e o diabo na terra do sol (“Black God, White Devil”), were prominently put on display, thus giving some semblance to millions of discontented movie buffs that Brazil’s cinematic legacy was alive and well-preserved in its native land — even at absurdly unaffordable prices.
Not to give the devil his due, but Caetano happened to have stumbled on to something when he wrote, albeit presciently, that, “Cinema, which could have been a potent symbol of modernity for Brazilians, became instead a source of bitter frustration” for the general population — and for this avid consumer as well.
The country’s “national anguish over cinema” continues unabated.
(End of Part Five)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes