‘Bossa Nova’ — Carioca Love Story: The Rio of One’s Dreams

Doing the Bossa Nova

Antonio Fagundes & Amy Irving in Bossa Nova

Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundes) & Mary Ann (Amy Irving) in ‘Bossa Nova’

While Walter Salles’ Central Station attempts to bind up old wounds from Brazil’s past with expectations of a brighter future, Bruno Barreto’s Bossa Nova (1999) takes a step backward towards an altogether different set of standards. There’s no point in making a side-by-side comparison of the two pictures, although if one were attempted it would be the equivalent of pitting, say, Mark Hellinger’s documentary-style The Naked City against Hope and Crosby’s farcical Road to Rio — both flicks from the same late-forties time period.

Adapted from the 1989 novel A Senhorita Simpson by carioca writer Sérgio Sant’Anna, Bossa Nova (a Woody Allen-like romantic comedy, by most descriptions) stars the director’s spouse, Amy Irving, as the widowed Mary Ann Simpson, a forty-something former airline hostess-turned-English language instructor; and Rio-born leading man Antonio Fagundes as Pedro Paulo Silva, a middle-aged lawyer who finds the still fetching Miss Simpson worth pursuing (don’t we all?) during the course of its long-winded plot.

The other cast members, most of whom have worked together in diverse capacities throughout the years, include Drica Moraes as Mary Ann’s friend and assistant Nadine; Alexandre Borges as Acácio, a girl-crazy soccer player who frets about his recent trade to a British club; Débora Bloch as Tania, Pedro Paulo’s wife of seven years who recently left him for a Chinese tai-chi practitioner; Pedro Cardoso as Roberto, Pedro Paulo’s lovesick brother who hankers after the law firm’s new intern; Giovanna Antonelli as Sharon, the new intern who only has eyes for the soccer player; Kátia Lyra as the English school’s one-track-minded receptionist; and Stephen Tobolowsky as Gary/Trevor, a nerdy American corporate type who strikes Nadine’s fancy via an online dating service.

You can imagine the endless combination of circumstances this mixed-up group of individuals gets into! Here’s a tiny sampling: still smarting from his wife’s separation, Pedro Paulo has a meet-cute with Miss Simpson; in fact, they share an elevator ride to the English school where she teaches. Naturally, he’s immediately taken with the tutor, so he signs up for nightly classes as a pretext for getting to know her better (his master-tailor father just happens to have an office in the same building as the school).

Pedro Paulo is but one of numerous of complications Mary Ann has to contend with, among them that over-sexed soccer player who wants more than private lessons from her. His prankish efforts at turning Brazilian expletives into their English equivalent (“Go to shit!” and “Kiss it, my ass!”) are nothing short of strained.

Acacio (Alexandre Borges) tries to kiss Mary Ann (Amy Irving)

Acacio (Alexandre Borges) tries to kiss Miss Simpson(Amy Irving)

Billed as a “love letter to Rio” — and a perfect Valentine’s gift to his wife — Barreto’s Bossa Nova was produced by his parents, Lucy and Luiz Carlos Barreto, and co-produced by the movie arm of Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest TV network. Shot in ultra-photogenic style by French cinematographer Pascal Rabaud, the city itself has never looked lovelier, scrubbed down and polished up in the manner of another French-guided frolic, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959), which also happened to have been filmed in Rio.

Miraculously, there are no street urchins or beggars to mar the luscious backdrops — and no prostitutes or drug dealers to confront, either; nor are there glimpses of ramshackle housing developments (known as favelas) to distract from this celebration of Rio as a place for lovers. From interior shots of rooms with strategically-positioned camera angles, to exterior settings of picture-postcard comeliness, the city’s idyllic landscapes (Corcovado, Guanabara Bay, Sugar Loaf Mountain, and Copacabana Beach) are expertly arranged to elicit wistful sighs of longing and nostalgia.

“Everybody has some kind of fantasy about Rio,” Barreto claimed in the Los Angeles Times, on the occasion of Bossa Nova’s release, “and I wanted the film to take place in the Rio that people fantasize about … There is the Rio of the social problems; that’s there. Then there’s the Rio of the bossa nova; that’s there too.”

Dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of the pioneers of bossa nova, Barreto’s candid admission is a most telling change from that of veteran filmmaker and fellow Brazilian Cacá Diegues, whose own views on the subject of Marvelous City, along with his motives for remaking Black Orpheus into something less pandering to potential tourists, are markedly different.

Pass the Soap, Please

Rather than go with the flow of more serious late nineties fare, Barreto kept to a winning formula that pays homage to the work of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, two of Hollywood’s finest purveyors of screwball comedies. Though scarcely what most people would think of as a Cary Grant or even a Katharine Hepburn, Mr. Fagundes (closer in build to the burly Gérard Depardieu) and Ms. Irving did make for a credible pair of over-aged lovebirds. The other participants gleefully joined in the fun, resulting in a generally pleasing if hardly innovative feature.

Amy Irving as Miss Simpson

Amy Irving as Miss Simpson at the airport

Not surprisingly, the high-gloss sheen behind the film’s facade was shaped by a variety of factors, primarily those “soap-opera” vehicles called telenovelas (or novelas, for short) that super-conglomerate Rede Globo continues to export to countries beyond those of Latin America.

Those carefully crafted images of Rio — likely held together with spirit gum and baling wire — were deliberately designed to produce an effect, a dream vision of Cidade Maravilhosa which, as evidenced by the above quotation, the film’s director made no bones about exploiting. However, at this point some additional cultural background may be warranted.

For decades, Globo’s writing teams have been churning out dozens upon dozens of formulaic scripts, many if not all of these “serialized dramas” boasting interlocking story lines tailored to the serendipitous lives of the rich and fanciful. Most are ensemble pieces, i.e., character-driven dilemmas with serio-comic undertones that thrive on the chemistry and interaction of a capable cast, if only to make it in the highly competitive 9 to 10 p.m. viewing slot.

At their best, novelas are models of their kind, a factory product of enormous popularity and appeal, and, of course, staggering ratings success. Two of the more watchable examples from about the same period as Bossa Nova are Laços de Família (“Family Ties”), which aired between June 2000 and February 2001, and featuring such stalwarts as Vera Fischer, Carolina Dieckmann, Reynaldo Gianecchini, José Mayer, Tony Ramos, Marieta Severo, and the aforementioned Alexandre Borges and Giovanna Antonelli; and the earlier Torre de Babel (“Tower of Babel”), broadcast from May 1998 to January 1999, that included an all-star lineup headed by the ubiquitous Tony Ramos, Glória Menezes, Tarcísio Meira, Cláudia Raia, Maitê Proença, Edson Celulari, and Adriana Esteves.

With his qualified team of screenwriters (Alexandre Machado and Fernanda Young), Barreto employed the same logic that TV Globo had mastered and developed for its own vast repertoire of sudsers. The web of interconnected plot threads that made Bossa Nova so typical of the genre is neatly untangled by movie’s end, though not always to an individual character’s liking. (No spoilers here, I’m afraid. Let’s just say that not everyone lives happily ever after, and leave it at that.)

The job of taking this kind of culturally specific program out of its natural element and preparing it for international dissemination must have been challenging not only to Barreto’s sense of his own Brazilianness (i.e., of his having been born a carioca), but also the California lifestyle he’s been leading for well on twenty years.

Bossa Nova is very personal to me on every level,” he admitted to IndieWire magazine in April 2000, “in the sense that I wasn’t aware as I was doing it. I guess that’s actually good … When I started to edit the film and then looked at sections of it, I went, ‘It’s so close.’

Bruno Barreto behind the camera

Director Bruno Barreto behind the cameras

“The fact that the more time I spend here, the more I miss the city where I come from. I remember that while driving all the time in L.A., whenever a Brazilian song played, some song from when I was growing up, I would just cry. I’m so homesick. At the same time, I’m very happy that I have a career here. That I do what I love to do.

“The way [Rio] is in the movie doesn’t really exist. It’s the way I like Rio to be. It’s a totally idealized city. People go, ‘Oh, wow!’ But the minute they get off the plane, they see a very different Rio. The Rio in the movie is the Rio I have in my heart. It’s the way I remember Rio. That is why I think this is my most personal movie.”

If we’re to understand the director correctly, Bossa Nova represents one man’s unrequited passion — a love story, if you will, though not necessarily about a woman but for a city. In the same IndieWire interview, Barreto explained his picture’s other dedication: to the late Nouvelle Vague director, François Truffaut.

“I think Truffaut was maybe the last truly romantic filmmaker in my opinion. Above all, he was a master for me. All the films I make are very much about relationships and encounters and miscommunications. All of these in a light romantic atmosphere. And I think Truffaut was the master of that.”

Along the lines of l’amour toujours, Barreto indicated that “In Brazil, there isn’t this obsession with youth and being young … People are not self-conscious about their bodies. They go around, even the men, in their small bikinis, and they go to the beach and they don’t care much about the way they look. They’re having a good time, and they think they can fall in love and have affairs in their sixties or seventies. They don’t think that love and romance is just for young people.”

Of course not! One is never too old for love, and the film proves that. It may also help to explain Barreto’s decision to adjust Pedro Paulo’s age in the novel from a young and restless public servant to a silver-haired legal professional in pin-striped suits and expanding waistline.

What of the movie’s namesake, that calmly soothing and rhythmically enticing beat of bossa nova? Alas, there are moments where the music is simply too overpowering — that is, when it’s not relegated to the background in a way that speaks inoffensively of Muzak. At other times, as in the gathering at the cemetery, the soundtrack wells up expectantly. But then, we hear the raspy tones of rocker Sting, groaning his rendition of Jobim’s “How Insensitive.” How apropos is that?

Pretty Little Love Songs

Michelle Johnson & Michael Caine in Blame It on Rio

Michelle Johnson & Michael Caine in ‘Blame It on Rio’

Whether Barreto was conscious of it or not, his film bears a striking resemblance to another “rom-com” from the mid-eighties, Stanley Donen’s sex romp Blame It on Rio (1984), which starred Michael Caine, Joseph Bologna, Valerie Harper, and a young Demi Moore.

Caine plays a foreign businessman living in São Paulo, who, on vacation in Rio, meets up with his best friend’s daughter, the buxom Michelle Johnson. He’s hard-pressed to resist her nubile charms, so he winds up having an illicit affair with the girl. In return, his wife (Harper) has an affair of her own with his best pal (Bologna). The outcome? Emotional and family mayhem.

This irritating piece of fluff boasted a purely bossa- and samba-strewn score, with original music by guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, a longtime resident of the West Coast. Most of the movie’s songs were written by Kenneth Wannberg and Dennis Spiegel, with the title tune and another number, “I Must Be Doing Something Right,” the work of Cy Coleman and Sheldon Harnick.

Basically, the plot stayed at B-movie levels, and was the kind of thing done better by expert hands: case in point, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), which, in 1973, was transformed into the musical A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim; and Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy from 1982.

As bad as it turned out, Blame It on Rio did serve its purpose as a stepping-stone to better things; in this instance Bossa Nova, as thoroughly acceptable a domestic product as any in recent memory, but only slightly more authentic as a snapshot of present-day Rio with its share of unresolved issues.

Poster for ‘Bossa Nova’

How, then, did Bossa Nova stack up in the popular song category? From such classics as “Useless Landscape” (“Inútil Paisagem”), “One Note Samba,” the inescapable “Girl from Ipanema,” “Wave,” “The Waters of March,” “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (“Corcovado”), “No More Blues” (“Chega de Saudade”), and “Once I Loved,” it was a veritable Jobim love-fest.

This is where the film finally came into its own to live up to that iconic title. And with the artistry of orchestrator and musician Eumir Deodato, along with performers Djavan, Bárbara Mendes, Stan Getz, João and Astrud Gilberto, Claudia Acuña, Carlos Rogers, Elis Regina, and Jobim himself, how could it be otherwise?

Still, one can’t help recalling this sage advice, allegedly attributed to the self-same Tom Jobim. When pressed for his thoughts, upon stepping off his plane at Galeão International Airport, of having lived and worked in New York and Rio de Janeiro, the shy and unassuming Tom, in that vaguely understated fashion of his, complied as only he could:

Nova York é bom, mas é uma merda. Rio é uma merda, mas é bom.” Roughly translated, it means: “New York’s good, but it sucks. Rio sucks, but it’s good.”

That sums it up for Bossa Nova as well: “The film’s good, but it sucks. The film sucks, but it’s good.”

Oh, wow! ☼

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Waste Land – The Musical’: ‘Ninety-Nine is Not a Hundred’ (Part Two)

The conclusion to a proposed musical theater piece about the award-winning documentary ‘Waste Land’ (‘Lixo Extraordinário’)

Artist Vik Muniz

Artist Vik Muniz

In the first part of my tribute to the denizens of the Jardim Gramacho slum (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/waste-land-the-musical-we-suffer-we-die-and-were-buried/), one of the catadores was hurt by an unfriendly encounter with a garbage truck and its contents. Meanwhile, the office was looted by drug thieves who made off with the monthly payroll.

Act II: Resolution

Number 12. “Rescue Attempt” – The garbage pickers pull Zumbie out from under the crumbling rubbish heap. “The truck’s gate fell on him,” yells Big Carl, one of the slum’s inhabitants, “but he’s going to be okay.” With a huge sigh of relief, the garbage pickers take the stricken catador de lixo to the hospital. “Over 20 people will donate blood,” Zumbie announces proudly. “I’m surrounded by good fr-fr-friends.” He’s well on his way toward mending, both physically and emotionally.

Number 13. “Vik’s Visit” – The famous artist, Vik Muniz, now comes to call on Jardim Gramacho with a unique proposal for the pickers. He wants to take their pictures – i.e., photographs of the workers, in all sorts of weird poses. As Vik explains it, he intends to recreate the classic paintings of old. The garbage pickers look at him in alarm and amazement. “What’s this all about?” they wonder openly.

Vik tries to clarify his idea, but they still don’t get it. “Pictures? Pictures of what?” they inquire in unison. “Pictures of garbage,” Vik replies, rather matter-of-factly. They are even more astonished at this alleged clarification. They still can’t believe their ears. “Who in their right mind would want to do that?” they declare. “I would,” says Vik. “It’s what I do for a living.” “And people say we’re crazy!” is their response. This leads to an extended discussion (via an ensemble passage) where everyone chimes in with their own ideas about the project.

Eventually, the issues are resolved and the garbage pickers’ reluctance begins to fade. Vik is making headway in his appeals to their self-esteem: he wants them to think of his project as a possible “way out” from the dead-end lives they’ve been leading.

Number 14. “Death of Marat” – The first to take his turn at the canvas is boss-man Tião, who decides to pose for the painting of Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat,” followed cautiously by the other participants. In a humorous episode, Tião starts to undress before the other participants, who shyly look away as he slips into Marat’s outfit. “Irmã’s Painting” is next in line. After posing for her picture, she is finally able to see herself as others do. “Artists have to suffer,” she offers, which leads into the next number.

Magna portrait

Magna’s portrait

Number 15. “Isis’ Suffering” – “They aren’t the only ones,” cries Isis, another of Jardim Gramacho’s put-upon residents. “I don’t see myself in this trash heap anymore. I don’t want to go back to the garbage. I don’t…” Isis then reminisces about her young son, who died in a nearby hospital of pneumonia. The scene shifts between her recollection of the recent past and the events at the landfill, which are taking place simultaneously – in parallel – but on two different levels. Some of the garbage pickers are transformed into doctors and nurses, keeping Isis informed of her son’s deteriorating condition.

This becomes the emotional crux of the drama, wherein Isis sings about the ant crawling on her deceased son’s face – the same ant that, if one pulls back far enough away from the landfill, everyone appears to resemble. “We’re just a bunch of tiny insects in this life,” Isis insists. “I saw my son die at three years old,” as she resumes her story. “He died of acute pneumonia. His name was Carlos Igor.” At the mention of his name, Isis breaks down in tears. In trying to comfort her, Vik tells her that no one can do anything more to her than has already been done. His mission, then, is to help the populace see what life is like on the outside, beyond the confines of the garbage dump. That is the most that he can do – the rest is up to them!

Number 16. “Lesson: How to Look at Art” – This is the scene where Vik instructs the residents of Jardim Gramacho how people who go to museums look at (and appreciate) the works of art they find there. First, they take a step up to the painting, and then they take a step back. This routine turns into an amusing vignette, with the onlookers contributing their own versions of “how to look at art.”

In the meantime, the lesson continues: back and forth, everybody leans in and everybody leans out; they move away, see the material, see the landscape, and then move out again. “Since we’re all garbage pickers,” they claim, “all we see are the recyclable materials.” “But that’s the thing,” Vik pipes in. “They’ll spend hours looking at your photographs. There is more to them than just garbage. Watch, you’ll see.” We know exactly what he means, which is: there’s more to the garbage pickers – much more, it turns out – than meets the eye. You just have to “get up close and personal” to simple folk, they retort, to learn “who we really are” – just like regular folk do with the paintings.

Suelem as "Madonna and Children"

Suelem as “Madonna and Children”

Number 17. “Madonna and Child” – A photo session involving Suelem and her two children takes place. In recreating the artwork, the garbage pickers themselves do the actual placing of the objects onto the photo – that is, they recreate the art from the trash heaps that they themselves have picked. In addition, each work is a commentary – a personal statement, if you will – on the personality and character of the individual who did the picking. For the “Madonna and Child,” this indeed is how Suelem sees herself and her brood.

This happens to be the real theme of the show: i.e., how others have perceived the garbage pickers to be, but, most importantly of all, how Vik, the artist, and especially the garbage pickers, see themselves and their roles in life. It goes beyond what anyone ever imagined at the start. How much they have changed in such a short time! Each finished photo is displayed in its glory. The garbage pickers are overcome with emotion by their wonderful portraits, especially Big Carl and his wife.

Number 18. “The Museum Visit” – In a change of scenery, reporters appear to gather around the garbage pickers doing makeshift interviews. At the museum, Vik and Tião stumble upon a bronze sculpture of a garbage bag. “What’s in it?” Vik asks. “Can you tell me? Can you venture a guess?” Tião pauses and ponders the contents. “Hmm, a cup of yogurt, hearts of palm, small boxes, a brand new cell phone, and the rest.” This scene is reflective of an earlier one, in Act I, in which the pickers made fun of people’s trash. It ends with Tião’s perceptive comment: “I feel like a pop star.”

We next revisit the skit, “How to Look at Art,” now called “Life Imitates Art,” but this time it is put into practice, with the garbage pickers seeing real people looking at their precious pieces of art, in exactly the way that Vik had taught them beforehand, the living embodiment of the phrase “life imitates art.” Both garbage pickers and museum visitors admire each other, first from afar and then from close up, a rather comical observation on how different groups of individuals behave and perceive the other to be – and a perfect illustration of the point that Vik Muniz was trying to make above.

Number 19. “The Auction” – It starts with the sale of an Andy Warhol original, beginning almost in staccato form, à la Mrs. Lovett from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Interspersed with the auctioneer pointing to various parties gathered at the auction, there are comments and asides from Vik and Tião interspersed throughout, as well as from the other participants, somewhat along the lines of: “Did you hear? Did you hear?” and “Did he say twenty, did he say twenty?” “Is it true? Is it true?” “It’s been sold for fifty thousand and two! Did he say fifty, did he say fifty? Sold today, sold today? Is it true what they say?”

At scene’s end, Tião’s picture is sold for $50,000 dollars. He is overcome with emotion and breaks down, weeping with joy – quite a different situation from the earlier one at the end of the first act, where we found him bawling his eyes out at the loss of the company payroll. He simply can’t believe his good fortune. “It’s all worth it. It really is,” he admits. Vik and Tião embrace warmly, in friendship and solidarity, as the onlookers break out into spontaneous applause.

Tiao Santos & Jo Soares (YouTube)

Tiao Santos & Jo Soares (YouTube)

Number 20. “Finale” – The musical ends with Tião and the garbage pickers’ appearance on a popular TV talk show (in Rio de Janeiro, it’s Jo Soares’ program; in America, it’s Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert). Here, the talk-show host introduces the group as “collectors of garbage.” Tião has the polite audacity to confront him: “If I may correct you, sir. Garbage can’t be reused, whereas recyclable materials can. We are not pickers of garbage, but pickers of recyclable material.” What he’s trying to say is that human life is never wasted; it’s always salvageable – recyclable, if you prefer – even if you’re a lowly garbage picker. “I stand corrected,” Soares states, as he looks out approvingly into the audience.

The show comes to a rousing close with the repeat of Valter’s number, “Here’s wisdom aplenty: Ninety-nine is not a hundred, and nineteen is not twenty,” after the elder statesman’s personal motto. The entire cast comes out in a stirring rendition of “The Waste Land Song”:

Seven thousand tons of trash

Work all day for little cash

Robbing Peter, paying Paul

Look, here comes another haul

It’s a Waste Land

The set reverts back one last time to the garbage dump overlooking Guanabara Bay. Only this time, Christ the Redeemer is facing the audience. His massive stone countenance is seen looking down on the inhabitants. It almost appears as if He’s given His blessing to the goings on.

Blackout and curtain

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Bye Bye, José Wilker (1947-2014) — An Appreciation for an Underrated Performer

The well-known actor, director, movie, theater and television personality died Saturday in Rio at age 66

José Wilker (www.bms.co.in)

José Wilker (www.bms.co.in)

T.S. Elliott once wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” He wasn’t joking! In the span of a single weekend, the entertainment industry was rocked by the loss of two of its favorite sons: the passing of ageless funnyman and jack-of-all-trades Mickey Rooney, who died Sunday of natural causes, was preceded by Brazilian actor-director José Wilker, who experienced a fatal heart attack on Saturday morning.

About the iconic Mr. Rooney, little can be said that hasn’t already been stated — and better — by other writers. He lived a long and fruitful life, both inside and outside his chosen field. That he reached his 93rd birthday is a blessing in itself, but those four score and thirteen years were incredibly diverse ones. As far as his many fans are concerned, Mickey’s earned the right to his eternal rest.

As for Wilker, what can I say? I’m saddened, of course, by his untimely demise. Although we never met, I invariably came away from his film and TV appearances with the feeling that I’d like to know this guy better: that puckish grin that seemed to imply he knew a lot more than he was letting on; those oriental-like eyes that betrayed an underlying Slavic streak to his makeup; and that baritone voice that lulled unsuspecting moviegoers into taking Zé Wilker at his word.

Who wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon in conversation with a man like that? As I understand it, he was a most considerate and erudite individual in real life. That being the case, I would gladly have welcomed the opportunity to exchange ideas. And not only was Wilker a fascinating interview subject, he was also an attentive interviewer as well. Oh, the stories we would’ve told…!

A Two-for-One Special

DVD cover of Dona Flor e seus dois maridos

DVD cover of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

One such story would be my first encounter with the gifted actor, which came in 1978 with the American release of Bruno Barreto’s Dona Flor e seus dois maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), one of whom — a lovable rogue named Vadinho — was taken by Wilker.

The film opens on a Sunday morning in Salvador da Bahia, in the northeast corner of Brazil. It’s Carnival time in the early 1940s. A handful of rowdies, among them the boisterous Vadinho, have been whooping it up till the predawn hours. Suddenly, one of the merrymakers spots a nearby mulata twitching her bottom in time to the music. With that, the revelers form a dance circle around her. Vadinho, dressed as a baiana, flips open his “skirt” and displays a makeshift male appendage.

After cavorting in this manner for a few minutes, Vadinho runs out of steam and collapses to the ground in a faint. Thinking he’s faked a swoon, his friends try to revive him, but it’s too late. He’s pronounced dead at the scene. Dona Florípides, or “Dona Flor” for short (played by the young and nubile Sonia Braga), emerges from her house. Catching sight of the crowd that’s gathered in the street she runs over to where her husband has fallen. But there’s little she can do except to cradle Vadinho’s head in her arms while weeping inconsolably over her loss.

We next find Dona Flor at Vadinho’s wake. Outside, the sounds of Carnival intrude upon the reverent atmosphere of the onlookers. After all, the party must go on, no matter what fate has in store for them. A friend places a bouquet of flowers in Vadinho’s hands, as one by one mourners express their condolences to Dona Flor. In the kitchen, several women are speaking ill of the deceased. One of the ladies claims he never wore a wedding ring: “That’s because he gambled it away after the ceremony.” Another lady asks if he had ever beaten his wife. “Not only did he beat her, but he spent all her money on the losing number in a game of chance.” That lowdown good-for-nothing!

In another part of the house, the conversation turns to the cause of Vadinho’s death: “His kidneys were shot, his liver went to pot, and his heart gave out. As for his lungs…” A dissipated lifestyle, no doubt! The camera returns to the wake and focuses on the downcast Dona Flor, whose sorrow is at least sincere when compared to that of the others. Her mother, Dona Rozilda, begs her to take a seat; after what she’s gone through, she deserves a break. “I’m fine, Mama,” her daughter replies. Just then, Flor glances up at a pretty girl crying her eyes out, opposite her husband’s casket. She realizes to her dismay that even in death Vadinho will be sorely missed by more than just the members of her family.

At the same time, Flor’s mother ticks off a litany of complaints against her late son-in-law. The epithets are piled on thick and fast, one more descriptive than the other, in an amusing display of verbal dexterity: “That man was a spendthrift, a vagrant, a gigolo, a scoundrel and a bum, as well as a heartless cheat… After seven years of suffering I finally have my daughter back.”

There’s a quick cut to Vadinho’s corpse, an immense close-up of the man’s facial features. With his eyes shut, his blond hair neatly combed to one side, we see the rascal respectably dressed (for once) in a blue suit, white shirt and tie. Cotton balls protrude from his ears and nostrils. His mouth is agape, the lips somewhat parted in what might be the vaguest glimmer of a grin — a wicked, perverse kind of smirk Vadinho never had the chance to display.

At the theater where I first saw the film, the effect of that close-up magnified my impression that here lay an individual who was indeed larger than life. And I’m sure there were plenty of folks in attendance who’d swear they caught Vadinho cracking a smile. (Not a chance!)

The Actor’s Studio

Barely eight or nine minutes of footage have elapsed, yet spectators have already been clued in to the fact that everything about this scoundrel has been relayed to us without his having spoken a word of dialogue. It’s an intriguing cinematic concept that actually works, thanks to first-rate screenwriting, direction and camerawork.

As good as this beginning is disappointment inevitably follows when the actor in charge fails to live up to expectations. Not so with Wilker, for it is here that he begins to make inroads of his own: incorporating Vadinho’s wantonness (told in flashback) in farcical as well as lustful ways, he intentionally downplays the more reprehensible aspects of the womanizer’s personality, never straining for effect or over-reaching to make a point.

Instead, Wilker presents the native nordestino as a reincarnation of Rhett Butler: all sensual allure and saucy insouciance, with a taste for fun and mischief, along with a high degree of self-confidence. It’s the way that Wilker “fleshes out” the character (at times, quite literally!) that makes Dona Flor’s passion for him all the more credible. If nothing else, Vadinho is shown as a man comfortable with the carnal pleasures of life. Of course, Wilker knew the type well, having been born in Juazeiro do Norte, in the northeastern state of Ceará, and raised in Recife, prior to relocating to Rio de Janeiro. All told, he lets what has already been conveyed about the character do the acting for him.

Sonia Braga & Jose Wilker (braquiocefalico.blogspot.com)

Sonia Braga (Dona Flor) & Jose Wilker (Vadinho) (braquiocefalico.blogspot.com)

While I concede that the entire film hinges on the performance of its leading lady — and without question, the worldwide popularity of Dona Flor can be attributed to Sonia Braga’s titillating presence — it never fails to amaze that Wilker was able to successfully compete with his co-star on equal terms. Another actor might have been completely overshadowed by her charms, or have given up hope of ever being noticed, what with the future Spider-Woman nodding by his side.

The ability to make audiences sit up and take notice was one of Wilker’s most valuable assets. It served him well in a variety of pictures, including two by Brazilian director Cacá Diegues: Xica da Silva (1976) and the cult classic Bye Bye, Brasil (1979). Of his countless television assignments, certainly the soap opera Roque Santeiro (1985), in which the supposedly dead title character returns to his village and wreaks havoc on the lives and livelihood of its citizens, can be counted as his most memorable TV portrayal.

A Fond Farewell

To have lost such an underrated performer in his prime is a tragedy no amount of praise can overcome. Yet watching one of Wilker’s earliest screen triumphs — especially the riotous scene at Vadinho’s wake and that half-formed smile of his — reminds me that an actor’s life can be heavily influenced by his art.

There’s little friends and family can do at this point except to cradle Wilker’s memory in their thoughts and in their hearts, while weeping inconsolably over the acting world’s loss. But there is one thing we can all do: we can bid farewell to one of Brazil’s finest all-around performers. So let me give it a shot:

“Bye bye, José Wilker! You will be sorely missed by more than family members. And if the sounds of Carnival happen to intrude upon our thoughts, so be it. After all, the party must go on, no matter what fate had in store for you.”

That’s Vadinho talking… and he’s cracking a big, fat smile. †

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Pedaço de Mim’ (‘A Little Slice of Me’): Chico Buarque’s ‘Ópera do Malandro’ & Other Stage Works Prove that Musical Crime Does Pay

A new Brazilian stage production, entitled All of Chico Buarque’s Musicals in Ninety Minutes, is set to debut in January 2014, just in time for Chico’s 70th birthday. The musical, which features songs and numbers from the celebrated singer, songwriter, author, and playwright’s stage and screen output, will be presented in Rio de Janeiro by the award-winning team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho.

chico-vejaThe new musical will follow the same pattern as Möeller-Botelho’s previous productions, Beatles in the Sky with Diamonds and Milton Nascimento – Nothing Will Be As It Was: that is, a musical revue without text or dialogue, where each number (or potpourri of songs) links the various episodes of an artist’s career together.

“We prefer to show off the work instead of the author, that’s really what matters,” said musical director Claudio Botelho. “I detest those kinds of biographical shows,” he added, “where the artist is on his deathbed, and then gets up to relive his past accomplishments.” The revue, which highlights Chico’s songwriting skills and craftsmanship, will be small in format, with only eight actors in attendance.

This is similar to an arrangement Möeller and Botelho had prepared, back in 2006, of the singer’s Ópera do Malandro, in a stripped-down show they retitled Ópera do Malandro in Concert. A more compact version of the original play, Malandro in Concert showcased all of the work’s songs, which were interspersed with bits of dialogue used, primarily, to connect the musical numbers and inform the public of the plot.

Playing to the Crowd

By way of clarification, the play known as Ópera do Malandro, or “The Street Hustler’s Opera,” Chico Buarque’s carioca twist on Brecht-Weill’s Threepenny Opera and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, is set in a Rio de Janeiro of the 1940s, the heyday of strongman Gétulio Vargas’ power and influence.

As such, it’s a typically Brazilian piece – and quite a controversial one at that. I devoted several blog posts to the background of, and influences on, this groundbreaking work, which premiered back in 1978 during Brazil’s military dictatorship years (see the link, “Chico Buarque’s Modern Street Opera”: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/10/27/chico-buarques-modern-street-opera-the-influences-on-opera-do-malandro/).

Revived in Rio, after a long hiatus, in 2003 by Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho, the play’s songs are a mishmash of old and new styles – from samba, tango, and pop, to a riotous pastiche of the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen, the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Verdi’s “La donna è mobile” from Rigoletto, and other operatic airs. In short, it’s a stand-alone stage spectacular that’s pretty-much in the popular vein.

In case you haven’t heard, a malandro is a Brazilian version of “Goodfellas,” a streetwise con man who makes his living by strictly unlawful means. For the most part, the plot of Malandro follows the same contours as that of Threepenny Opera, but with some notable exceptions. (See “What’s It All About, Max Overseas?” for a detailed overview of the story – https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/opera-do-malandro-the-street-hustlers-opera-whats-it-all-about-max-overseas/)

There was even a foreign-film version, directed in 1986 by the Mozambique-born Ruy Guerra, one of those Cinema Novo auteurs of days gone by, whose plot was drastically altered for the big screen and, as a result, does not compare favorably to the original.

The More We Talk, the More We Learn

A ninety-minute retrospective of Chico’s stage and film work sounds particularly enticing to the Brazilian singer’s many admirers. But just how such a show could possibly do justice to his extensive song product, and in the relatively brief run-time allotted to it, is a logistical nightmare most producer-directors would rather pass up. Not the Möeller-Botelho team. For them, it’s all in a day’s work: “Another opening, another show,” as Cole Porter would say.

A while back, I had the distinct pleasure of discussing Ópera do Malandro, as well as other aspects of the production, with musical director and adapter, Claudio Botelho, and his partner, director Charles Möeller. In addition to which, I consulted Brazilian journalist Tania Carvalho’s excellent coffee-table volume, Charles Möeller e Claudio Botelho: Os Reis dos Musicais – “The Kings of Musical Theater” (Imprensa Oficial, São Paulo, 2009), for additional insights into their mind-set and methodology.

REIS_MUSICAIS_CAPA_arrumada.inddIn view of the challenges they experienced in reviving this long dormant show (among numerous other productions), what were the attractions it held for Möeller and Botelho at the time? In our talk we covered the genesis of their version of Malandro, which placed added emphasis on Chico’s incomparable songs and characters, and less on the political climate of the play’s premiere:

Josmar Lopes – It’s been ten years since you and Charles revived Ópera do Malandro. What can you tell me about your version? How did it differ from the original?

Claudio Botelho – We rewrote many of the scenes in order to make the music more combined with the dialogue. The original book follows the Brecht-Weill concept, where the dialogue is separated from the songs, [with the] songs usually coming at the end of each scene. We mixed music with dialogue at many points and cut out about 40 percent of the dialogue in order to have more musical numbers (including those from the 1986 movie version). We also created Ópera do Malandro in Concert in 2006, which has practically no dialogue but still tells the story with only the songs. This version includes a total of about 25 numbers.

Josmar Lopes – Who wrote the original text and numbers, and how did you and Charles get involved with the play?

Claudio Botelho – The author of the book, music, and lyrics is Chico Buarque. The show was originally produced in 1978, as it’s been published in a book, our main source to start… We were asked in 2003 to re-inaugurate the old Carlos Gomes Theater on Praça Tiradentes, which hadn’t been used or seen an orchestra or musical play occupy its space since the 1960s. Our first thought was to do Ópera do Malandro, which we had been wanting to stage for the longest time… We asked Chico directly [if we could] make a new production, and he authorized us to make any changes we needed and also include any song that he wrote for the movie version. This was discussed in a long lunch with him, Charles, and me. He only asked to see one rehearsal prior to the opening.

Josmar Lopes –Tell me a little about your specific version.

Claudio Botelho – Our version is an adaptation of his original, plus five songs from the movie version, and also a new version of the book (which was originally about four hours long!). We made many cuts in the dialogue and created new introductions (i.e., spoken lines) for most of the musical numbers, as well as we included spoken lines in between the chorus of some songs… Let’s say it was a mix of everything that Chico had written for Malandro for the theater and for the cinema. This is what Chico watched and what he approved.

Josmar Lopes – What was his reaction?

Claudio Botelho – Two weeks before the opening, Chico attended one rehearsal and was very emotional about what he saw, [he] took pictures with the cast, and his lead producer, Vinicius França, decided to make a recording of the score with the new cast. This was how a long road [got] started.

Josmar Lopes – So how did the premiere go? Was it well received?

"Opera do Malandro" in concert

“Opera do Malandro” in concert

Charles Möeller – When we started working on the production, everyone was telling us, “You’ll never get this show to work, you’re crazy to even try, this is an historical landmark from the 1970s.” We went ahead with it anyway. The play has strong political undercurrents, which we had no idea if they would be of interest to today’s audiences, and it’s extremely verbose. That troubled me, even though I loved the story. We had a closed rehearsal for our friends three days before the premiere – and it was a total fiasco.

Claudio Botelho – When the rehearsal ended, we were told it was going to be the biggest flop in Brazilian-theater history. They used words like “catastrophe” and “disaster…” People said such horrible things – and right to our faces. Charles got so sick, he couldn’t stop throwing up. But life can be very entertaining: just two days after our friends’ dire predictions, Ópera do Malandro premiered and turned out to be the biggest hit of the season – the show was supposed to last for three months, but went on to play for a solid year! From the opening in 2003 to the last performance in 2006, it ran in both Rio and São Paulo to packed houses (sold out every single night!). We then went on tour (with the whole Brazilian cast) to Portugal. The show was a huge success in Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve in theaters of about 5,000 seats (Coliseu de Lisboa and Coliseu do Porto). Then, we went back to Portugal two other times, [but] with a different cast. The CD recording of our cast, produced by Chico’s label Biscoito Fino, was and still is a BIG HIT in the Brazilian CD market.

Josmar Lopes – I can vouch for that! It’s almost impossible to find a copy nowadays, they’re all sold out.

Charles Möeller – We became a little more “mainstream” after Ópera do Malandro debuted. Just about everyone had seen our show, Cole Porter: He Never Said He Loved Me, but it was still considered an “undergound” production, at the Arena Theater. Company was a legit Broadway outing, but more of a niche-type musical, an island in a sea of productions for the masses. But Malandro was the talk of the town. I used to walk down the street and see people dressed in T-shirts from our show. It was from that point that we took the first step in the direction of the type of show Rio de Janeiro had been unaccustomed to seeing: the type that hordes of fans would want to come back to over and over again.

Josmar Lopes – Have you considered loaning your production out to other producers or directors?

Claudio Botelho – In short: we have an adaptation, which is ours. No one can use our changes without our permission because that’s evidently our version (it’s never been put on stage by any other producer or director). But on the other hand, we can’t produce the show without asking Chico’s permission, again because he’s the original author of the most precious material: the songs.

Charles MöellerMalandro gave audiences a great deal of pleasure, but for us the show was very difficult to put on; it was extremely demanding, and every day we had problems. Back then, we didn’t have the kind of structure for shows that exist today. For example, an actor would lose his voice, but there were no understudies to take over for him. Many times we had to rehearse someone at the last minute; the revolving stage platform would break down and needed to be fixed before that night’s performance. It was a never-ending cycle we had no way of preparing for. It was only in Portugal that we were able to take control of the situation and understand the dimensions of what we were doing.

Josmar Lopes – With Brazil soon coming into the world’s focus, especially with the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament just around the corner, and the Summer Olympic Games approaching in 2016, have either of you given any thought to reviving Malandro again – possibly for the Broadway stage? If so, what changes would you anticipate making to your version?

Claudio Botelho – The thing is: we’re dealing with the Brazil of 1978 and 2003, not the Brazil we have now, where musical theater has grown to a much more professional status and structure… The original staging cost $900,000 reais [at today’s exchange rate, that’s half a million dollars]. Everything was being done for the first time. Sound, scenery, lighting, no one had done that size musical before (with the exception of Company, which had a cast of fourteen). Today, that staging would be unacceptable from a technical standpoint… That said, I think that Ópera do Malandro is a great opportunity to have Chico Buarque’s songs introduced to American audiences. He’s an idol in many countries in Europe, especially in France, and his songs from Malandro are no doubt his best work ever. We have all the orchestrations created for OUR VERSION. That’s really our material and belongs to an agreement between us and our musical arranger – Liliane Secco – and we have all the musical materials (instrumentation for twelve musicians, etc.). But we also have all the vocal score of our version written and printed.

Josmar Lopes – Have you anticipated any unforeseen situations, of the type that Charles described above?

Claudio Botelho – Well, in the middle of the production I realized that the final song of the show – which is a samba adaptation of “Mack the Knife” – was not authorized by any agency. They used it here in 1978, [but] paying only the ECAD royalties. Thank God that’s the only song with a melody by Kurt Weill, [so] it can be cut from a U.S. production if that becomes an issue. Anyway, the film version’s title is Malandro (and not Ópera do Malandro) because they needed to disguise any resemblance to Threepenny Opera. So they took out the word “opera” from everything.

Josmar Lopes – Ah, o jeitinho brasileiro! A little bending of the rules, perhaps? A typical Brazilian solution to life’s problems!

Claudio Botelho – At this point, I’d like to add a footnote, if I may: that, in my humble opinion, Brazilian actors in general were not accustomed to the rigors that musical shows demanded. It could have been a holdover from the chanchadas [an early type of musical-comedy revue], and the eternal compromises one was forced to make with the improvisational nature of such shows. But the fact remains that it was difficult to hold some actors back from wanting to “outshine” the show itself. That’s how it used to be. In the same sense, the newer generation that, in the last decade or so, has gone into the theater by way of musicals, to me seems more prepared to confront the longer runs these shows require without trying to be makeshift “co-authors.”

Charles Möeller – There’s this mistaken notion with actors who feel that, to keep their art alive, one constantly needs to invent some bit of stage business. The ones in charge of carrying out that vision are us, not the actors. I feel that the actor’s vision and talent can remain vibrant in the art of repetition, which is something Brazilian actors – in general – have trouble accepting during the course of a show’s run. And they hate to be admonished. But I admonish them just the same. At the end of each show I have one of my assistants go around and tell the actors what was different about their performance. There are actors who love this. But the majority hates it.

(End of Part One)

English translation by Josmar Lopes

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes (with sincere gratitude and acknowledgement to Claudio Botelho, Charles Möeller, and Tania Carvalho)

‘Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812’ – At ‘War’ with Tolstoy’s Master ‘Peace’

Cast of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (Loren Wohl)

Cast of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (Loren Wohl)

Having spent the last several weeks immersed in Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s literary and cinematic world, I decided to devote much of this next post to his other great masterwork, the epic novel War and Peace.

First published in 1869, the story takes place a few years before, during and after Emperor Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Imperial Russia. Tolstoy’s two great works, War and Peace and the later Anna Karenina, indeed have much in common with each other: both stories include incidents and characters from the author’s personal experiences; both featured much semi-autobiographical data about Russian life in general, and peasant and aristocratic lives in particular; and both have been adapted for the screen in successful (and not-so-successful) versions, along with TV miniseries, opera, theater and such.

Although no major operatic version of Anna Karenina has enjoyed popularity or currency (will some enterprising composer please snatch up the Met Opera’s reigning diva, Anna Netrebko, and persuade her to participate in such an enticing endeavor?), there does exist a successfully produced War and Peace by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (he of the perennial Peter and the Wolf orchestral suite).

Mel Ferrer & Audrey Hepburn (flickr.com)

Mel Ferrer & Audrey Hepburn (flickr.com)

Of the extant film and television versions available, by far the most widely appreciated among movie buffs is director King Vidor’s 208 minute potboiler from 1956, starring the gamine-like Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostova, perfectly realized and a delicate flower in full bloom; the dashing Mel Ferrer as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, handsome enough to have won Audrey’s hand even before production began; a totally miscast and uncomfortably bedecked Henry Fonda as Pierre Bezukhov, his famous line, “Damn you, Napoleon! Damn you ta Hell!” having been quoted far too often for its own good; and Herbert Lom as a suitably impressive Napoleon, who is rather mellow in the role, certainly better than the bizarrely interpreted Marlon Brando from 1954’s Desiree – although Brando definitely looked the part.

The former Soviet Union produced a mammoth four-part blockbuster between the years 1961 and 1967. It was released in this country in two parts, running approximately six hours in length (the original running time lasted closer to seven, which would have challenged the backsides of most American audiences, ergo the pain was spread out — tongue planted firmly in cheek — over two nights). Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk (Runaway Train), who also co-wrote the screenplay and starred as Pierre (no miscasting there), it was authentic in many details – right down to the uniforms and locations mentioned in Tolstoy’s story – but never attained either the epic status or lasting star power that the earlier production had in spades.

Next up is the 20-episode BBC television miniseries, which aired in 1972. The total running time for this production lasted a good 15 hours, but it was worth every minute of airtime. The cast included a young and vigorous — and totally dominant — Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, a slightly older Natasha by Scottish actress Morag Hood, and a dour, melancholy Prince Andrei performed by Alan Dobie. Produced by David Conroy, written by Jack Pullman, and directed by John Davies, the predominantly British cast convinced viewers of the earnestness of their efforts in this superior and virtually complete dramatization of the novel.

Lastly, a staged adaptation of a portion of War and Peace recently hit the New York stage – or to be more accurate, a musical version has appeared in a makeshift tent over in Manhattan’s meatpacking district near the West Village. For details about this unusual and – dare I say it – revolutionary cabaret-style production, here is a reprint of a review from The New Statesman:

A musical adaptation of War and Peace could easily have become sprawlingly shallow. But director Rachel Chavkin and writer-composer David Malloy are unafraid to let Tolstoyan complexity play out onstage.

By Tara Isabella Burton (Published August 6, 2013)

Brittain Ashford & Phillipa Soo

Brittain Ashford & Phillipa Soo

At first glance, the deliriously decadent, gleefully implausible concept of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 looks like something out of an unlikely-pitch handbook: a single strand of Tolstoy’s Napoleonic doorstopper, re-imagined as an interactive, dinner-theatre rock opera cabaret. Certainly Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 could be forgiven for resting on its conceptual laurels: the Siberian-bazaar décor (plenty of red velvet, intermittent icons) and itinerant, fur-clad musicians almost merit the ticket price. But, beneath (and at times in spite of) the production’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, Comet is one of the most gorgeously nuanced portrayals of passion running on either side of the Atlantic [Editor’s note: Which is more than one can say for Joe Wright’s passionless movie version of Anna Karenina from 2012].

A musical adaptation of War and Peace could easily have become sprawlingly shallow. But director Rachel Chavkin and writer-composer David Malloy are unafraid to let Tolstoyan complexity play out onstage, allowing us a richly textured glimpse into the love lives of a few of War and Peace‘s main characters that still manages to suggest their story’s cosmic significance. Focusing as it does on the love triangle between the vivacious Natasha (Phillipa Soo, heart-wrenchingly luminous, refusing to fall back on the emotional shorthand of the ingénue soprano), her absent fiancé Prince Andrei (Blake DeLong), and the rakish, honey-voiced Anatole (Lucas Steele, treading the fine line between heartthrob and comic fop), Comet‘s story line sidesteps the War half of Tolstoy’s novel. Yet it is a testament to the strength of the performances, as well as to the darkly haunting quality of Dave Malloy’s musical score, that Natasha’s doomed passion for Anatole feels no less vital, no less profound, than the fate of the world being destroyed around them.

The lyrics – often taken wholesale from Tolstoy’s novel – produce a curiously Brechtian, if at times dissonant, effect: in describing their own actions in such a seemingly detached manner – “Natasha crossed the room”, “Pierre looked up”, and so forth – our Moscow denizens become victims of emotional forces they cannot control, powerless witnesses to the downfall that no amount of “soothing irony,” as Natasha puts it, can prevent.

While a Tolstoy purist might complain about the number of side plots cut in the service of Natasha’s story (Mary and Sonia, in particular, suffer from adaptation decay), Comet‘s supporting characters are compelling enough to demand our attention even when given relatively little to do. As Helene, Pierre’s wife (as the helpful, patronymic-skirting lyrics frequently remind us), Anatole’s sister, and self-proclaimed “slut,” Amber Gray melds cabaret-style showmanship and searing sensuality; her standout number, “Charming,” with which she pushes the already-vulnerable Natasha into her brother’s arms is a masterpiece of feline manipulation. Grace Mclean, as Natasha’s “old school” godmother Marya, exudes brassy exuberance; her throaty outrage at Natasha’s betrayal is the closest we get to Weill-style cabaret. Blake Delong, too often offstage as Andrei, reappears as the marvelously vile Prince Bolkonsky, squaring off powerfully against his defiantly dutiful daughter Mary (Shaina Taub, a powerhouse of quiet emotion).

Yet the night’s best performance belongs to by Brittain Ashford, as Natasha’s stalwart cousin Sonya. Plainly dressed, simply coiffed, and given all the most painfully exposition-laden lines, Sonya has little to do for most of the play but watch from the sidelines as her cousin waltzes her way towards dishonor and disgrace. But Ashworth – her voice an uncanny, even unearthly, blend of folk melancholy and raw passion – makes her into Comet’s unsung heroine: the dull wallflower whose stoic love for her cousin proves far more powerful, and far more lasting, than Anatole’s hastily-flung affections.

Against the sheer power of the play itself, some of Comet‘s trendier trappings – the occasional interactive moment, the dinner served with the show, the post-performance musical acts – feel somewhat superfluous. Comet’s brilliance lies not in its flair for spectacle, but in its honest, haunting look at the vagaries of passion, and the dazzling capacities of the human heart.

And finally, here is the New Yorker review, from June 13, 2013:

Rocking Out to “War and Peace”

Posted by Michael Schulman


Natasha (Phillipa Soo) & Pierre (Dave Malloy) theeasy.com

Natasha (Phillipa Soo) & Pierre (Dave Malloy) theeasy.com

The prize for this summer’s most brazen literary adaptation goes not to Baz Luhrmann, for his Auto-Tuned Great Gatsby, but to Dave Malloy, a 37-year-old musician living in Park Slope. Malloy is the composer and star of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, an immersive electro-pop musical based on a 70-page sliver of War and Peace. (Volume II, Part Five: “After the engagement of Prince Andrei and Natasha, Pierre, without any obvious reason, suddenly felt the impossibility of going on with his former life…”) After a sold-out run in midtown last year, the show has moved to a white tent in the Meatpacking District, tricked out inside like a louche Russian supper club. Patrons dine on vodka and caviar, while the cast, as youthful and carousing as the surrounding club-goers, belts out the story around them. Malloy, perched at an upright piano, plays Pierre.

“Tolstoy did a lot of the heavy lifting for me, because this section is so tightly plotted,” he said recently, before a Tuesday-night show. In the novel, Pierre is described as “fat, unusually tall, broad, with enormous red hands.” Malloy is handsomely stocky and normal-handed, with rumpled blond hair and a bushy, barista-like beard. He sat at a table near the stage, as house music blared overhead. An unsmiling woman in a black miniskirt, who introduced herself as Anna Medvedeva (“Is Russian President”), of Yekaterinburg (“where Nikolai II was killed”), served pickled vegetables and borscht. (The waitresses were selected on the basis of their Slavic-ness.)

Malloy first read War and Peace six or seven years ago, while working as a pianist on a Celebrity Cruise to Bermuda. “My girlfriend at the time was living in San Francisco,” he recalled. “We thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to read a book at the same time?” As they read, they traded e-mails, using subject lines like “I’m on page 371” to avoid spoilers. Stuck at sea, Malloy found solace in Pierre’s spiritual questing. “He tries sleeping around, he tries drinking, he tries freemasonry. He tries killing Napoleon,” Malloy said. “He goes through such a tumultuous time. And I was in my twenties, sailing the world, trying to find myself. So it was very apropos.”

Back on land, the girlfriend didn’t last, but Malloy’s Russophilia persisted. In 2010, contemplating a theatre piece on Rasputin, he traveled to Russia for two weeks. In Moscow, he went to “this amazing seven-floor Russian techno club,” which inspired a head-banging rave scene in Natasha, Pierre, and Cafe Margarita, near Patriarch Ponds, which became the model for Kazino, the show’s ersatz cabaret venue. But it was Malloy’s life in Brooklyn that resonated with the novel. The plaintiveness of Natasha’s cousin Sonya, for example, reminded him of his friend Brittain Ashford, who fronts a chamber-folk collective called Prairie Empire. (“We actually met at a Sufjan-Stevens-secret-Christmas-song listening session.”) He wrote the part for her.

Medvedeva brought pierogis and shrimp, which Malloy washed down with a shot of vodka. “This food feels very much like my childhood,” he said. Malloy is half Latvian; his grandmother escaped Soviet-occupied Latvia on the back of a hay truck, pregnant with his mother. Malloy grew up in Cleveland and studied composition at Ohio University, where he played in a band called Harrison Fjord. After dropping out of grad school, he moved to San Francisco and worked at a used-record store. Being the only employee who knew how many symphonies Mozart had written, he was assigned to the Jazz and Classical division, but his co-workers schooled him in everything else. “I had never heard Radiohead somehow,” he continued. “Someone gave me ‘OK Computer,’ and I was like, what—the—fuck.” In New York, he put his musical education to use, welding contemporary sounds to classic texts. In 2009, his klezmer-rock adaptation of Beowulf was staged on the Lower East Side, with Malloy playing Hrothgar.

At Kazino, patrons were filling up the winding red banquettes. Over chicken and couscous, Malloy contemplated the finale, when Pierre gazes at the comet of 1812. Tolstoy describes the comet as “having flown with inexpressible speed through immeasurable space on its parabolic course, suddenly, like an arrow piercing the earth.” “It’s actually quite an ambiguous symbol,” Malloy said. “The comet is very much the foreshadowing of that guy”—he pointed to a portrait of Napoleon above the piano—“because he’s about to come and burn down Moscow. But, for Pierre, it’s this moment of realizing that he’s capable of change, he’s capable of not being this sad, desperate old man he’s becoming. That he can still love someone else and restart his life.” Then Malloy went backstage and emerged, an hour later, as Pierre Bezukhov.

‘City of God,’ Ten Years On and Counting

Alexandre Borges in City of God (wall.alphacoders.com1)

Alexandre Borges in City of God (wall.alphacoders.com1)

By Donna Bowater, Rio de Janeiro

BBC NEWS: Latin America & Central America

August 5, 2013

(Editor’s note: This is a reprint of a recent article from BBC World News about the tenth anniversary of the groundbreaking 2002 Brazilian film, Cidade de Deus, or as it’s known in the U.S., City of God, co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, and released worldwide in 2003. The film cost $3 million to make, and grossed over $20 million at the box office.)

Ten years after a Rio de Janeiro slum called Cidade de Deus (City of God) burst into the world’s consciousness with the hit film of the same name, very little has changed for the residents and the actors have enjoyed mixed fortunes, writes Donna Bowater.

In one of the ubiquitous street-side bars in the west of Rio de Janeiro, Leandro Firmino sits sipping water dressed in the shirt of his beloved Flamengo football team. In Cidade de Deus, the community where he grew up, he knows almost all who pass by and gives them a thumbs up or a wave.

He could be any of the million who live in the city’s favelas. But his famously haunting eyes are unmistakable.

A decade after playing the terrifying drug lord Li’l Ze in the unexpected box-office success, City of God, he shows few other signs of the fame he achieved back then.

Sprawling Poverty

The film, which begins in the 1960s and ends in the early 1980s, follows the lives of Li’l Ze and Rocket, a young photographer who chronicles the decline of Cidade de Deus, against a backdrop of drugs, criminal rivalry and wanton violence.

Now home to around 40,000 people, the community was originally built for families relocated to the outskirts by Rio’s authorities to rid the city centre of its favelas. However, it became notorious for its gangsters, criminals and dangerous streets.

In one of the most memorable scenes, Li’l Ze orders a boy to choose another boy to shoot dead.

Felipe Silva, one of the children in the scene, recalls: “I was scared to death of Leandro Firmino. They kind of made me fear him so I could cry in that scene.”

Firmino, now 35 and father to a 21-month-old boy, was recruited directly from the favelas to make the film, an adaptation of Paulo Lins’s novel. “It’s gone pretty fast,” says Firmino. “I’m surprised people remember it. It’s very much alive, even among children of 11 or 12.”

High-profile Visit

Leandro Firmina (with gun in hand)

Leandro Firmina (with gun in hand)

Like many of the cast, Firmino enjoyed a high profile in the wake of the film’s success, which included four Oscar nominations.

He has worked with film group Nos do Cinema (We in Cinema) and acted in several Brazilian films.

In 2011, Firmino was invited to the reception for U.S. President Barack Obama when he visited Brazil. “I didn’t go. I had another engagement,” he says. “Barack Obama’s visit to Cidade de Deus was a political thing.”

But while continuing to act and work in film, Firmino’s life remains unaffected by one of the most enduring works of cinema to emerge from Brazil in recent years.

“Do I feel like a celebrity? No. I think it’s ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous word. Art is about being close to people, celebrity is about being distant,” he explains. “I grew up here in Cidade de Deus. I really like it here. And God willing, I will continue to work in cinema.”

He mentions that others also found success following the film, many of whom feature in the forthcoming documentary, City of God: 10 Years Later.

Love Interest

Alice Braga kisses Alexandre Borges (freewebs.com)

Alice Braga kisses Alexandre Borges (freewebs.com)

Alice Braga, who played Rocket’s love interest Angelica, went on to star opposite Will Smith in I Am Legend and credited City of God with launching her career.

“I think that beach scene, especially the one with the kiss, really helped my career because the frame of that kiss stuck in many people’s minds,” she tells the documentary. “I got an agent abroad. I met many people thanks to that kiss and the picture it became.”

And Seu Jorge, who played Li’l Ze’s arch rival Knockout Ned, continues to be one of the best known musicians in Brazil, performing at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.

Firmino says others have been less fortunate, mentioning Jefechander Suplino, who played Clipper, one of the impoverished thieves in the film’s “Tender Trio”.

He could not be traced by the producers of the documentary and is feared dead. His mother insists her son is still alive and told researchers: “He’s not dead, I’m sure of that.”

Rubens Sabino da Silva, who played Blackie, was arrested for trying to rob a woman on a bus in 2003. He appealed for help from the film’s director, claiming he received no money for his part.

While the cast had mixed fortunes, the film has become a steadfast cultural reference for Brazil’s social problems, crime and violence.

After the film was released, original novelist Paulo Lins says he feared the reaction of such a brutal depiction of Rio de Janeiro. “I was a little scared about the repercussions of the launch [of the film].

“It was the time of the presidential election in Brazil. Violence was the most discussed topic of the campaigns and the media talked every day about the movie. Everyone was looking for me to do interviews. I never thought I’d be so exposed in the press.

“The launch was a show of glamour, there was a lot of talk from politicians on criminality, but so far nothing has been done to effectively stop children getting into the world of violent delinquency.”

Vibrant Culture

City of God: Ten Years Later poster

City of God: Ten Years Later poster

But for Firmino, who returned to life in Cidade de Deus after the film, there was little in the way of public response.

Police say security has improved since they moved into Cidade de Deus. “It was normal,” he says. “I lived here. Cidade de Deus has the difficulties of the favela but it always had a kind of culture.

“When I launched the film and became a public persona, it was cool, but it wasn’t a big novelty because we had already seen others – musicians, some who no longer live here, and some who still live here.

“For example, if you talk about funk in Rio de Janeiro, you talk about Cidade de Deus. It was normal. It just raised morale here among people that I had produced this piece of work.”

The reaction of the community to the new documentary is perhaps more telling.

Cavi Borges, executive producer, says: “There are many people in City of God who don’t like the film because of the violence. When they heard we were doing a documentary, they were like: ‘Oh no, not again.’

“But ours is a different form. It’s a reference for Brazilian cinema; everything is City of God, City of God, City of God… It’s good and bad.

In 2009, Cidade de Deus became the second favela in Rio to be “pacified” as part of a government program to improve safety and security by increasing the police presence in poorer communities.

Police officers moved into the favela and installed a special unit to try and drive out drug traffickers. The murder rate fell from 36 in 2008 to five in 2012.

Mr. Borges says he wants to change people’s perception of the area.

“It’s what people think Brazil is like in reality. Everyone wants to see the communities. It’s like Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire,” which is set in the Indian city of Mumbai.

“My dream is to bring this documentary to all the countries that saw the original film.”

City of God (Cidade de Deus)

Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund; written by Braulio Mantovani, based on the novel by Paulo Lins; produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Mauricio Andrade Ramos, Elisa Tolomelli, and Walter Salles; co-produced by Hank Levine; cinematography by César Charlone; edited by Daniel Rezende; music by Antonio Pinto and Ed Cortés; art direction by Tulé Peake; starring Alexandre Rodrigues, Alice Braga, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Mattheus Nachtergaele, and Seu Jorge. Color, 130 min. Released by O2 Filmes, Globo Filmes, StudioCanal, and Wild Bunch; distributed by Miramax Films, Buena Vista International.

Sadness Has No End (Part Eleven): All the World’s A Stage… No, Really It Is

“Playing” for Time

Black Orpheus (Breno Mello & Marpessa Dawn)

Black Orpheus (Breno Mello & Marpessa Dawn)

The most striking thing about the episodes in Orfeu da Conceição is how little they have in common with Marcel Camus’ rosy-eyed vistas of Rio: no streetcar-conducting lead; no enchanting ferryboat ride; no colorful costume pageant, as such; no return and parting of Orfeu’s lost love; and no voodoo mumbo-jumbo, either, although Dama Negra does get to perform a bit of macumba during portions of the play’s opening act. Oh, and Cerberus, the guardian canine of the realm, puts in a guest howl at the second act dance-club sequence.

Otherwise, in Camus’ grandiose treatment of Carnival, Orfeu is not torn to shreds by an angry mob of whores but instead falls off a steep cliff holding on to his expired love after being conked on the head with a rock. If Vinicius de Moraes hadn’t left the theater by that point, he most assuredly would have done so here, so dissimilar was his play from the movie — the undeniable irony of which never fails to impress, in that there would be no staged play at all without the insistence of the French for a screen treatment. Vinicius himself admitted as much: “And it was in Paris… that I met the producer Sacha Gordine, who was interested in the story and wanted to make a movie of it. So it was really the movie that made possible the staging of the play…”

On the face of it, though, Diegues’ 1999 re-filming does come closest to actually carrying out, to a limited extent, the poet’s intentions, more than adequately preserving the systemic violence of the hills that was markedly absent from Camus’ freshly scrubbed reading. He even threw in Orfeu’s parents as a good-will gesture to the original.*

Orfeu (Toni Garrido & Patricia Franca)

Orfeu (Toni Garrido & Patricia Franca)

That said, neither picture even remotely approaches Orfeu da Conceição’s lyrical foundation, its soul-stirring poetic imagery, or its classical refinement and construct. That the piece intermittently betrays melodramatic overtones, seriously over-playing its hand when it comes to the emotional and physical state of the title character’s suffering and distress (think Milton’s Samson Agonistes) makes it a major liability.

Only Jobim’s perfectly-limned musical responses keep it from wallowing in its own excess. About the worst that could be said of his score was that it was too tasteful and refined for such violent displays of passion.

Factor in a whopping Fat Tuesday celebration and a healthy dollop of Afro-Brazilian dance sequences, choreographed by the debuting Lina de Luca, and voilá: you have the makings of a total work of art, a stunning stage realization (albeit in primitive form) encompassing a veritable periodic table of theatrical elements — drama, music, poetry, dance, setting, and scenic and lighting design — with all the pomp and majesty, as well as the flaws, inherent in that much-bandied-about term “opera,” or, in this case, “drama with music,” which is a more accurate description.

Does everything that has been written about Orfeu da Conceição make it the Brazilian musical to end all musicals? No, not necessarily. Should we continue to hold out hope, then, that Orfeu might one day be restored to his proper place on the world stage? Anything is possible, if the opportunity were ever to arise. (Broadway producers, take note.) But, as we have tirelessly strived to point out to readers, Vinicius de Moraes was incontrovertibly put in the awkward position of having to bear witness to the cinematic “decimation” of his most-prized work.

The record clearly shows that Vinicius walked out on the Brazilian premiere of Camus’ Black Orpheus, the first of two film adaptations. Doesn’t it seem odd, though, that the world-weary poet would have survived such a profound jolt to his system by the palantir-like glimpse he was afforded of the future misdirection of his country — where it was headed and how those in the public trust conspired to keep it off course — only to lash out in the one way an artist of his standing could lash out: by taking the “law” (or his feet) into his own hands, as the situation demanded?

That’s an awfully big “maybe,” when you come right down to it. In support of his own modern view of the ancient Greek fable, director Diegues took care not to disturb the playwright’s easily offended fans (get thee behind me, Dama Negra!). “In the original play,” he argued, “there’s a poem in which Vinicius says that everything in the world dies except for Orpheus’ art, which is forever — and I tried to visualize that.”

The actual lines, which are given to the members of the chorus and form the basis for the play’s ontological outlook and conclusion, vary somewhat from his recollection but are no less inspiring:

Para matar Orfeu não basta a Morte.

Tudo morre que nasce e que viveu

Só não morre no mundo a voz de Orfeu.


To kill Orfeu, Death is not enough.

Everything that is born and lives must die

In the world only Orfeu’s voice survives.

It is incumbent upon us to insist that, even if the country itself were to fall off a cliff — which, in as much as it pained The Little Poet to learn, it very nearly did at key moments in its recent past — Orfeu’s voice (and, by suggestion, Brazil’s music) would live on in the world as well.

 *           *          *

One of Vinicius’ closest contemporaries, writer and poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, offered this discerning opinion of his friend: he was “the only Brazilian poet,” Drummond decreed, “who dared to live under the sign of passion. That is, of poetry in its natural state.” Orfeu da Conceição, Moraes’ most ambitious literary and musical creation, was the complete fulfillment of this sign of passion, his poetic and unvarnished imitation of slum life in its natural state. God help the person who came between him and that passion!

Author Lúcia Nagib’s Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia goes into excruciating detail on the “natural state” of writer-director Carlos Diegues’ passion for Orfeu. One scene, in particular, has a special poignancy for her:

“As the film draws to a close, the favela hill returns to its everyday violence after the ‘great illusion of carnival’ [sic] is over, as sung in ‘Felicidade,’ a song by Jobim and Vinicius, delivered with innocent simplicity by Jobim’s adolescent daughter, Maria Luiza Jobim, who plays a minor role in the film.”

The opening line of that number, which happens to fit in perfectly with this post’s main heading — and which is also the first one to be heard in the French-made Black Orpheus — is simplicity itself, yet speaks volumes of the illusory effect the annual ritual of Carnival has had on the lives of the poor:

Tristeza não tem fim

Felicidade sim

A felicidade do pobre parece

A grande ilusão do carnaval

A gente trabalha o ano inteiro

Por um momento de sonho

Pra fazer a fantasia

De rei ou de pirata ou jardineira

Pra tudo se acabar na quarta-feira


Sadness has no end

But happiness does

A poor man’s happiness is like

The great illusion of Carnival

You work all year long

For a brief fulfillment of a dream

To play the part of

A gardener, a pirate or a king

Only to have it all end on Wednesday morn

What cannot be deemed a “great illusion” is Carnival’s restorative power; how its raw, incessant energy seems to electrify every one of the parade participants gathered, in spite of four solid days of nonstop action and fun. After a highly favored samba school falls to a lesser rival; after the drums go silent and the crowds begin to disperse, you’re awakened from “a brief fulfillment of a dream” to the reality at hand.

It’s the same instinctive feeling Vinicius must have sensed when he first realized what had been wrought upon his carioca tragedy. It is not a pretty sight, what with all those drained and disappointed faces. But hey, there’s always next year, which is another way of saying that “happiness” will return to them — in some way, shape or form — se Deus quiser, or “God willing,” an everyday Brazilian expression; along with the other assorted rituals of one’s existence: births, deaths, anniversaries, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and what have you.

Life has a continuous ebb and flow — a beginning and an ending — and “sadness,” as our title implies, is just an orderly part of that flow. In that respect, the melancholy air, “A Felicidade,” could never have been able to bookend Black Orpheus and the much-later Orfeu, much less come to the fore, had it not been for the sublime music of bossa nova. What is more, bossa nova could never have achieved the worldwide fame and recognition it doubtless deserved without the fortuitous teaming of Jobim with Moraes, the irrepressible partnership that started it all.

Barack Obama, "Dreams from My Father"

Barack Obama, “Dreams From My Father”

In Barack Obama’s autobiographical Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, he specifically mentions Black Orpheus by name as “the most beautiful thing” his mother had ever seen. “The film, a groundbreaker of sorts due to its mostly black, Brazilian cast, had been made in the fifties. The story line was simple: the myth of the ill-fated Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio during Carnival. In Technicolor splendor, set against scenic green hills, the black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage.

“About halfway through the movie,” he continued, at almost the exact spot that Vinicius had gotten up and left the screening, Obama decided that he had “seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.”

Here’s one simple fantasy we might consider setting by the wayside: if there is anyone out there who winds up in the same, awkward position a temperamental Brazilian poet — or a future U.S. president — once found himself in, let him declare, here and now, he will not slip out of the movie theater… no matter what happens inside. ☼

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

* The role of Orfeu’s mother — in this version, called simply Conceição — was played by veteran actress Zezé Motta, who in her earliest days as an ingénue played the lead in director Diegues’ first big international screen success, the feature Xica da Silva from 1976.

Hollywood Goes to the Opera – More Cinematic Disparities for Your Viewing Displeasure (Conclusion)

Director Martin Scorsese

Director Martin Scorsese

Concluding my previous blog posts about the absurdities of opera singers and opera singing in Tinsel Town (and well beyond), below are a few more examples of this egregious practice for good measure.

But What Does It Have to Do With Opera?

Everybody knows (or at least, I hope they know) that opera, as it’s been handed down to us, originated in sixteenth-century Italy — in the city of Florence, to be exact. It was supposed to be a somewhat heightened method of speech tempered with music and drama. Whether that concept has successfully carried over into modern times, or whether it’s been good or bad for music and drama as a whole, I’ll leave that to the experts to determine.

What I can say about opera is that many filmmakers and directors of Italian and/or Sicilian extraction, with Francis Ford Coppola among the more notables ones, have been obsessed by the genre from their earliest infancy. It must be in their blood. But whatever the reason, we have Coppola and his fellow paisan to thank for spicing up the medium through non-operatic methods.

One such artist has been that prolific genius of the celluloid, director Martin Scorsese. A graduate of New York University’s Film School, not only is Scorsese an inveterate movie buff, film historian and preservationist, but a scrupulously curious-minded individual whose fascination with how opera and the performing arts can be incorporated into such a seemingly incompatible form as film has led him down some fascinating paths. I’m not sure Mr. Scorsese has ever successfully reconciled these two art forms, to be honest, but he certainly gave it the old NYU college try!

Many of his most famous films preserve some aspect of the operatic art, whether it’s the music or an actual “staged” performance. Let’s say that opera (that larger than life way of expressing oneself through song), in the hands of a master movie-maker such as Marty, can make you see things in an entirely different light; while adding to our understanding of a scene or plot point without regard to its sometimes gruesome subject matter.

Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull

Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in ‘Raging Bull’

There’s plenty of evidence for that in Scorsese’s Oscar-winning biopic Raging Bull from 1980, which should start things off nicely for us. By emphasizing the Intermezzi from both Pietro Mascagni’s one-act opera Cavalleria Rusticana (loosely translated as “Rustic Chivalry”) and his later unsuccessful Guglielmo Ratcliff, Scorsese featured these two pieces of music: one in crisply edited, black-and-white photographed, slow-motion action shots; and the other in a facsimile of a 16mm handheld camera, to paint two pre-MTV versions of a proto-music video in several artsy-fartsy sequences.

The film, a brutal and starkly realistic look at the turbulent life of middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta (played by Robert De Niro and based on the fighter’s autobiographical book, no less), presented a foul-mouthed portrait of an overly jealous man behind the athletic shorts. Co-star Joe Pesci, in his film debut as La Motta’s equally forceful younger brother, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his comic-opera turn. Pesci got the nod again (and won!) a decade later for his similar assumption of a garrulous Mafia hood in the same director’s Goodfellas (1990). What’s so funny?

In a complete 180-degree turnaround from blood-sport and warring factions, Scorsese gave us a suitably lush picture of late nineteenth-century Manhattan high society in his underrated screen adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1993). Beautifully shot and elegantly narrated by Joanne Woodward, the film in its early going takes us to a “live” Metropolitan Opera Company performance of Gounod’s Victorian-era opus, Faust.

Evidencing a deft familiarity with the era’s conventions, as specifically related to this opera (thanks to his superb research department), Scorsese’s movie accurately reconstructs an Italian-language Faust, which as incredible as it may seem the opera was actually sung in. Indeed, all the operas, including most of the German repertoire, were performed by the Metropolitan in la lingua italiana, the accepted norm for that time period.

Wynona Ryder is Age of Innocence

Wynona Ryder in ‘The Age of Innocence’

Not to be outdone, Scorsese, in following Wharton’s lead, knew full well that most society families had the rather noxious habit of taking their marriageable-age daughters to see the perennially popular Faust, mostly for purely “moralistic” purposes, in that the lead female character of Marguérite (or Margherita in this version) meets a sad fate through her out-of-wedlock relationship with the title character.

Hey, that’s one way to keep your girls in line!

Evviva Italia!

Continuing along this path, the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s were a splendid time in Italy for films of an operatic nature to be produced. The most unusual aspect, shall we say, of these quickie flicks was the sub-par lip-synching employed throughout, as well as the even more nonsensical practice of dubbing opera stars’ voices with … well, other opera stars’ voices! Appearances counted for much back then.

One of the earliest examples of the above was of Donizetti’s charming comic opera The Elixir of Love (1946), which starred the photogenic baritone Tito Gobbi as Sgt. Belcore, bass Italo Tajo as Dr. Dulcamara, and soprano Nelly Corradi as Adina — but with the chirpy singing voice of Margherita Carosio. This made little sense, as Carosio was a pretty enough figure in real life to overcome any implausibility. Hmm, maybe she was just camera shy …

A slightly “better” (relatively speaking) production was The Barber of Seville from 1947, which repeated the successful formula of Messers. Gobbi, Tajo and Corradi, but added portly tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini as Count Almaviva (singing and acting, by the way) to the mix, along with burly basso buffo of Vito de Taranto as Dr. Bartolo. The sets were rather crude and makeshift, to be kind, as they were borrowed direct from the Rome Opera, where the production was filmed. Talk about a tight budget!

Tito Gobbi a Figaro (youtube.com)

Tito Gobbi as Figaro (youtube.com)

Next up was a series of Verdi operas, including the bombastic La Forza del Destino (1947), with Gobbi, bass Giulio Neri, and Corradi again. This time around, Corradi was dubbed by dramatic soprano Caterina Mancini. Tenor Gino Sinimberghi appeared as Don Alvaro, but was voiced by Galliano Masini. Go figure! An even better production of Rigoletto (1946) starred our old friend Gobbi, with actress Marcella Govoni sitting in for the hugely proportioned, but vocally well-endowed coloratura Lina Pagliughi.

Golden-throated tenor Mario Filippeschi emoted onscreen, while his own sterling tones (described by his baritone colleague, Signor Gobbi, as “a splendid Duke with a ringing voice and smilingly sardonic appearance”) sang the life out of “La donna é mobile.” Mamma mia! According to Gobbi, the entire film was shot on the stage of the Rome Opera House in a span of 14 days. Always a quickie, never a longie!

Two films — one a comedy and one a tragedy — were released in 1948. Let’s start with the tragedy first: Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci or, as it’s known in the ersatz American translation, Love of a Clown. Again, we have Tito Gobbi acting the part of Tonio, while singing both Tonio and Silvio, the soprano’s love interest. A young (and I do mean YOUNG) Gina Lollobrigida appeared as Nedda. Stay with me now, for this is going to be a real mishmash. Gina was dubbed by soprano Onelia Fineschi. Her lover, Silvio, which we already know from the above was voiced by Signor Gobbi, was acted by … you guessed it, Signor Gobbi.

All right, so far so good. Here comes the funny part (funny as in, “What the …?”). Canio, the main clown (i.e., Pagliaccio), was sung by tenor Galliano Masini. You remember him! He sang in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Well, then, the actor playing Canio was none other than … are you ready for it? Baritone Afro Poli! (Sure, why not?) Rounding out the ensemble was tenor Gino Sinimberghi, now SINGING the part of Beppe, but PLAYED on the screen by … an ACTOR! And the actor’s name is? The envelope, please: Filippo Morucci. (WHO???) You got all that?

Okay, so what about the second flick? After the above comedy of errors, not even Rossini’s enchanting La Cenerentola, the Italian version of the Cinderella story, could bring as big a smile to one’s face as what transpired with Pagliacci — oh, excuse me: Love of a Clown. Nevertheless, the role of Cinderella was played onscreen by Lori Landi (whoever she was). She was dubbed by the luscious-voiced mezzo Fedora Barbieri, along with basses Enrico Formichi and Vito de Taranto. The most memorable feature of this particular production was the sumptuously filmed locations, which included the Royal Palaces of Monza and Turin in Italy.

Here’s an interesting variant. The late composer, librettist, director and producer Gian-Carlo Menotti — the man responsible for the annual Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds — directed a film version of his own opera, The Medium (1950), in his native Italy. At the time, it was considered opera’s first excursion into film noir and Italian neo-realist territory. American contralto Marie Powers gave a powerful performance of the title role, with a young Anna Maria Alberghetti as Monica, and Leo Coleman in the mute role of Toby.

The finale, where Powers mistakes Coleman for one of her phantoms and shoots him dead, is full of religious iconography and punctuated by funereal chords in the orchestra. Seldom has a theater piece so transcended its operatic origins to become a full-fledged film product on its own. For the movie, Menotti expanded his opera to 80 minutes from its original one-hour running time. Tick … tick … tick …

Hang in there. Only two more to go!

Actress and singer Franca Duval, the mammoth-voiced tenor Franco Corelli (he of the mighty thighs and endless high notes), and jack-of-all-operatic-trades baritone Afro Poli, appeared together in Puccini’s Tosca (1956). The gorgeous Duval was sung on the soundtrack by aging diva Maria Caniglia. Corelli sung for Corelli (now there’s a novelty), while his good friend and fellow singing-actor Gian Giacomo Guelfi dubbed in the part of Baron Scarpia. The whole film was spoiled by an extremely intrusive English narration. Stop the music, stop the music!

Sophia Loren as Aida

Sophia Loren as Aida

And now for the piece de résistance! A famous (or infamous) 1954 Technicolor-film version of Verdi’s Aida that starred actress Sophia Loren at the very beginning of her career. In case you were wondering, the role was actually sung by the lirica spinta Renata Tebaldi. Lois Maxwell — the future Miss Moneypenny for all those early James Bond movies, and the brunt of Sean Connery’s puns — acted the part of Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter. Lest you thought that Lois was capable of assuming the strenuous vocal aspects of this part, think again: the famed mezzo Ebe Stignani sang Amneris on the soundtrack.

Our tenor hero Radames was lip-synched by an immobile actor named Luciano Della Marra. Tenor Giuseppe Campora sang for him, although the tenor was severely over-parted. Afro Poli was the Amonasro, but voiced by the very capable Gino Bechi, while Antonio Cassinelli played Ramfis the High Priest; his voice (you knew he wasn’t going to do his own singing, now, didn’t you?) was dubbed by the noble bass of Giulio Neri. The whole show was directed by Clemente Fracassi. Unfortunately, Verdi’s most popular opera was trimmed down to about 90 minutes. Not a good day for us purists.

Cartoon Frolics and Puppet Shows

At around the same time as those Italian opera productions were making headway around the globe, Warner Brothers got into the act by releasing three unusual theatrical shorts during the heyday of animated features.

The first was “Long-Haired Hare” from 1949. With musical direction by Carl W. Stalling, it featured our favorite cartoon rabbit Bugs Bunny in a raging battle with a smarmy baritone named Giovanni Jones (“That’s the nice fat opera singer”).

Bugs Bunny and Giovanni Jones

Bugs Bunny and Giovanni Jones in ‘Long-Haired Hare’

The second, “The Rabbit of Seville,” released in 1950, was an animated spoof of Rossini’s opera that used the work’s world-renowned overture to produce a mini-opera in itself. Musical direction was again provided by the classical music-loving Mr. Stalling. This one had Bugs and a perpetually flustered Elmer Fudd running around the stage trying to top each other in mayhem.

The last, and probably one of the finest animated masterpieces from this period, is “What’s Opera, Doc?” from 1957. A thoroughly hilarious takeoff on Wagner and the Ring cycle operas, this marvelous (and exceedingly expressionistic) short used music from The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, and a song, “Return My Love,” with lyrics by Michael Maltese, to fulfill our operatic needs. The musical direction was by Milt Franklyn.

It’s a classic by any definition of the word, and a highpoint for the studio — especially when Elmer Fudd expresses his undying love for the German “diva” Bugs Bunny: “Oh, Bwunnhilde, be my wove!” Oy vey, it’s enough to make one swear off opera for good! One can still feel its influence in the 2009 release of The Secret of Kells, an Irish, French and Belgian-produced feature, beautifully rendered in brilliantly colored backgrounds and art work. (And “that’s all, folks!”)

Hansel and Gretel movie poster

‘Hansel and Gretel’ movie poster

And now, for a simply delightful change of pace, we have another certifiable cult favorite: the stop-motion musical adaptation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel from 1954. Revolutionary in pioneering electronic techniques, and a prototype for later CGI and stop-motion work by the likes of Henry Selick, Tim Burton and Travis Knight of Laika Studios, this film was aimed squarely at the kiddie market.

Based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, it boasted the voice of famed lecturer, singer and comedian Anna Russell as Rosina Dainty Lips, that irksome child-eating Witch who gets to ride her broom around a candy-colored set. Broadway’s Mildred Dunnock, who acted in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, voiced the part of H & G’s Stepmother. As far as pushing the technology of the medium goes, this puppet-based “toon” earned its stripes in the visual effects department with (ahem) flying colors. Produced and directed by Michael Myerberg.

I Want My MTV – Not!

As anyone who’s ever lived through the eighties and nineties will tell you, it was the age of Music Television, or MTV for short (not anymore it isn’t). Remember the catch-phrase, “I Want My MTV” when music videos were all the rage? — at least, up until the start of the new millennium. That’s when Reality TV took over, thanks ever so much to a prolonged writers’ strike. We’re still paying the price for that one.

Neil Shicoff as Eleazar

Neil Shicoff as Eleazar in ‘La Juive’ (youtube.com)

In any case, I can wholeheartedly recommend tenor Neil Shicoff’s MTV-like video performance from 2005 of the plaintive aria, “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from the grandest of French grand operas, La Juive (“The Jewess”), by Fromental Halévy. Directed by television and movie veteran Sidney Lumet (now there’s an odd choice), Shicoff appears as Eleazar, the Jewess Rachel’s father, and emotes convincingly in his Jewish rabbi garb.

In addition to being a full-throated American tenor, Shicoff was also a full-throated Jewish cantor on the side. Significantly, his stirring rendition of this difficult piece, a favorite of Enrico Caruso’s, was in homage to the late tenor Richard Tucker, also a cantor, but who never got to sing the role at the Metropolitan Opera House, his home for nearly 30 years. If anything, Shicoff knocks this one out of the ballpark, so fiercely determined was he to express the full gamut of emotions.

The video is included on the DVD edition of the complete opera, released by Deutsche Grammophon and performed live by the Vienna State Opera. You’ll want to get your hands on this one quick, as it’s destined to become a classic.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes



‘Sadness Has No End’ – Part Eight: The Greatest Carnival Show on Earth!

 Joaozinho Trinta (correiodeuberlandia.com.br)

Impresario Joaozinho Trinta (correiodeuberlandia.com.br)

Welcome to Munchkin Land

Where the most recent re-working of Orfeu really came into its own — and where the earlier foreign-made film product left much to be desired — was in its authentic depiction of Rio de Janeiro at Carnival time.

In his striving to overcome Black Orpheus’ most glaring cinematic deficiency, i.e., its failure to “communicate the real organizational complexities and extended preparations of a samba school [on the march]… Diegues, aware of the problems with setting in Camus’ original film, made a conscious effort to bring his film production and the participating [Viradouro] samba school together ‘so that everything would happen where the story really exists’” — quite literally, in the teeming byways of Sin City itself.

The color, pageantry, and sweep of the traditional pre-Lenten festivities at their hallucinatory height can be attributed, in large part, to the ingenuity and inventiveness of the intriguingly christened Joãozinho Trinta (“Johnny Thirty”), the remake’s Carnival art director and unofficial traffic manager. In the high-stakes game of Rio Carnival competitions, he can be classified as the show’s program coordinator, or carnavalesco in the country’s native parlance — the most watched person in one of the most hotly contested aspects of Brazilian cultural life.

Despite the increased demands Orfeu placed on his energy and time, the contentious Munchkin-like figure was nonetheless keen to praise the veteran filmmaker for the care and devotion he showed to the cause: “[Diegues] has managed to capture in the Carnaval [sic] parade all the luxury of a samba school, with all of the poetry and poverty of the hills and their characters. It’s a perfect marriage: a parade deserving to score a perfect 10.”

Like Cacá and Caetano before him, João Clemente Jorge Trinta was another of those “unfortunates” from the impoverished Northeast that, through spunk and sheer grit if nothing else, miraculously beat the odds in transitioning to the more economically advantaged Southeast. He set his sights high and, as a result, became a member early on of the Teatro Municipal’s ballet corps, where after years of toiling away in the field he exulted in having learned “everything about staging an opera” that he could, which also happened to include “the scenery, costumes, stage management, lighting and special effects.”

With cheery alacrity, which he enthusiastically brought to such a seemingly elitist endeavor, he was able to put that working knowledge to substantive use throughout his extensive Carnival career. Consequently, Trinta has compared the art and artifice of those lavishly produced, samba-school creations of his to (of all things) the incredibly refulgent realm of grand opera. In an essay entitled “The Magic of Brazilian Carnival,” Joãozinho remarked that his varied background in the performing arts helped broker a novel approach to Rio’s fabled costume display: his then-revolutionary conception of Carnival “as an authentic street opera.”

Joaozinho Trinta with the Brazilian flag

Joaozinho Trinta with the Brazilian flag

As he went on to explain it, “There is the libretto that corresponds to the enredo [or script]… The libretto is set to classical music, while the enredo receives the melody of a samba… Scenery is built in the theater, while in the street enormous carros alegóricos [allegoric floats] are constructed to transport the components that correspond to the corps de ballet and opera chorus… on these carros alegóricos parade the main characters of the enredo, dressed in the story’s most sumptuous and significant costumes. The characters are called Destaques (notables). Then, there is the Bateria (rhythm section), corresponding to the symphony or philharmonic orchestra.”

This is all a bit of a stretch, quite frankly. However, no one can deny that Joãozinho Trinta’s heart wasn’t in the right place. If anything, his refusal to turn his nose up at opera was as much to Carnival’s benefit as it was to his own. Indeed, his well-cogitated views on the status of the celebration’s quo were a lot closer to the meat of the matter than he could possibly have imagined, in arranging this “perfect marriage” of stylistic opposites: opera, Carnival, and film — in this instance, the newest iteration of Orfeu, as conferred by The Cincinnati Enquirer’s resident film critic, Margaret A. McGurk.

“The movie has its good moments and bad,” she related, “a mythic tale, talented cast and vivid look. But all of it — settings, story structure, character development, emotional trajectory — is purely and powerfully operatic.”

Joaozinho Trinta with Teatro Municipal behind him

Joaozinho Trinta with Teatro Municipal

That same observation was shared by Brazilian writer Sérgio Augusto, who first coined the term ópera popular greco-carioca as a way of sizing up Vinicius’ stage play on which Diegues based his re-working. “Only the music,” McGurk stressed, referring back to the 1999 movie version, “a rich mélange of the traditional samba and modern rap-influenced pop, is far removed from what we think about when we think about opera.”

Fair enough, but only a showman of Joãozinho’s reputed ilk and, let’s face it, unquestioned acumen and skill — Carnival’s incorporation of that old American movie icon, Cecil B. DeMille — could have conceived of and executed such a feat of daring do that, year after nerve-wracking year, has succeeded in bringing the whole excessive, four-day affair to brilliant, prize-winning life:

“Add to this melodic beauty and poetic words and our result is a gorgeous samba-enredo, neatly wrapping up this audio-visual spectacle called Rio de Janeiro’s Escola de Samba parade, [which today] is considered the greatest show on Earth.”

Party Hearty Celebration

No doubt Carnival was “king” in Rio, as it has been throughout much of Brazil’s cultural history. And nowhere is it pursued with more intensity than in the remotest regions of the North and Northeast, if in more modified forms than its notorious southern “exposure” would have us believe.

The joke among fellow Brazilians is that celebrants in the northern corridors like to party it up early and often — a full month ahead of time, according to sources — and continue on for another month thereafter; well beyond Ash Wednesday, the traditional close of festivities and the beginning of the solemn period of reflection known as Lent.

That many nordestinos, baianos, and paraibanos (or whatever regional slur tickles your fancy) unapologetically march to the beat of a different samba drum — without regard to what the rest of Brazil thinks, says or does — is basically a done deal. Still, they no more enjoy a night out on the town than people in other parts of the country do, only more so.

Reflecting, if you will, on the relevance of the annual affair in the everyday lives of its citizenry, the extravagant costume pageant has been at the forefront of opinions about Brazil, both good and bad, for as long as it has been practiced there.*

It’s well worth remembering, then, that it was Carnival that drove an American filmmaker named Orson Welles — full of sound and fury, and itching to make cinematic history — to dizzying heights of distraction. At the same time, it provided the impetus for a carioca-born poet, Vinicius de Moraes, to breathe new life into a dusty old fable he found on his uncle’s bookshelf; which, in turn, inspired a minor New-Wave director, Marcel Camus, to devote a major portion of his talents to a modern film adaptation of Vinicius’ classic theater piece.

Not to be left out on a limb, moviemaker Carlos Diegues, along with superstar Caetano Veloso — both native Northeasterners of some renown — went a step further in their mutual respect for the celebration with an updated re-filming of the Orpheus saga at Carnival time. To be certain, it was Diegues’ desire for setting the record straight that led him to retool the story to his personal taste and satisfaction.

Nevertheless, in the chapter “In the Land of Carnival,” author Joseph A. Page, whose work The Brazilians is a fascinating compilation of what it means to be Brazilian, effectively put into words what many of us have long felt about the earlier movie version and its elevation of the festival to near-Elysian status:

Joaozinho in front of one of his floats

Joaozinho in front of one of his floats

“The film Black Orpheus might have done more than anything else to bring the event to the attention of people everywhere and to assure its immortality… Camus demonstrates with powerful sensitivity how the illusion of Carnival takes over the lives of samba-school members.”

But there is more to Rio’s elaborate costume display than meets the foreign eye. According to Professor Steven Wright, “The modern celebration of Carnival certainly has much in common with the ancient festivals of Dionysus in classical times… [or] Bacchus in the Roman period. Even if the lineage is not clear, the motives and outcomes of the festivals are the same: to celebrate life without the trappings of social norms.”

As an adjunct to this theory, he supports the position that Vinicius’ preference for the Greek myth of Orpheus was “well chosen, in that it had symbolic significance in the personification of various aspects of Brazilian culture… such as the emphasis on music, eroticism, public intoxication, and irrational behavior.”

“Those who have experienced Carnival in Brazil,” Wright added, “are very aware of these characteristics as the ancient Greeks would have been as well.”

It makes little difference to us how one personally feels about the supposed “classical implications” of Rio Carnival, but there are times when we’re forced to accept the obvious at face value, this being one of those times.

Considering what it has done overall for the country’s reputation over time, no expense has been spared and no bauble overlooked, on the part of the multiple organizations and individuals involved in its planning, execution, and outcome, to make this yearly round of music and mirth the unforgettable experience it has become for viewers of all ages.

(End of Part Eight)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

* Although present during colonial times, the celebration of Carnival was only sanctioned as an official event in 1932.

Anime, Japanese Cinema’s Second Golden Age: Celebrating a Decade of Progress (and Fandom)

First Published: January 20, 2002, by The New York Times

Perfect Blue (reviews.minitokyo.net)

Perfect Blue (reviews.minitokyo.net)

(Editor’s Note: This is a reprint of an article that first appeared over ten years ago. Since that time, my family and I have been constant convention-goers and frequent participants in anime-related events, including lectures, panels, artist’s alleys, skits and “cosplays,” most prominently at the annual Animazement Convention in Raleigh, North Carolina, as well as quite a few others. Let this excellent article by Dave Kehr serve as an introduction, or “crash course,” to those unfamiliar with the anime genre or its basis in Japanese– and American — culture and cinema.)   

It is easy to get the impression that the Japanese cinema disappeared from the world stage with the passing of its three greatest filmmakers, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. Since Kurosawa’s death in 1998, a number of gifted directors have emerged in Japan, including Takeshi Kitano (Hana Bi) and Shinji Aoyama (Eureka). But none of them have been able to fill American and European art houses as their elders did in the 1950’s and 60’s, when Japanese film was in its golden age.

But in fact, Japanese film has probably never been as popular internationally as it is right now. Its popularity, though, is not grounded in live action films, but in the animated features and television series that have come to be known as anime. It has been estimated that anime (AH-nee-may) now account for 60 percent of Japanese film production. The term itself — a Japanese adaptation of the English “animation” — suggests the roots of the form, in a blending of the Japanese pictorial tradition represented by silk painting and woodblock prints with American-style character design and genre stories.

After a decade or two as an underground phenomenon in the United States — where legions of obsessive fans exchange fuzzy videotapes or, more commonly now, trade bootlegged movie files over the Internet — anime is slowly emerging into the light of day. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke was released by Miramax in 1999 in a dubbed version, featuring the voices of Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson and Minnie Driver; Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 Akira opened theatrically last year in a digitally restored edition (and is now available on DVD); last summer Columbia Pictures released The Spirits Within, an elaborate computer-animated episode of the long-running “Final Fantasy” series; and opening on Friday is Metropolis, a fascinating blend of computer and traditional hand-drawn animation directed by Rintaro and based on a 1949 comic book written by Osamu Tezuka.

Osamu Tezuka

Osamu Tezuka, surrounded by his manga

Anime is not a genre in itself, but a style that can be applied to a wide variety of subject matter. The Japanese cartoon can and has embraced a dizzying number of genres, from Disney-like childhood adventure (Mr. Miyazaki’s specialty) to astonishingly violent, graphic pornography (in series like Raizo Kitazawa and Kan Fukumoto’s La Blue Girl). In fact, many anime films take pleasure in mixing and matching various genres and periods, as does the very popular Cowboy Bebop television series with its blend of westerns, samurai dramas, Blade Runner-style retro-futurism and cuddly character interactions that suggest American sitcoms.

But there are certain constants in the form. Most conspicuously, there is the look of the characters, which, while allowing for some minor variations from artist to artist, generally insists on impossibly statuesque bodies topped by huge, heart-shaped faces, themselves punctuated by gigantic, round eyes of the depth and limpidity of Beverly Hills swimming pools. Westerners are often struck by how “un-Japanese” they look, with their curly hair that comes in shades of blond, red and blue.

Part of the reason for those design choices is surely cultural, and as such beyond the reach of mere film criticism. But historically, the style began with the great admiration that Tezuka, the grand old man of Japanese animation, bore for the work of Walt Disney. Tezuka’s first widely popular character, born in a 1951 comic book, was Astro Boy, a space-age Pinocchio who substantially predates Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Astro Boy is a robot created by a scientist whose own child was killed in a car accident; when the robo-child disappoints his creator by his failure to grow up, he is sold to a circus with a cruel ringmaster (another A.I. parallel), but eventually finds happiness with a kindly professor who teaches him to fight crime (and who builds him a loving little robot sister).

Astro Boy

Astro Boy

Tezuka turned his comic strip into an animated TV series in 1963, and the character immediately became a worldwide success. Astro Boy’s simple, spherical construction suggests both the early Mickey Mouse and Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop, and a 1930’s Deco elegance clings to the design even today. The anime filmmakers who followed Tezuka – in the boom in theatrical and television animation engendered by the success of Astro Boy [originally titled The Mighty Atom] – imitated his style, establishing what was, in fact, a specific, strictly dated form of 1920’s-30’s graphic design as the baseline of the new medium. At times, anime figures look strikingly like the sexualized children created by the Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger.

Metropolis, the anime that opens this week, is a fantasy inspired by a still photograph from Fritz Lang’s German silent film of the same name (Tezuka claimed never to have seen it). As translated to the screen by Rintaro, an animator who worked with Tezuka on the original Astro Boy series, the film is a charming blend of Tezuka’s old-fashioned cartoon figures and the most up-to-date computer animation technology, used to generate dizzying perspectives and richly detailed backgrounds.

Futuristic city of Metropolis

Futuristic city of Metropolis

Though Metropolis emphasizes the contrast between the dated, naïve figures in the foreground and the high-tech design of the background, it isn’t unusual to find a similar, if unarticulated, dissonance in other anime. Originally designed for the low budgets of television production, anime — like the American style pioneered by Hanna-Barbera for Huckleberry Hound and The Flintstones around the same time — uses fewer drawings per second than the vintage Warner Brothers or Disney cartoons, which were made at a time of lower costs and greater theatrical exposure. Even so, now that computers have made it possible to create smooth, fluid animation for a reasonable cost, the Japanese films hang on to the jerky, discontinuous movements that characterized the earliest work in the field. This is something that can pose a problem for Western viewers, who risk seeing the anime style as something inherently inferior to the sleeker Hollywood product.

But there is much in the work to suggest that this jagged, flip-book quality is an effect that Japanese viewers find desirable and pleasurable. Accustomed to manga — the massive comic books published in Japan for adults as well as for children — the Japanese public does not favor movement over composition as a principle of expression. As more than one commentator on manga has pointed out, the most direct precursor of the form is ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints — themselves often erotic or rudely caricatural — published in nineteenth-century Tokyo. Here, the artists often strove to convey movement — crashing waves, raging battles, swirling geishas, kabuki performers in high dudgeon — in terms of static line drawings, in ways that powerfully suggest the contained dynamism of the anime style.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate anime is as a series of still drawings with moving details. Even a film like Mr. Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, with its clear aspirations to Disneyesque detail and grandeur, animates its characters with only slightly more grace and fluidity than a low-budget television series like Angel Tail. The figures themselves are as flat as the backgrounds, given only a suggestion of dimensionality by solid wash shading.

Where Western animators struggle to create a convincing illusion of life, Japanese animators are more interested in capturing single expressive gestures, or in evoking a particular mood through the careful use of color. Unlike Hollywood animation, anime does not aspire to the condition of live-action cinema; it remains its own stubborn self.

Sailor Moon (center) and Sailor Scouts

Sailor Moon (center) and Sailor Scouts

The range of achievement in anime is immense, from instantly disposable Saturday morning children’s fodder — like Sailor Moon or the interminable Pokémon series — to work that stands with the finest the world cinema has produced in the last 20 years. But even in its less honorable forms, anime has proven to be a rich source for cultural anthropologists, who find in it a vivid illustration of the dissolving identities and collapsing institutions that characterize life in postmodernist cultures.

Susan J. Napier, a teacher of Japanese literature and culture at the University of Texas, has published a thoughtful and carefully researched account of the social and sexual values encoded in the form in her recent book Anime from ‘Akira’ to ‘Princess Mononoke.’ For Ms. Napier, the heroes of anime are defined by their indefiniteness — by their curious tendency to shift back and forth between male and female bodies (as in the popular Ranma 1/2 series) or, thanks to bodies that have been fitted out with all kinds of high-tech refinements and super-human replacement parts, by their extremely ambiguous status as human beings.



The protagonist of Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo’s influential 1988 film, is a disaffected teenager whose massively destructive psychic powers are unleashed by a series of army experiments. The heroes of the long-running series Guyver and Neon Genesis Evangelion are young men who become monsters of destruction when they strap on high-tech body armor; they are both empowered and overwhelmed by merging with the electro-mechanical world. (Expressed already in Astro Boy, this is perhaps the most deeply embedded theme in the anime universe.)

If this view of technology is open to charges of simplification and sentimentality — not to mention obvious Freudian interpretations centered on adolescent fears of the developing body — there are other anime that seem eager to advance to the next stage in human development.

Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, a 1996 feature based on a manga by Masamune Shirow, surely ranks with the finest Japanese films of the last two decades (a beautifully produced DVD is available from Manga Video). Its protagonist is Kusangi, a female cyber cop assigned to duty in what appears to be a slightly futuristic Hong Kong; in the course of investigating a criminal programmer called the Puppet Master, she begins to question her own identity. Is she human or machine, male or female, alive or dead? The film’s delirious climax finds her merging with the Puppet Master and entering a transcendent state beyond such narrow categorizations.

Still, for all of its philosophical speculations, what is most impressive about Ghost in the Shell are its purely lyrical moments — sequences in which Mr. Oshii leaves the narrative in abeyance to offer wordless images of daily life in this strange city of the future, images rendered with a serene stillness and a compositional rigor that vividly recall the wordless sequences, or “pillow shots,” that Yasujiro Ozu inserted between his dramatic segments. Even if these images add nothing to the story, they complement the film’s headlong thematic thrust into the future with an assertion of traditional Japanese values. Here again is that sense, so powerful in Ozu and Mizoguchi, of “mono no aware” — a recognition of the ephemeral nature of human life, an awareness of the ineffable sadness of things.

Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue (1997) leaves the boy’s adventure archetypes behind; its main influences would seem to be David Lynch and Michelangelo Antonioni. Like Mr. Lynch’s recent Mulholland Drive, the film is a study in mutable realities and dissolving identities, with an actress as the central figure: Mima Kirigoe is a moderately successful pop singer who hopes to move into an adult career as a dramatic performer. But her dreams are dashed when an alternate Mima appears, who — wearing the pigtails, pink hair ribbons and tutu that were Mima’s trademarks — begins brutally murdering the advisers who are supervising her transition to womanhood.

Mima’s evil twin embodies the innocent, super-cute girlishness that the Japanese call shojo (series like Sailor Moon, or the products in the Hello Kitty line of children’s toys, illustrate the concept in all its bubblegum-pink glory). Within the context of a psychological thriller, Mr. Kon explores the crisis of Japanese women entrapped by the crippling shojo image, which is seen as spreading its pernicious influence over several generations. Perfect Blue, which also contains some brilliantly executed expressionistic imagery of Tokyo at night, is one of the rare anime to venture into overt social criticism; in a medium that relies on the shojo image for much of its male appeal, the gesture is quite radical and courageous, though the film ultimately retreats into a disappointingly pat thriller.

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke

If anime has one director with a claim to worldwide stature, his name is Hayao Miyazaki, the creator of Princess Mononoke as well as eight other features and four television series. Mr. Miyazaki has often been called “the Walt Disney of Japan,” and the comparison is actually more profound than it may appear. Like Disney in his early features, Mr. Miyazaki deals with the deepest kind of childhood trauma — the loss of a parent, the resentment of a sibling, the difficulty of belonging to a family and the difficulty of separating from it — and he does so in terms that, while sometimes superficially sentimental, also contain solid truths.

From his earliest features — The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1989) — Mr. Miyazaki has separated himself from the pack of anime artists by his refusal of technology-driven stories and techniques. Despite an increasing use of computer animation in his backgrounds, he continues to hand-draw his principal characters. Some of his work is set in a vaguely European past — Cagliostro revives the turn-of-the-century gentleman thief Arsène Lupin and sets him loose to save a Ruritanian princess from the clutches of evil counterfeiters — while other films refer to a much more specifically Japanese world (unusual for anime), such as the softly rendered early 1950’s of  My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Mr. Miyazaki is no futurist, but a fantasist who re-imagines the past.

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro

In My Neighbor Totoro, two small children, Satsuki and her younger sister Mai, are uprooted from their urban world and sent to live in a decaying country house near where their mother is being treated for a serious illness. Their father does his best to protect the girls from the gravity of the situation, but it still affects them subconsciously. Mai, wandering through a neighboring forest, encounters a lumbering creature who looks like a cross between a kitten and a bright blue walrus. Mai crawls on his stomach, pokes him awake and asks him his name. The creature replies with a growl that sounds like “Totoro,” and Totoro he becomes.

The implication is clear that Totoro is an imaginative projection of the children — a benign, protective spirit who will help the sisters through their mother’s illness. But Mr. Miyazaki also suggests that these beings are descendants of the forest-dwelling gods of the ancient Japanese religions, that they carry with them the power and magic of nature itself. Psychology and the supernatural are seen as forming a seamless whole, ultimately indistinguishable from each other in their aspirations and human values.

Hayao Miyazaki

Filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki

Princess Mononoke is Mr. Miyazaki’s finest achievement to date, and perhaps the one anime that need not shrink from comparison with the great Japanese live-action films of the 1950’s. This complex, ambiguous, thematically dense epic transcends classification as a children’s fantasy; indeed, it has become the highest-grossing Japanese film ever [surpassed, in more recent years, by his own Spirited Away], as popular and meaningful to adults as it is to children.

There are no cuddly Totoros here: this is nature red in tooth and claw. The film, set in the fourteenth-century Muromachi period, centers on a young hunter, Ashitaka, who finds himself caught up in a war between an ancient world shrouded in mystery and violence, represented by the forest-dwelling wild child of the title, and a new world of civilization, militarism and communal values embodied by a fortified village whose specialty is the manufacture of firearms. Remarkably, neither world is privileged above the other in Mr. Miyazaki’s screenplay. Rather than presenting a simple, sentimental ecological fable, the film is profoundly engaged with complex, irresolvable issues.

It is also a work of astounding formal beauty, in which elaborate, computer-generated backgrounds merge seamlessly with the vigorous, hand-drawn animation of the foreground characters. Perhaps no Japanese film has found the same sense of scale and sweep since Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress in 1958. It is tempting to see in Mr. Miyazaki’s work — if not in anime in general — the extension of the epic ambitions that the Japanese cinema, led by Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, once harbored and once realized.

If the budgets of the 1950’s are no longer available — thanks in no small part to the near hegemony Hollywood has achieved over the world’s popular entertainment — anime has allowed Japanese film-making to survive and prosper in a different way, without sacrificing the qualities that once made it so vital, so significant and so distinctive.

Princess Mononoke was released in Tokyo on July 12, 1997; Akira Kurosawa passed away just over a year later, on Sept. 6, 1998. Perhaps he lived to see Mr. Miyazaki’s film; perhaps he saw something of himself in it.

Copyright © 2002 by The New York Times