Foreign Film

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

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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.

Bossa Nova poster art
Bossa Nova poster art

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)

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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

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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

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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’

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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

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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

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“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.