‘Let It All Go to Hell’: Brazilians Who Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part One)

The ‘Jovem Guarda’ crowd: Erasmo Carlos (l.), Wanderlea, Roberto Carlos

Remembrances of Memories Past

This is a story of my youth. More precisely, a story about what I remember of my youth from the limited times I visited Brazil — and how a song (no, several songs) transformed my opinions about the family and country I left behind.

My earliest recollections are, by curiosity and contradiction, both clear and vague: of seeing myself as a toddler, running wildly about our home in São Paulo; of bumping my eyebrow onto the sharp edge of a dining-room table and going to the doctor immediately afterwards to get my supercilium stitched up; of badly scraping my knee and wrist outside a street in the South Bronx, along with comparable mishaps. Depending on who was recounting the story, the accidents were either my fault entirely or the fault of someone else. Blame for their occurrences, I soon surmised, was swiftly assigned but not always fairly distributed.

Some of these memories get tangled up with the rare times my family returned to São Paulo and its surroundings. Over the years, it has become practically impossible for me to differentiate between one event I experienced at age five and similar incidents that took place a few years later. Anyone forced to recall their youthful wanderings, either in the writing of one’s memoirs or through therapy and analysis, will have faced a comparable predicament: invariably, specific episodes and personalities are remembered with clarity and intent; while others (dates, times, and places), not so much, and vice versa.

With the above caveats in mind, my first exposure to Brazilian popular culture occurred on or about the year 1965, a pivotal point for music in Brazil and for my growing awareness of a Brazilian identity growing inside this ten-year-old brain. It was the same year that bossa nova became a worldwide sensation. But in the country itself, a onda (that is, “the wave”) had receded. You could say it was paying a fond adieu to all that had come before. Yet, I remained oblivious.

By the time that our family had set foot again in “Sampa” (in the winter of 1965), the heat that bossa nova had produced around the pop-music world had substantially abated. New styles began to emerge by dint of the latest advances. The prevalence of television, for example, and, along with it, the phenomenon of mass viewership took hold of Brazilian audiences like nothing else before. Not inconsequentially, the military had staged a government takeover the year prior, in April 1964, which forever altered Brazil’s musical landscape — for better or for worse.

Tanks invade the streets of Rio de Janeiro during the military takeover of April 1964 (Photo: Agencia O Globo)

Strangely enough, bossa nova had completely bypassed my Brazilian-born parents, who, by their having moved to the South Central Bronx, remained remarkably uninformed as to the artistry and output that had circumnavigated the globe. In the interval between the year they left their homeland (1959) and the time that we, as a family of four, made our first return trip to the big city (1965), bossa nova had been replaced by popular song contests, possibly as a distraction from the bitter reality of military rule.

To get right down to it, bossa nova espoused a greater degree of sophistication, subtlety, and nuance than what had come before (choro, samba, and samba-canção). The artists who composed the music and wrote the lyrics, and then performed those same numbers, which abounded in poetic imagery and reflective ruminations, came out of an entirely separate reality, distinct and apart from that of the majority of Brazilians. The sparseness of the orchestration (for guitar, voice, drums, and percussion) belied the complexity of its arrangements. Too, the imaginative use of language and jazz-influenced instrumentation raised the intellectual level of both performers and listeners to undreamed-of heights.

Despite some awareness on my part, my limited knowledge of Portuguese prevented me from fully absorbing and appreciating the genre. Naturally, I was much too young, therefore deficient in the cognitive skills necessary to wrap my arms around bossa nova’s form. Despite this disparity and my lack of cultural refinement, a treasure trove of memorabilia laid before me: everything from MPB, bubble-gum music, iê-iê-iê, and Brazilian rock-‘n’-roll to classically derived constructs. These were much easier to absorb, due to their utter simplicity and absence of erudition. But bossa nova? Not a chance, at least not yet. Creatively speaking, the country had taken two steps forward, one step back.

Still, one couldn’t fault my parents for not having “kept up” with the latest trends. They had more pressing matters to concern themselves with — namely, making a life for us in New York City, and raising and caring for two small boys in a strange, bewildering land with its own distinct and immensely diversified culture.

As I mentioned, we immigrated to the U.S. in September 1959. Although my mother and her boys remained at home in the Bronx, my father had gone back to Brazil every other year up through 1965, and then some. Those excursions had something to do with his attending the annual Carnival pageant (in Portuguese, pular Carnaval). At the time, I had no comprehension of what that actually meant or entailed. Yet despite his weeks-long absences, dad always managed to bring back plenty of trinkets, souvenirs, and assorted keepsakes, provided, for the most part, by his and my mother’s respective families.

Family. A word, a term, a concept this soon-to-be-eleven year old was but vaguely familiar with. The only “family” I knew, to be exact, was my younger brother Anibal, my father Annibal Sr., my mother Lourdes, her younger sister Aunt Deolinda, her husband Uncle Daniel, and my two older cousins Dario and Daniel Jr. A year or more before we made our trip, another of my mom’s charming sisters, Aunt Iracema, had spent a year in the Bronx living with us. In fact, she had immigrated to the U.S. in 1963, but returned to São Paulo in order to care for her ailing father Francisco, or “Grampa Chico” as we called him. He had been struck at age sixty-five with throat cancer.

Gather ‘Round the Television Set, Boys

“Quero Que Va Tudo Pro Inferno” – Original Single by Roberto & Erasmo Carlos (Discos CBS)

Much of the bounty dad had brought back from his trips was comprised of phonograph records, usually of the compacto duplo type. These dandy little items, known in the U.S. as EP’s (or “Extended Plays”), had the capacity for two songs per side, for a total of four numbers in all. A healthy smattering of long-playing records, Brazilian magazines (Manchete, Veja, Marie Claire, etc.), O Guia da Televisão (“TV Guide”), tasty and highly edible sweets, and a half-dozen or so children’s books comprised what remained of the lucre.

To me, the unfamiliar names of these Brazilian artists and entertainers, to be found among this random assortment of knick-knacks, were foreign-sounding and nearly unpronounceable. These were difficult enough for adults, but you can imagine how challenging they were for us kids. To compensate, I used what nascent abilities I possessed of the Portuguese language to try my hand at reading the Brazilian versions of Walt Disney comics: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, and Scrooge McDuck, anything I could get my little hands on.

To pass the time, I took it upon myself to draw these and other cartoon characters (Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, The Flintstones) on makeshift writing pads; when those were unavailable, my mother would tear open brown-paper shopping bags for me to scribble on. I even tried jotting down my impressions of these characters in feeble-sounding Portuguese. Little did I know that my childish efforts at words and images would come in handy decades after the fact. On the days when I didn’t feel like drawing, I would listen attentively to the music.

One good thing did come out from all of these activities: the more songs I heard, the more I liked and learned from them. It never occurred to me that Brazil harbored such a wealth of music programs to accompany what I encountered in our makeshift record collection. Since I had grown up outside the country, I wasn’t privy to what the native population had been exposed to on an ongoing basis. To have noticed these melodies at the time this form of music was becoming more widely accepted and circulated proved a timely fluke.

One program that I heard mentioned was the weekly Festival de Música Popular. My boyish earbuds were primed for absorbing these fantastic new sounds. Consequently, earing the likes of Jair Rodrigues, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Roberto Carlos, Erasmo Carlos, Wanderléa, Agnaldo Rayol, Dalva de Oliveira, Nana Caymmi, Gilberto Gil, Agnaldo Timóteo, Elis Regina, and so many others shaped my appreciation for Brazilian music and song. The weird thing about all this was that I had never seen this music program while staying in Brazil, nor had I laid my eyes on these artists in any capacity, that is to say, until much later in life. I only learned about them from hearing my relatives discuss the merits of this or that singer who appeared on this or that showcase.

Speaking of which, the show Jovem Guarda on the newly christened TV Record had one of the highest national ratings (known as IBOPE) of any of these programs. Another was O Fino da Bossa (“The Best of Bossa”) and on the same network. Not knowing anything about ratings or programming, I became frustrated with my relatives’ efforts to initiate me into the electronic medium.

For instance, I heard so much talk about a fellow named Jair Rodrigues and his smash hit, the nonsense number “Deixe isso pra lá” (Alberto Paz/Edson Menezes), that in my infantile carnium I honestly believed that I had seen Jairzinho on Brazilian television.

‘O Fino da Bossa,” with Elis Regina & Jair Rodrigues

What typically transpired was that every time I found myself in someone else’s house or apartment, I would question the occupants about “that guy Jairzinho.” Their response would be, “Oh, you should’ve been here last night when he was on TV,” or “Come by our house next weekend, you are sure to see him then.” Seeing my disappointment, they would compensate by describing, in minute detail, Jairizinho’s over-and-under handsaw movements, which became his signature gesture; topped off with that broad, toothy grin, a smile that all-but enveloped the beaming audience but that, to me, seemed to emulate a dark-skinned version of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. What Chubby Checker and the Twist did for people’s hips, Jair Rodrigues did for Brazilians with his bare hand. Despite their kind offers to come over (usually, on the weekends), our time with the relatives was limited. Alas, I never got to see Jairzinho perform, no matter how many people I talked to or visited.

That same, frustrating response followed another popular singer of the period, the song idol Roberto Carlos Braga. Although he hadn’t yet become brega, a variant on his official surname (and what, in Portuguese, meant “tacky”), Roberto Carlos was the nearest thing to a world-renowned celebrity that Brazil had at its disposal, outside of soccer star Pelé. Still, there was one song of Roberto’s that, for me, stuck out from the rest of the mawkish round of ballads and teenybopper tedium. And that was the song, “Quero que vá tudo pro inferno” (“Let It All Go to Hell”).

I first heard this number in New York, possibly a year or more after we returned from our trip. Oddly (well, maybe not so oddly), I became fixated on the title — especially the “hell” part, which, if you were fortunate enough to have grown up in polite society, or in a somewhat religious environment, was strictly verboten. (You would REALLY burn in hell if you dared to speak the “F ”bomb in public!) Mesmerized by that word inferno — especially the way Roberto lingered over the “r” (“in-ferrrrr-huh-no”) in his capixaba accent — I listened carefully to the lyrics over and over again, not understanding the words or sentiments being expressed, yet all the while wondering to myself how the hell Roberto got away with saying this forbidden term:

De que vale o céu azul e o sol sempre a brilhar
Se você não vem e eu estou a lhe esperar
Só tenho você, no meu pensamento
E a sua ausência, é todo meu tormento
Quero que você, me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

De que vale a minha boa vida de playboy
Se entro no meu carro e a solidão me dói
Onde quer que eu ande, tudo é tão triste
Não me interessa, o que de mais existe
Quero que você, me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

Não suporto mais, você longe de mim
Quero até morrer, do que viver assim
Só quero que você me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

(Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

Roberto Carlos “Compacto Duplo” from CBS Records

What is the blue sky worth or the ever-shining sun

If I’m left pining for you to be here by my side?

All I have is you, you are always in my thoughts

But your absence is a constant torment

All I want is you, to warm me through this winter

And that it all goes to hell

What good is this playboy life of mine

If I get in my car and this loneliness persists

Wherever I go, this sadness always follows

I don’t care about anything, and what’s more

I want you to warm me this winter

And let everything else go to hell

I can’t take it anymore, you away from me

All I want is to die, than to go on like this

I want you to warm me this winter

And let everything else go to hell

(English translation by the author)

Now, I ask you, what did I expect? Something insightful along the lines of a Shakespearean sonnet? Witty poeticisms analogous to Baudelaire? This was nothing more than easy-listening music, a love poem pure and simple. Years later, I read that Roberto had written these verses to Magda Fonseca, his girlfriend at the time, who had gone abroad to study English in the U.S. His songwriting partner, Erasmo Carlos (né Erasmo Esteves), helped him to hammer out the lyrics. The orchestration was of its time: a bombastic Hammond organ solo, spiked with a “Roy Orbison meets the Beach Boys” aesthetic, surrounded by a surf-rock beat. The end result: Twenty-four-year-old Roberto’s honest expression of longing (caused by Magda’s absence) and his frustration with conditions in military-run Brazil spilled over into youthful rebelliousness.

Hell, I was all of eleven years old. What did I know of youthful rebelliousness? I knew nothing of the military’s overthrow of the Brazilian government, or that the CIA had orchestrated the bold power grab, or that barely three years later (in 1968) the suppression of dissidents would only add to the country’s ills by making things worse for the populace, leading to the expulsion of songwriters and others associated with the genre of Tropicália and such. Roberto Carlos’ “pure and simple” love poem, a monster triumph upon its release, signaled both the beginning of public outcry and the end of rebellion.

What I, myself, took away from our visit was not rebellion but a sense of togetherness. For the first time in my young life, I experienced a closeness to my Brazilian family members I never knew existed: from aunts and uncles I had not grown up with, from grandparents and cousins I had hardly known, and from newfound friends and acquaintances I had never met. I came away with the impression they all enjoyed each other’s company; that they exuded a spirit of fun just by being together and, you’ll pardon the expression, “in the moment.” Their openness to me and to my brother was warmly received and, to be honest, completely unanticipated.

Having spent several extremely cold winters and blisteringly hot summers in the Big Apple, and having my first and last names constantly misspelled and mispronounced by people unfamiliar with our language, the balmy sun-filled skies of São Paulo seemed to reflect back at me in the sunniness of the dispositions I encountered during our month-long stay. I felt accepted, understood, loved, and listened to, for once, by those inside and outside the family circle — feelings that were roughly alien to me for the first six years of our residence in the Bronx.

It would take another six years before I was able to recapture those feelings.

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Godfather’ Parts I and II — “Of Mike and Men”

Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ logo (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Today’s guest contributor is writer, artist, fanzine publisher, and animator Natalia C. Lopes. A graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master’s Degree Program of the College of Art & Design, her essay below is an analysis of director-producer Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather epic, specifically the fraught relationship between Vito Corleone and his youngest son, Michael.

Michael’s Failure to Be Like His Father

Both different and alike, Michael and Vito Corleone’s relationship is an unique one. All of his life Don Vito has tried to set a different path for his youngest son than the one he himself had chosen as a child. But when Michael is faced with his family threatened, he takes on the role of the don, or “Godfather,” and tries his best to fill his father’s shoes. However, as time passes, both his friends and his enemies realize that he could never be like his father, that this was not the path he wanted for himself. And it is not until the end of Part II that Michael realizes that perhaps everyone was right all along. Unfortunately, the lesson is hard learned.

Throughout both Godfather movies, Vito is portrayed as a respectable and admired don to the Corleone family. He listens to all who come to him and can “take care” of anyone’s troubles simply by “making them an offer they can’t refuse.” When we, the audience, are first introduced to Vito’s youngest son, Michael Corleone, who has just returned from serving in the army during World War II, we note that he seems a bit different from his other siblings, in that he doesn’t want to get involved in the same “business” as his father, that is, the Mafia. Instead, he has a desire to create his own path. We can see that in the mere fact of his dating Kay, an American woman who is outside of the family loop and tradition — and who does not understand the ways of Michael’s family.

Young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) at his sister Connie’s wedding

We can see a prime example of his dislike for the Mafia when he and Kay are at his sister Connie’s wedding. Michael tells her that his father kills for a living and threatens people’s lives to avenge his family and friends. He distinctly claims that it’s his dad’s business, yet he wants no part in it. From that moment forward, the audience feels a great sympathy for him, in that we want him to succeed in creating his own path.

With all of that in mind, however, Michael takes an unexpected turn that manifests itself in Part I, where, with his father’s life at stake, he takes extreme measures to seek vengeance for the family. When in the hospital, at his father’s bedside, he tells him “I’m with you, Pop,” this means that he has finally crossed over to the other side and decided to be part of the Mafia after all. While we see his father in tears as he hears his son say this, it is a very ominous scene, mostly because the audience cannot tell whether or not Vito’s tears are of joy or of sorrow.

This is because later we find out that Vito did not want Michael to take on the family business. This is made much more prominent in Part II, where we see the young Vito’s efforts to shield his son away from doing so.  As much as he voices his dislike for his father’s business, toward the last half of Part I Michael decides to take action and to “be a man” in order to protect his family. In the famous scene where the camera closes in on Michael sitting among his brothers, he speaks of killing Sollozzo, the individual behind the attempt on his father Vito’s life, and the corrupt police captain, McCluskey. Nobody takes him seriously when he says this, because his brothers know him as the baby brother who didn’t want to get involved in the family “business”. Yet he insists that he will kill them both, so they let him do it just to see what he’s really made of.

Michael (Al Pacino) hears his father, Don Vito (Marlon Brando), confess his true feelings regarding his son’s career move

As it turns out, he succeeds in killing both Sollozzo and McCluskey, yet he does not follow directions on how to do it. While the specific details are not necessary to point out in this scene, it shows how Michael was, despite his strong words, afraid of killing them, something that Vito would not hesitate to do to his enemies — especially those who had threatened his family at an early age.

However, once Vito decides to make Michael the new don, he shares a moment with him outside of his house in which he explains to Michael that “I didn’t want this for you.” He would much rather have his youngest son be known as “Senator Corleone,” “Governor Corleone,” or someone of political power. And with the mood of the scene, it feels as though Vito has been waiting his whole life to say that to Michael directly.

Throughout the two films, we see Vito’s efforts in keeping Michael away from following the Godfather’s path. While in the past he killed the two heads of the Mafia in Sicily and in Nevada (and, we might add, he killed them both brilliantly and brutally), he did it to protect his family. We can see that after he has killed Don Fanucci, Vito walks over to his family and holds Michael in his arms, telling him, “Your father loves you very much, very very much.” The interesting part about this scene is that he tells this specifically to Michael. Upon his saying that line, Vito has set him apart from the rest of his sons, in hopes that Michael would not have to go to such extreme lengths to protect his family.

Sadly, despite all of Vito’s best efforts, Michael becomes the don and takes over officially after his father’s death. The fascinating part is that Vito placed his full trust in him, so that when some of his own men hesitate to obey Michael’s orders, Vito tells them, “If you trust me, then listen to my son.”

While he seems as if he is meeting his father’s expectations, later on Michael becomes a far more aggressive killer, and at times the exact opposite of his father. He starts ordering people to kill left and right, for example, the heads of the five families, Connie’s abusive husband Carlo, and even his own brother, something he later bitterly regrets. He also does not care to hear people’s objections, and fails to satisfactorily take care of those who come to him for advice. Tom Hagen, his adopted brother, comes to him toward the end of Part II to ask, “Are you going to kill everybody?” To which Michael casually replies, “Only my enemies,” which goes to show just how many of them he supposedly had.

Alone, Michael Corleone (Pacino) ponders his disturbing path to “success”

Toward the end, people lose trust and confidence in him, and begin to question his methods, especially after killing his own brother, an act that contradicted the theme of family togetherness the entire Godfather series has emphasized. And the saddest part of it all is that it is only at the very last scene that we realize how much the decision to become the don has taken its toll on him.

He is left alone contemplating, the camera slowly closing in on his face, which is worn and tired. For the first time since Part I, the audience has regained its sympathy for him. As much as he tried his hardest to make his own destiny, Michael was not really meant to fill his father’s shoes. Only at that moment does he realize this.

Copyright © 2007 by Natalia C. Lopes

‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014) — Last Bastion of Civility

‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ — A Film by Wes Anderson

A Tragicomedy of Errors

The screwball comedies of the 1930s and ’40s were benchmarks for generations of Hollywood filmmakers. Such laudable efforts as those of Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), Ernst Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not To Be), Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), and Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace) exerted a strong influence on many of the era’s directors — and on those yet to come.

As a rule, comedy films are governed by a given set of parameters, many of them holdovers from the silent movie era. The standard formula for these pictures, then, combined aspects of a wacky plot, zany antics, an ensemble cast, the requisite chase scene, oh, and the occasional pratfall or two. With the injection of cynicism into the picture, epitomized by the classic films of Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment), and the incongruous romances and knuckle-headed folly found in Woody Allen’s work (Bananas, Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan), the world of madcap comedy took on a decidedly modern turn.

Be that as it may, the above properties began to rub off on a young and up-and-coming Texan named Wes Anderson. An independent writer-director, who followed in the footsteps of another well-known advocate for autonomy, the equally gifted Jim Jarmusch (whose Only Lovers Left Alive was reviewed by yours truly: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2020/06/15/only-lovers-left-alive-2013-a-parable-of-class-consciousness/), Anderson adopted many of the attributes normally associated with screwball comedies and turned them into quirky character studies.

Among his contributions are Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and Moonrise Kingdom (2012). As for myself, I am embarrassed to admit that, for a variety of reasons, I remained ignorant of Anderson’s previous output — that is, until I was introduced to the absurdly audacious but adorable The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). I am happy to note that it was this feature that led me to explore all of Anderson’s work in reverse order, from the newest to the oldest.

But let’s call The Grand Budapest Hotel what it is: i.e., the cinematic equivalent of a Russian nesting doll in which layer after layer of stories within stories are peeled back to reveal, well, more layers of stories. The “truth,” if indeed such a concept exists, is eventually exposed, and the contents of what lies therein are spilled out for all to see and admire (or not).

Indeed, Mr. Anderson, along with veteran cinematographer Robert Yeoman, set designer Adam Stockhausen, costume designer Milena Canonero, editor Barney Pilling, and composer Alexandre Desplat, have concocted an utterly enticing comedic showcase in the form of an “Encyclopedia Europa.” The experience of sifting through this filmic compilation, while scanning its horizons for deeper meaning (whether or not it relates to the basic premise), is left up to the viewer.

“An impossible assignment,” you say. Not really. How Anderson and his dedicated crew of technicians succeeded in dissecting this amalgamation of material is part of the fun of watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. Even after multiple viewings, we can still find something new and fresh to sink our teeth into. For instance, the whizz-bang, fast-paced aspect of the story; the constant back-and-forth of characters entering and exiting; those head-on camera angles and revelatory tracking shots. Why, there’s no end to the innovations that Anderson employs in telling his faux-Continental fairy tale.

The way that he achieves his objectives is by an extension and reduction of the film frame in conformance to the story’s intent. It begins in the present time, with a little girl walking through a cemetery on a bleak winter’s day. She stops at the gravesite of a famous writer, modeled after the Viennese author Stefan Zweig. The girl carries a storybook in her hand, bearing the inscription The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Suddenly, viewers are transported back in time, to the year 1985, with the old Author (Tom Wilkinson) sitting front and center, reading from a prepared text. He is interrupted by his little grandson (Marcel Mazur), who shoots a pellet at him from a toy pistol — a juvenile act that, in the course of the story, will come to symbolize the loss of innocence cloaked in deadly seriousness.

The old Author (Tom Wilkinson) and his grandson (Marcel Mazur)

Next, the old Author whisks the viewer off to 1968 and the ramshackle rudiments of the Grand Budapest Hotel, tucked away in the fictional Zubrowka hills. The film frame, which began with the Standard aspect ratio of 1.85:1, expands to the full 2.40:1 ratio of CinemaScope, the apogee of widescreen movie-making. Here, we are introduced to the Author as a young man (shades of Ernest Hemingway), played by an actor (Jude Law) of suitable age and vigor, in yet another manifestation of Herr Zweig. Young Author now takes over the narration.

In this section, though, the young Author is drawn to an elderly gentleman who sits motionless in the hotel’s lobby in contemplation of who knows what. Both men have a variant of the “meet cute” in the vast and empty bathhouse. Despite their unfamiliarity with each other, the elderly gentleman (F. Murray Abraham) invites the young Author to dine with him that evening. After the older gentleman has ordered his meal, he begins to open up about his life to the intensely receptive Author.

As it turns out, the older gentleman is Zero Moustafa, the former lobby boy and current owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel. His lined face and heavily-lidded features betray an individual who has spent a lifetime harboring sadness and loss. When Zero begins his sorrowful saga, we are once more treated to a further reduction of the frame, this time to the Academy ratio of 1.37:1. This steady narrowing of the movie’s viewing space is a deliberate choice by the director, in that we begin our journey down old Author’s memory lane with a wide-angle shot — indicative of a broader grasp of the world at large.

The elder Zero (F. Murray Abraham) with the young Author (Jude Law)

As the frame tightens around a cluster of separate settings and images, the focus has correspondingly shifted along with it. With the frame having reached the aforementioned Academy ratio, the viewer can finally sit back and savor the nest of colorful characters and their individual dilemmas — a cinematic narrowing of the eyes, as it were, on exactly where Anderson wants his audiences to focus: mainly, on the year 1932.

This technique parallels Zweig’s own writing style. In other words: the more open the presentation, the less focused the story; the less open the presentation, the more focused the story. To be precise, Anderson has settled on a visual form of storytelling — the equivalent of picking up a favorite book and leafing through its pages, while stopping at key moments in the narrative so as to place one’s concentration on what’s written on the printed page. That it works as well as it does in this motion-picture format is a tribute to the director’s ingenuity and persistence in bringing his story to light.

When we are long past the movie’s three-quarter mark, the aspect ratios reverse course and return to their original proportions. We end up, surely enough, exactly where we began: with the little girl furtively closing the pages of her storybook.

Smash and Grab World

‘Boy with Apple’ by Johannes van Hoytl the Younger

The basic plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a slapstick, knockabout comedy of the most absurd, revolves around a murder mystery tied to the theft of a dubious masterwork of Northern Renaissance art by fictitious painter Johannes van Hoytl the Younger. (Note to readers: Spoilers ahead!) To complicate matters further, audiences should be alert to the existence of a half-dozen or so side plots. Bear in mind, too, that one can hardly scratch the surface of these myriad plots in this review.

The painting, Boy with Apple, is an abominably crude, amateurish recreation modeled after Hans Holbein the Younger’s portraits of European nobility. It also bears a striking similarity to a High Renaissance portrait of The Magdalene by one Bernardino Luini (1525) that hangs in Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. Any relation to religiosity or the church, however, is purely incidental.

‘The Magdalene’ by Bernardino Luini (Photo: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

In actuality, the Boy’s features have an uncanny resemblance to that of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the head concierge of the illustrious Grand Budapest Hotel and (as described below) one of many principal protagonists. For those art history buffs out there, the apple the Boy holds in his hand is synonymous with the forbidden fruit which Gustave has not only tasted but indulged in to the fullest.

This garish artwork also happens to be Wes Anderson’s version of Hitchcock’s infamous MacGuffin, or that thing which the characters, both the good and the bad, are desperately searching for. The good guys, in this case, are M. Gustave and the young Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, in a literal pencil-thin mustache), his lobby boy in training. For the most part, the bad guys are comprised of the malevolent Dmitri (a more naturally-mustachioed Adrien Brody) and his sharp-toothed henchman Jopling (brass-knuckle-wielding Willem Dafoe).

Zero (Tony Revolori) is rescued by his lover Agatha (Saoirse Ronan)

Stuck in the middle somewhere (among other places) are the wealthy widow Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), apprentice baker and Zero’s intrepid lover Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), executor of Madame D.’s estate Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), Serge the nervous butler (Mathieu Amalric), the intimidating prisoner Ludwig (bald-pated Harvey Keitel), and the inquisitive Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), the officer in charge of finding the murderer. There are also a number of cohorts and accessories after the fact, to include members of the secret Society of the Crossed Keys(!).

Almost laughably, the stolen Boy with Apple is replaced with the all-too revealing Two Ladies Masturbating, their wide-open “charms” leaving nothing to the imagination. The irony lies in the fact that this prurient painting happens to be a true work of art, whereas the simplistic Boy with Apple is a travesty of portraiture. That its monetary value happens to drive the lunatic plot along is, in itself, farcical and hard to fathom. Seemingly, everyone runs around town after an object of questionable worth, which is as it should be in a screwball comedy. Lessons are learned, some for better and some for worse.

Upon seeing Two Ladies Masturbating instead of Boy with Apple, the easily angered Dmitri reacts in horror: “Holy fuck! What’s the meaning of this shit?” And immediately smashes the Two Ladies against a piece of sculpture. “Thus, always, to filthy artists!” he seems to be saying with this gesture. There will be more such moments to come.

Jopling (Willem Dafoe), Dmitri (Adrien Brody), Serge (Mathieu Amalric) & Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) have a “difference” of opinion

Proof of Boy with Apple’s worthlessness can be seen in the episode that takes place in 1968 involving the nearly dilapidated Grand Budapest Hotel, where the painting hangs ignominiously above the bored desk clerk’s post. Similarly, it is pictured on the back of the hotel’s dinner menu (but you’ll have to look closely to find it). In this risible aside, Anderson mocks what the art world of the time considered “treasurable.” This revives the age-old argument over what one society reveres as “art” as opposed to what another deems as “obscene.” The film’s theme, in retrospect, becomes the story of an openly permissive society about to face artistic and socio-political repression.

Introducing Monsieur Gustave: From Hero to Zero

There are several star attractions in this convoluted comedy of errors, chief among them the ubiquitous Monsieur Gustave H., the Old World ambassador of a now-forgotten past. Handsome, debonair, charming, smooth-talking, sophisticated, and resolute — there are not enough adjectives to describe this fellow’s magnificence. A bon vivant par excellence, M. Gustave is discretion personified. His movements are planned to split-second perfection. His speech and rapid-fire delivery are executed with Swiss-watch precision. Indeed, timing is everything to this professional busybody. He’s not only a master of all he surveys, but is immaculate in his appearance  and dress (as to be expected).

Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) admires Madame D.’s makeup

Additionally, Gustave H. is blessed with a sharp wit, whose mind races constantly at breakneck speed, a thoroughbred among also-rans. For a concierge, he is quite the man-about-town. Ah, but Gustave does have his faults. For one, he never thinks of himself as simply a concierge. He’s the prime cut to everyone else’s roast beef, the filet mignon to their rib steak. And, as a matter of course, his supreme belief in himself and his abilities confirm what he sees in his mind’s eye: that he’s up to the challenge of any given situation, give or take a few exceptions.

As the film progresses, the viewer experiences a subtle pulling back of the bedsheets — more like a peeling away of the layers of a pungent-smelling onion (whew…). We learn, among other things, that Gustave is prone to exaggeration (that’s putting it mildly). He also possesses a terribly short fuse, especially when matters get out of hand. There are points in this tragicomedy where, down for the count and seemingly out, M. Gustave manages to wrangle his way back from a tricky situation. Where most people would give in to despair (for example, the brief time he spends in prison), Gustave seeks out opportunities to be of service. Each time, he rises above the tumult, only to find that by movie’s end his luck has run out.

He is especially favored by the doddering dowager, Madame D. Sporting a Marie Antoinette hairdo by way of Antoine of Paris, Madame D. is enamored of the man. Early on, she confesses to him that she fears for her life. “She was shaking like a shitting dog,” Gustave mutters in an aside. Incredibly, the concierge is not repulsed by the woman’s advance age, nor by the dozens of elderly widows he surrounds himself with. On the contrary, he finds them much to his liking. “She was dynamite in the sack, by the way,” he observes. “She was 84,” queries Zero. “Mmm, I’ve had older,” Gustave adds. He cultivates the illusion of subservience and refinement, but they’re all for show and (obviously) for later telling.

Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) dines with M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes)

Our lobby boy in training, the young Zero, is a cipher by comparison, a real “nothing” as his name implies. Conveniently, he becomes Gustave’s protégé, someone the seasoned concierge can take under his wing. No doubt, M. Gustave sees much of his younger self in Zero. A youth barely out of his teens yet burdened with a lifetime of heartache over the loss of his family, at best Zero is a survivor. He tells us so at key moments in the story, as when Gustave, desperate to get his cooperation on learning the police want to question him about Madame D.’s passing, lets it slip that his family had been tortured and killed.

Still, Zero knows how to keep silent. “Zip it,” M. Gustave curtly orders. To his credit, Zero is a fast learner and always willing to pitch in. But as quick a study as he is, Zero cannot possibly touch Gustave H. in the (how shall we put it) gratification department. Gustave aims to please, which takes on many forms. With a wealth of rich old spinsters at his feet, Gustave is much in demand for his, uh, services. No wonder he’s so beloved by Zubrowka society! Who could resist such a treasure? The ladies find him eminently desirable, a reminder of their own youthful dalliances. Likewise, Gustave plays on the ladies’ vanity, until he is no longer able to.

Note the quick flashback to Gustave’s servicing of the old biddies. These “quickies” fulfill the dual purpose of solidifying Gustave’s patronage of and acquiescence to the “old ways” of doing things. Whether those old ways actually worked in his favor, no one can tell for certain. If anything, Gustave H. is the hotel’s last bastion of civility, the final redoubt of a way of life that will shortly cease to exist; an Old World society on the brink of all-out conflict and, as author Zweig termed it, “the end of all we know.”

Regardless of the consequences, both Gustave and Zero’s positions are a calculated means toward a desired end, designed to give themselves enough leeway — call it a “pause for effect” — where personal service, of a kind no longer in existence, takes absolute precedence.

As the top dog of (at one time) a luxury establishment, Gustave’s responsibility is to see to the comfort of his guests. As he’s putting young Zero through his paces (a terribly funny sequence punctuated by nonstop banter), Gustave explains that a lobby boy must anticipate his guests’ needs without their knowing what those needs are — a veritable feat of mind over matters of fact. This motto has served Gustave well, to a point. It will also serve our survivor, Zero, well into his old age.

Lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) shares a drink with M. Gustave (Fiennes)

For chaotic chase scenes and preposterous situations that defy the laws of gravity, nothing in recent years has topped the remarkable skiing sequence where Zero and Gustave are hot on the trail (on a cold, snow-covered slope) of the nasty little assassin Jopling, who experiences a nasty little comeuppance. There are mad dashes across the frozen tundra and others too implausible to give credence to. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the climax and dénouement of The Grand Budapest Hotel are nothing if not bittersweet. You’ll be forced to wipe away a tear or two, as you smile broadly at the outcome.

Stefan Zweig wrote, in his autobiographical The World of Yesterday, that “our world of security was a castle in the air.” In Wes Anderson’s film, that bygone period is embodied by the once-elegant Grand Budapest Hotel (Zweig’s “castle in the air”), whose lobby boy and head concierge are past emissaries of that last gasp of civility in an increasingly uncivil world. M. Gustave had both feet planted in each of these worlds, although anachronistically speaking he was out of step with the times. His genteel manners and general air of bonhomie were woefully inadequate to thwart the coming menace, especially when confronted by brutish military guards. And with most of the deaths occurring offscreen, it’s left it to our imagination to fill in the gruesome details.

Writer-director Wes Anderson, along with his collaborator Hugo Guinness, have given audiences not just a tale as tall as Zubrowka’s hills but one involving a world that once prided itself on knowledge and culture, on nourishing the intellect and satiating the senses. However, towards the end that same world, corrupted by forces from within, rebelled against common decency. It turned away from knowledge and understanding to perpetuate false notions of superiority; to raising borders against those who were different, and allowing their basest, most bellicose instincts to take over.

In that, and in most other respects, The Grand Budapest Hotel has much in common with Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, a dark, portentous comedy premiering in March of 1942 (and set ten years after Anderson’s film) that poked fun, if we can call it that, at Hitler, the Nazis, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the German occupation of Warsaw, and the Second World War. The alarm was already sounding when United Artists released this classic picture.

A month earlier, in February 1942, in the resort city of Petropolis near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his second wife committed suicide together. Despondent over the state of their beloved Vienna and the chaos unleashed upon the world, Zweig and his spouse resolved to put an end their suffering.

Civilizations, take note: The warning signs are as viable today as they were so many decades ago. We must not let the world of yesterday become the world of tomorrow. Zweig’s message was clear. And Anderson’s film has underscored it.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Cancelled! — The Case of the Missing Met Opera Season (Part Three): ‘At-Home Gala’ and the New Normal

Screen capture of a performance of Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” chorus during the Met Opera’s At-Home Gala on April 25, 2020

Sing For Your Supper

When last we left the Metropolitan Opera, America’s premier repertory company had cancelled the remainder of its 2019-2020 season. As time went on and the circumstances under which the company thrived became ever grimmer, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb was forced to reconsider the first half of their planned 2020-2021 season. Sadly, it too was withdrawn.

Having closed its doors in mid-March, due of course to the coronavirus outbreak, the Met Opera, along with its famed orchestra and chorus — and millions upon millions of radio listeners and live-streaming viewers the world over — were faced with the prospect of no opera performances at all and no work for all. This created a bind for singers, artists, stagehands, craftspeople, and anyone associated with the mechanics of bringing live opera to devotees of the form.

Similar to those in the movie and television industries, not to mention those in the dance and theater business, the bulk of opera’s participants are freelancers who depend on performing in order to meet their needs and obligations. Unlike essential workers, opera singers and chorus and orchestra members are considered non-essential personnel; consequently, they are at the mercy of theater companies for gainful employment. This situation has had a negative impact on performances worldwide.

General Manager Peter Gelb with Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin

Similarly, the sports community has also been stymied by the recurring presence of COVID-19. One possible solution, which has been tried in Europe and elsewhere, is to hold soccer matches in empty stadiums with prerecorded crowd noises and assorted cheers and shouts piped in. Another proposal involved placing dummy cutout figures around the field’s perimeter. This was done to give the “appearance” of a live audience in attendance. Can you imagine imposing such a solution to opera houses? The whole purpose of the art form is the immediacy of it. I can’t see this move as resolving anything. It fools no one and, ultimately, only calls attention to itself.

But the real questions on everybody’s minds are these: When will isolation be over? And when will things get back to normal? For most people, the issues are personal — and ergo more problematic. This holds true for HBO programs, and for Netflix, CBS-All Access, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and any number of channels and streaming services. How about sports and leisure-time activities: baseball, football, basketball, tennis, hockey, track and field, swimming, and others? When will their stadiums and arenas be filled to capacity again? That’s an unanswerable query at this point.

Granted, this is all wishful thinking on our part. We know that the problems of the world cannot be solved simply by holding the aforementioned activities. Too many people are suffering and dying at the moment for that to safely occur, what with the alarming upsurge in COVID-19 cases, both in the U.S. and in Latin and South America, having reached dire proportions.

More importantly, though, is the question of the continued viability for ALL the arts and the organizations that support them — from museums, art galleries, institutions of higher learning, Broadway, dance, and musical theater, to outdoor rock and pop concerts, poetry readings, lecture halls, indoor gatherings, and everything under the intellectual sun.

For those interested in any of the above pursuits, everyday life and the pleasures derived from them have ground to a halt. So speculating as to when and how these activities can safely resume is beyond the realm of possibility — at least, for the foreseeable future. Protecting ourselves and our loved ones should be, and is, the immediate concern. Driving the numbers down is of prime importance. Once control of the situation is achieved, then all these matters can be addressed.

Some issues will require immediate attention. Others will have to wait. However — and this is key — we must not allow complacency to govern our lives. People’s health and welfare are at stake. We must be as vigilant as ever in warding off this threat. We must all become displaced “artists” in our way, and in the time allotted to us.

If this is to be the new normal, then let it be so. To “sing for your supper” is to stand in someone else’s shoes. Only then will we be able to feel the pain and suffering that others have gone through. Only then will we be able to empathize with one another’s plight.

This is what it takes. The times demand it. Because this is what makes us whole and human.

From Live-Stream to At-Home With the Stars

Renee Fleming sings Verdi’s “Ave Maria” from ‘Otello’ from her home

The Met’s proposed solution to the dearth of opera performances was certainly the most unique endeavor the company has ever attempted. The “At-Home Gala,” as it was dubbed, took place live (for the most part) on Saturday, April 25 at 1 PM Eastern Standard Time. Forty or more individual artists partook of what can only be described as an unprecedented, globe-trotting live-stream event of immense value and import.

Not counting the many accompanists, technical crew, camera people, and sound engineers who participated, as well as the full Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus, there were live and prerecorded performances, across ten time zones(!), by the likes of Anna Netrebko, Renée Fleming, Roberto Alagna, Joyce DiDonato, Bryn Terfel, Jonas Kaufmann, Sonya Yoncheva, and many, many others. Fans got to see and hear their favorite artist in intimate surroundings. The immediacy of opera, downsized for home consumption, came through loud and clear.

One subject of note that should be mentioned: Each of the participants donated freely of their time and energy toward this event. All of the extracts reflected, in some way or another, an artist’s individual choice of a specific feeling, tone or mood. In addition, if listeners had any inkling of the historical significance of each piece, they would be able to identify what that particular artist’s personal statement was meant to convey, given the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Indeed, a collective sense of suffering and loss, sadness, joy, and exhilaration could be felt throughout the proceedings. The give-and-take that typically occurs in a stage production, or in a Live in HD broadcast, was magnified tenfold by the closeness of the live-stream process. Obviously, emotions ran high. Some artists were more subdued than others, given the wide range of nationalities presented. Some were introverts, possibly due to language barriers or inherent shyness; others displayed more outgoing behavior. Still others “let it all hang out,” as we Americans say, overflowing with sentiment or sorrow over whatever sensations they experienced through song.

Overall, each artist had something to say, whether implied or explicit. It is for us, the listener and viewer, to supply the missing ingredient — that is, of what lay behind and beyond the words and tunes. And for that, a knowledge of the pieces in question is paramount to understanding the underlying subtext. I’ll leave it to the individual viewer to do his or her homework on the matter.

Stepping up to the plate (you will forgive the sports analogy), Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, one of the tallest talents around, started things off with a delicately modulated depiction of Don Giovanni’s Serenade, “Deh, vieni alla finestra” (“Do come to the window”), accompanied by an accordion. Next, boundless energy took hold of tenor Roberto Alagna and his wife, Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, in an extended excerpt from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore.

Aleksandra Kurzak looks on disapprovingly, as Roberto Alagna serenades her

The scene took place in Alagna’s living room, with a pianist providing the lively accompaniment. Alagna was in a boisterous mood, mugging and acting up a storm as the inebriated Nemorino. Running and jumping about like a grasshopper, he and Aleksandra chewed the scenery at every opportunity. It was both delightful and exhausting. As Peter Gelb told New York Times reporter Joshua Barone, “There’s no substitute for performing.” And that’s what we got: a live, in-your-face, and on-your-laptop opera experience.

In contrast, Georgian mezzo Anita Rashvelishvili’s lush version of “Mon coeur souvre à ta voix” (“My heart at your voice”) from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila lowered the room temperature by a few degrees. Following her, Michael Fabiano provided a subdued interpretation of Lensky’s melancholy air, “Kuda, kuda,” translated as “Where have you gone, those golden days of my spring?” The poet Lensky reflects on his life as he faces a duel to the death over a misunderstood slight. Still vocally impressive, retired Met diva Renée Fleming faithfully intoned Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s Otello: “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” she cried, as tears streamed down her cheeks.

After five live transmissions in a row, it was time for several prerecorded features, the first one being the achingly throbbing Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, conducted by Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in charge of the Met Opera Orchestra. Subsequently, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s majestically poised and perfectly articulated “L’ombra mai fù” from Handel’s Serse, popularly known as the “Largo” and made famous by Enrico Caruso, made literal time stop. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Met violist Vincent Lionti, who had passed away of the coronavirus.

Joyce DiDonato, surrounded by strings, performing “L’Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s ‘Serse’

It was back to live action with tenor Jonas Kaufmann in an heroic account of Eléazar’s “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” from Halévy’s La Juive. This gave way to Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri’s powerful “Nemico della patria” (“Enemy of the state”) from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Playing the piano was fellow paisan, conductor Marco Armiliato. By the way, chirpy coloratura Erin Morley accompanied herself in “Chacun le sait” (“Each one shall know”) from La Fille du Régiment by Donizetti. We were amazed at the number of talented instrumentalists among these superb voices. This showed that their careers could have gone in any number of directions. And Morley was no exception.

German baritone Michael Volle’s bronze-colored delivery of Wolfram’s “Song to the Evening Star” brought us closer to Paradise in one of dozens of vocal highlights. Elza van den Heever regaled listeners with a nostalgic Dutch folk song, “Heimwee” or “Homesick.” Another memorable moment was presented by tenor Matthew Polenzani, who also accompanied himself on the piano in “Londonderry Air,” also known as “Oh, Danny Boy.” Wistful and poignant, this deeply touching piece conveyed that unmistakable vibe of Irish sentimentality. His family members greeted him with vociferous applause. Concluding the segment, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča gave listeners a taste of her lusty Met Opera Carmen in the thrice familiar “Habañera.”

The second prerecorded performance of the day was of the Act III prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin, led by Maestro Nézet-Séguin. After which, Welsh-born bass-baritone Bryn Terfel (a fine Wotan and Wanderer) and his harpist wife, Hannah Stone, gave an upbeat rendition of a favorite Welsh tune, made popular by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, of “If I Can Help Somebody,” as appropriate-sounding a number as any.

Two back-to-back Verdi showstoppers, both from the Master’s Don Carlo, were rendered by powerhouse mezzo Jamie Barton (“O don fatale,” or “Oh fatal gift of my beauty”), who exhibited an infectiously bubbly personality, and Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey (“Per me giunto,” or “For me, the supreme day is here”), in seamless fashion.

Mezzo Jamie Barton belts out Eboli’s aria “O don fatale”

This was followed by soprano Angel Blue, who made quite a splash this season in the new production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. She lived up to her name, revealing an absolutely gorgeous voice and poise in “Depuis le jour” (“After the day”) from Charpentier’s Louise, a once popular verismo potboiler not heard at the Met in many a season. German bass René Pape’s sepulchral tones and reverent approach to “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” (“In these hallowed halls”) from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, familiarly known as “The Magic Flute,” proved potent and closed this section.

Another prerecorded interlude featured Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the piano and Met concertmaster David Chan on solo violin, in the schmaltzy “Méditation” from Massenet’s exotic Thaïs. There followed notable contributions from Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov in a lively Rachmaninoff song, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja in a full-throated “Ah, lève-toi, soleil” (“Arise, thou loveliest sun”) from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, South African soprano Golda Schultz’s evocative delivery of Magda’s “Il bel sogno di Doretta” (“Doretta’s beautiful dream”) from Puccini’s La Rondine, North Carolina-born countertenor Anthony Roth Costanza’s mesmerizing “Pena tiranna” from Handel’s rarely heard Amadigi di Gaula, and stunning Bulgarian diva Sonya Yoncheva in the transcendent “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka.

The concert’s musical peak and emotional highpoint, however, was reached with the stirring “Va, pensiero, sul ali dorate” (“Go, thought, on wings of gold”), or the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” from Verdi’s first great success Nabucco, sung to grandiloquent excellence by the Met Opera Chorus in a prerecorded segment that turned out to be a labor of love for all concerned. It is hard to capture in words the mixed feelings this piece engendered in the listener. One could only hum along with the composer’s sweeping three-quarter tempo. At the line, “O mia patria, si bella e perduta” – “Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost,” one couldn’t help turning our thoughts to those who have suffered at the devastation this plague has inflicted on humanity. The individual faces of the chorus and orchestra, conveying the sorrow of the lost children of Israel and their Babylonian captivity, were in truth revealing our own sorrow — no acting or role playing was required.

From top left: Angel Blue, Erin Morley, and Anita Rachvelishvili; and from bottom left:  Javier Camarena, Jonas Kaufmann, Ailyn Perez and Solomon Howard

Next, listeners were treated to soprano Nadine Sierra in the perennial “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” from Puccini’s La Bohème; Polish wonder boy, tenor Piotr Beczala, provided an enthusiastic “Recondita armonia” from the same composer’s Tosca; a duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni with soprano Diana Damrau and her husband Nicolas Testé (the ubiquitous “Là ci darem la mano”); high-flying sparks issued forth from Lawrence Brownlee’s throat (“A te, o cara,” from Bellini’s I Puritani); deep low-bass rumblings from Günther Groissböck (“Wie Schön” from Richard Strauss’s Die Schweigsame Frau) — a nice contrast here; and a prerecorded solo effort by Yusuf Eyvazov of Rodolfo’s “Che gelida manina,” also from La Bohème.

The last installment began with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s heartfelt and timely “Somewhere” (aka “There’s a Place for Us”) from Bernstein-Sondheim-Robbins’ West Side Story. The New York City native was nearly overcome with emotion, so pertinent were the song’s lyrics (“We’ll find a new way of living / We’ll find a way of forgiving”) to our own time and place.

Soprano Ailyn Perez and bass Solomon Howard, as Luisa and Wurm, provided a scorching duet from Verdi’s Luisa Miller; Lisette Oropesa wiped the coloratura slate clean with a remarkably apt “En vain, j’espère” (“In vain, I hope”), from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable; Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis performed “Baigne deux,” again from Thaïs; Stephen Costello and his wife, violinist Yoon Kwon Costello, gave us “Salut demeure” from Gounod’s Faust; and an incredible display of agility and breath control came from Mexican tenor Javier Camarena in a bravura aria and cabaletta from Bellini’s Il Pirata, a taste of what’s waiting in the wings for 2021.

Soprano Anna Netrebko performing a Rachmaninoff song

And finally, an established individual who merits a paragraph of her own: Russian prima donna Anna Netrebko, in a standout, viscerally charged sequence recorded in Vienna of the Rachmaninoff song, “Oh, never sing to me again!”

We pray that sentiment may never come to pass.

In sum, this marvelous concert stood as a metaphor for our collective suffering and unity of purpose. Yes, we are separated from our friends, family, and loved ones. Yes, the world is spinning out of our control. But together, we commiserate; together we struggle; together we overcome. And together, we contribute. Even if we are physically apart, even if we are separated by great distances, we will stand as one. Our voices will not be silenced. We will be heard, either alone or as a unit. Let them ring out loudly and for all.

This is the message of the Met’s virtual “At-Home Gala.”

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

Cancelled! — The Case of the Missing Met Opera Season (Part Two): And Now, Back to Our Unscheduled Program

The new production of Wagner’s ‘Der Fliegende Hollaender’ (‘The Flying Dutchman’)

Was It Something I Didn’t Say?

In writing about the Metropolitan Opera’s broadcasts of La Damnation de Faust and Der Fliegende Holländer (“The Flying Dutchman”), I neglected to mention what a huge debt Richard Wagner and Arrigo Boito owed to French composer and music critic Hector Berlioz.

Certainly, much of Berlioz’s orchestral coloration, brass fanfares, and choral effects eventually found their way into Boito’s labyrinthine Mefistofele. As for epic dimensions and classical structure and story line, nothing could top Berlioz’s titanic Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), which figured prominently in Wagner’s own theories for his mythic The Ring of the Nibelung.

In turn, one can’t help noticing the similarities between the Ring cycle’s plot — and some of its main characters, i.e. Alberich with Gollum — with the later The Lord of the Rings saga penned by one J.R.R. Tolkien, but I do digress.  

For The Flying Dutchman, Herr Wagner drew inspiration from fellow German Romantic Carl Maria von Weber, whose 1821 opera Der Freischütz (“The Free Shooter”) was a period favorite. The plot centers around a young forester, Max, who makes a sinister pact with fellow forester Kaspar in return for the Devil’s aid (here, called “Samiel”) in winning a shooting contest. All for the hand of the lovely Agathe.

       A production of Carl Maria von Weber’s ‘Der Freischuetz’ (‘The Free Shooter’)

Scenes of ghostly apparitions, dead-of-night depravity, and hellish shock effects were also present in the eerie output of musician Heinrich Marschner, a contemporary of both Weber and Wagner. Marschner’s Der Vampyr (“The Vampire”) from 1828 was based on a Lord Byron story (published under his friend and former doctor, John Polidori’s name); whereas the opera Hans Heiling (1833) must have had a profound influence on Wagner’s development of Tannhäuser (1845; revised 1861 for Paris), whose plot bears striking analogies to the Marschner work.

In Hans Heiling, the title character leaves his underworld dwelling to seek out and marry a mortal woman. Complications arise when the woman, Anna, falls in love with the handsome Konrad. It should be noted that supernatural elements are present in both Hans Heiling and Tannhäuser, with both protagonists having set foot in the earthly and mystical realms, and suffering untold indignities because of it.        

At one time, Marschner was as popular as Weber — perhaps more so, where his operas were concerned (sadly, Weber died young in 1826 from tuberculosis). With Wagner’s emergence as the prime mover of so-called “music drama,” Messrs. Weber and Marschner were left in the dust. Chiefly known for their overtures, Weber’s operatic endeavors include the aforementioned Der Freischütz, along with Oberon (based on characters from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Euryanthe, and the unfinished Die Drei Pintos (or “The Three Pintos”), completed and orchestrated by Gustav Mahler. The good news is that Weber’s stage works have been revived on more than one occasion, while Marschner’s oeuvre remains comparatively unknown in the U.S.

On the outer fringes of the operatic repertoire, history records that there is another Flying Dutchman-like opus left to be discovered, this one credited to an obscure French composer named Pierre-Louis-Philippe Dietsch. It is titled Le Vasseau Phantôme, or “The Phantom Ship,” from 1842 and adapted from an obscure Sir Walter Scott novel. From the limited research available, this version has but minor similarities to Wagner’s opera.  

For Your Listening and Viewing Pleasure

With historical precedent as our guide, it’s a simple matter for readers to muse upon the past. In the case of opera and the performing arts, one looks to antecedents for clues as to where opera has been and where it might go.

That’s all fine and well. However, in these perilous times, with COVID-19 and the still troubling response to the outbreak on our minds and before our eyes, the future of opera in general — and, specifically, for any performing art, including the dramatic and musical theater variety, as well as the motion picture industry — remains unknowable.

                    Interior of an empty Metropolitan Opera House at orchestra level

What it boils down to is this: Will live opera, in its present state, survive the pandemic? Will the movie- and theater-going experience be rendered pointless as a consequence? Will live- or previously-recorded streaming of these events replace the real thing?

And what of the performers and crafts people involved in their execution — that is, those individuals who make it all happen? Will they ever be able to interact in close proximity to one another? Or will the “stage kiss” make a belated comeback?

I can’t help “laughing” (although in truth, this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a laughing matter) at that last thought. Similar to how the X-rated movie industry has been run of late, the idea that opera singers, and stage and film personalities, may be faced with testing for the coronavirus, or having their temperature taken before interacting with each other on an intimate level, is not as farfetched as we imagine.

Yes, I know it’s a ludicrous notion, but a highly credible one and within the realm of possibility. Indeed, this very situation may soon come to pass and become a permanent part of the entertainment landscape. Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that.

I say this in connection with, and as a consequence of, the altered nature of the 2019-2020 Met Opera Saturday afternoon broadcasts. Beginning with the March 14, 2020 relay of The Flying Dutchman from March 10, all subsequent transmissions were of previously recorded material, presented for our ongoing listening pleasure. As usual, radio host Mary Jo Heath and color commentator Ira Schiff “phoned in” their contributions, supplementing their on-air patter by providing illuminating background information regarding each broadcast work.

Continuing with the March 21 re-airing of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, which featured mezzo Joyce DiDonato and Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, a March 28 re-broadcast of Massenet’s Werther followed with tenor Jonas Kaufmann. April showered listeners with a re-hearing of contralto Stephanie Blythe’s sumptuously executed Orpheus in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice on the 4th of that month.

This gave way to an April 11 re-hearing of Puccini’s Tosca (from an earlier April 20, 2018 performance) that starred the fabulously talented Russian soprano Anna Netrebko putting her personal stamp on the titular diva, with husband, Azerbaijani tenor Yusuf Eyvazov, as a heroic-sounding Cavaradossi, and German bass-baritone Michael Volle as an un-Italianate-sounding Scarpia.

April 18 brought a masterful 2011 Met archive reading of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. A stellar cast highlighted this effort, manned by the late, great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon (so viscerally realized and commandingly sung), with Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli as his daughter Amelia, Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as her lover, Gabriele, cavernous Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto as an intensely vocalized Fiesco, and baritone Simone Alaimo as the devious Paolo. James Levine led the Met Orchestra and Chorus in probably the nearest to an ideal performance this dark and brooding work has ever received there.

           The late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Verdi’s ‘Simon Boccanegra’

The last three broadcasts of the season included one we had previously heard and commented upon. This was of Puccini’s final opera Turandot, on April 25, in the gaudy, overly-busy Franco Zeffirelli production (done to death, I might add). It starred Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as the haughty Princess Turandot, giant-toned tenor Marco Berti as Prince Calàf, Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava as the slave girl Liu, and American basso James Morris as a thin-of-voice yet physically imposing Timur.

This left only the May 2nd pre-recorded 2004 performance of Leoš Janáček’s rarely heard Kát’a Kabanová with Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, fellow Finn tenor Jorma Silvasti, and Canadian-born mezzo Judith Forst; and the May 9th transmission of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda from 2013 with Joyce DiDonato as Mary Stuart and Dutch soprano Elza van den Heever as Queen Elizabeth I.

With the regular broadcast season over, what is there left for the Met as an institution — or any other opera company, for that matter? At this point, no one can be certain.

Still, the Met Opera’s board of directors, helmed by Executive Chairman Robert I. Toll of Toll Brothers, Inc. (the main sponsor for the Saturday broadcasts), and the company’s general manager, Mr. Peter Gelb, came up with (you’ll pardon the expression) a “novel” approach as to what the future may hold: a live-stream concert of up-and-coming and/or established opera stars singing arias and excerpts from their favorite works, direct from their homes or in pre-recorded venues of their choice.

We’ll have more to say about this extraordinary four-hour Saturday afternoon program, labeled the “At-Home Gala,” in the third and final installment of this post. Until then, a happy and prayerful Memorial Day to one and all!

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes  

Plague on Humanity or Manna for Modern Times? — A Review of the Available Film Versions of the Story of Moses

The giving of the Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston as Moses

Today is Good Friday, a day commemorated across the globe as one of tragedy and misfortune that, leading to eventual triumph and hope, culminates Sunday on a glorious Easter morning. Earlier in the week, Jews from around the world observed the solemnity of Passover, a time when Death passed over their households.

Knowledgeable readers, too, may recall the 2003 protests for and against a controversial ruling involving the imposition of a Ten Commandments monument at the state judicial building in Montgomery, Alabama — a veritable clash between the sacred and the secular.

Concurrent with that story, the 2003 commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington brought to mind how much people of faith have taken this unique and inspiring symbol of God’s ancient law for granted.

Flash forward to 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic, a scurrilous plague of Biblical proportions if ever there was one. Oh, how humanity needs its “manna from heaven” moment!

To echo a well-worn phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt.” You may be under the assumption that everyone has advance knowledge of what Passover, the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments came to symbolize, what ostensibly led to their evolution, and what they entail for us TODAY as far as a spiritual guidepost for these fearful, stress-filled times.

Politics aside, most God-fearing citizens have forgotten the sacrifices that went into the shaping of this gift of His promise for a happier earthly existence. We tend to overlook how God’s chosen people, the Hebrew slaves of Egypt, long sought to put an end to their suffering under the yolk of pharaonic vanity and abuse; how they yearned for freedom, and waited in vain for deliverance to the Promised Land, as prophesied in those same Old Testament passages.

Over the years, we’ve allowed ourselves to overlook the obvious modern parallels to African-American struggles for dignity, respect, and racial equality in other, more socially intolerant times. The same holds true for our growing Latino population, for the millions of poor and homeless people, and for those less fortunate than ourselves.

If only we could make real what was conveyed so wondrously in the pages of Holy Scripture. Similarly, if only we could empathize with the historical, social, and religious contexts that helped shape the thoughts, lives, and social patterns of these same individuals, who so valiantly fought — and died — for their beliefs, so that we, today, might enjoy the blessings of freedom under a merciful, loving, and protective godhead.     

For home-bound viewers, there exists a number of cinematic recreations of the Old Testament story of Moses and the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, preserved as a makeshift “visual record” of these events. In lieu of physical Sunday-school lessons (due to social distancing constraints), these films have been made available to one and all via Blu-ray, DVD, YouTube, and/or various streaming devices.

All serve to inspire and enlighten us. But most importantly of all, they can be viewed, singly or as a whole, as filmed reminders of Moses’ symbolic significance to all faiths as the harbinger of Christ’s mission on Earth; and as a powerful lesson to world leaders to humble themselves before nature and the environment.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923): 146 minutes

 

One of the earliest motion picture representations of the story of Moses and the Exodus that remains widely accessible to movie audiences comes from famed producer-director Cecil B. DeMille.

A former stage actor and Hollywood co-founder, DeMille, even in the silent-film era, was known for his lavish historical pageants and superb handling of mass movement in crowd scenes.

His first crack at the Biblical genre came with the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, starring veteran stage and film actor Theodore Roberts as Moses, Estelle Taylor as Miriam, Charles De Roche as Pharaoh, Julia Faye as Nefertari (sic), and James Neill as Aaron. Released by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation and distributed by Paramount Studios, the production was partially filmed in the desert country of Guadalupe, Mexico.

The sets and costumes are impressive, as is the flamboyant acting by the principals. The mighty Exodus sequence and the handing down of the Commandments are dealt with in expert fashion, while the plagues are given short shrift (only the last and deadliest plague is depicted). Still, the rudimentary effects, particularly the pillar of fire and the parting of the Red Sea, are indeed remarkable for the time.

The second (and longer) portion of the film is devoted to a more “contemporary” interpretation of what happens to one of two siblings who continuously breaks God’s laws. Richard Dix and Rod La Rocque play the battling brothers (one good, one bad) in traditional clutch-and-stagger style. Silent movie queen Nita Naldi vamps it up as the tragic temptress who comes between them.

In the prologue, the haughty Pharaoh Rameses (De Roche) is brought to his knees upon the demise of his firstborn son (Terrence Moore). Alert viewers will notice some startling similarities between the way DeMille captured this and other sequences when juxtaposed with his 1956 remake (see below).

Having doubled Paramount Studios’ initial outlay from US $600,000 to over $1.2 million (and giving nervous backers a mild coronary in the process), DeMille’s gambit paid off handsomely at the box office.

Despite the soap-opera trappings — there are more than enough melodramatic subplots, including a preposterous episode about a lover infected with leprosy — the movie proved a hit with the Roaring Twenties crowd, raking in an incredible four million dollars in its day.

The first part, running about 50 minutes in length, is the more gripping section, and is recommended for joint family viewing. You will want to fast-forward through the stagy second sequence, however, which tends to drag a bit and may prove too mature for young children to fully grasp.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956): 245 minutes (with overture, intermission and exit music)

DeMille’s next attempt at the story was the widescreen Technicolor extravaganza The Ten Commandments, released by Paramount in 1956. It is quite possibly the most well-known and widely viewed religious film ever made. DeMille made the wise decision to drop the modern parallel and stick to the tried and true, especially after the runaway success of the earlier Samson and Delilah from 1949.

The wily director-producer spared no expense in the crafting of his greatest work, which stars the then-relatively unknown Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner (fresh from his Broadway triumph in The King and I) as Rameses II, Anne Baxter as his voluptuous wife Nefretiri, Edward G. Robinson as the overseer Dathan, Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, John Derek as Joshua, Debra Paget as Lilia, John Carradine as Aaron, and a literal cast of thousands.

DeMille went on location to Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula for the Exodus and other desert sequences. Returning to the U.S., the production team resumed shooting on eighteen Hollywood sound stages, with another twelve waiting for them in Paris, France.

While this version is considered pure camp — with such ludicrous plot devices as the bogus romance between Moses and the future Queen of Egypt, and an absurd love triangle between Baka the Master Builder (Vincent Price), Lilia the water carrier, and Joshua the stonecutter — the gargantuan sets, fabulous costumes, gorgeous production values, and memorable music score by novice composer Elmer Bernstein, are all worthy of attention.

As Ole Man Mose himself, Heston steadfastly maintained that his casting as the fiery prophet made him a household name in the movie industry. It was his first successful foray in a long line of religious and historical figures to be interpreted by him on the big screen. His looks and voice, and moving portrayal (plus the apparent sincerity Heston gave to the part) lift this film out of the usual dull run of Biblical epics.

Several of the scenes, including the Burning Bush sequence, the plagues of Egypt, the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of the Commandments have gone down in movie history as among the most memorable ever filmed (see the following link for a fuller in-depth analysis of DeMille’s biblical epic: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/the-ten-commandments-american-society-in-the-fifties/).  

The last of those nasty plagues, the one that brings the Destroyer into the heart of Pharaoh’s household, will send shivers down your spine (it was quite effective in the movie theater, of that I can personally vouch for). It’s one of the few sequences in the three hour and thirty-nine minute epic that is not over the top.

Highly recommended for all family members, the movie is best appreciated in its letterbox format.

MOSES – THE LAWGIVER (1975): 150 minutes; mini-series 360 minutes

Burt Lancaster as Moses, the Lawgiver

A British-Italian-Israeli co-production based on the book of Exodus, the title, Moses – The Lawgiver, did not bear the hallmarks of a primetime ratings grabber, not by any means. Nevertheless, this 1975 foreign-made version was first broadcast on the small screen as a six-hour television mini-series.

It features American actor Burt Lancaster as Moses, his son William Lancaster as the young Moses, veteran English character player Anthony Quayle as Aaron, Ingrid Thulin as their sister Miriam, Marina Berti as Elisheba, and Greek film star Irene Pappas as Moses’ wife. Curiously, it was partially filmed in Rome, Morocco, and the Holy Land during the height of the Yom Kippur war. The script is by Anthony Burgess, author of the futuristic novel A Clockwork Orange.

The story is presented in fairly reverent, straight-forward fashion, the dialogue highly literate, and a low-key Lancaster surprisingly good in the title role. Just don’t expect the usual Hollywood-style histrionics to spice up the proceedings, though, as this version is more dialogue-heavy than most.

Too, it takes a more intellectual approach to the saga. As for the special effects, they are modest in comparison — I’d say pedestrian, to be frank, and not even close to big budget standards.

The mini-series was subsequently released to theaters as a feature-length film, but the extremely mundane atmosphere, dusty sets, and colorless wardrobe did not provide much in the way of competition for the two earlier DeMille flicks. On a side note, many of the crew members, including producer Sir Lew Grade, worked on the subsequent Jesus of Nazareth mini-series from 1977, directed by the late Franco Zeffirelli, a much more ambitious and noteworthy assignment.

Recommended for older audiences but with the above reservations. Younger viewers might find it too talky and the performances lackluster.

THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (1998): 97 minutes

For a change of pace, kids of all ages may want to tune in, along with their parents and friends, to this animated musical account of the Exodus story. The Prince of Egypt, a 1998 production by DreamWorks Pictures, was a joint Steven Spielberg-Jeffrey Katzenberg studio venture.

It incorporates state-of-the-art digital animation effects, and utilizes the services of Val Kilmer as Moses, Ralph Fiennes as Pharaoh, Patrick Stewart as his father Sethi, Michelle Pfeiffer as Tzipporah, Jeff Goldblum as Aaron, Sandra Bullock as Miriam, Danny Glover as Jethro, and Ofra Haza as Yochaved, with Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Broadway’s Brian Stokes Mitchell, in other key roles, to tell the tale of Moses, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of God’s Laws.

Despite the clash of accents among the talented international cast, the story is clearly and succinctly told. The voice acting, especially by Kilmer and Fiennes as equally-matched combatants, is well done. Much care was taken with the script as well, so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities. If anything, this treatment is almost too mild by comparison to DeMille’s gaudier excesses.  

Nevertheless, this visually-stunning animated version, which is vastly superior to most Saturday morning children’s fare (if not quite up to the advanced level of the best of the Disney/Pixar Studios’ efforts), is entertaining and worthwhile.

The visual rendering of the characters favors an elongated look reminiscent of the Mannerist school of portraiture (think El Greco, or possibly Modigliani) that gives the finished product a uniquely original stamp of its own.

Interestingly, the rivalry between the young prince Moses and the future pharaoh Rameses is a thinly-veiled reworking of the Judah/Messala conflict found in MGM’s 1959 widescreen remake of Ben-Hur, another superior religious picture. Thankfully, the script for this outing, written by veteran screenwriter Philip LaZebnick (Pocahontas, Mulan, The Road to El Dorado), is on the same high level as that William Wyler-directed opus.

There’s even a hit song, i.e., “When You Believe,” to thrill to (written by composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz), beautifully sung in the movie by Ms. Pfeiffer and repeated, in the end credits, as a power duet between then-reigning pop divas Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. The score itself is by Hans Zimmer.

This is highly recommended for all family members.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014): 150 minutes

Finally, there’s director-producer Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings from 2014, with the likes of Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Pharaoh, John Turturro as Sethi, and Aaron Paul as Joshua, with Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Ben Mendelsohn.

This version has not yet been viewed by yours truly. But with a cast such as this, it would be unfair of me to pass judgment on its merits. About the best I could say for it, though, is: Buyer beware!

Still, this and the above entries serve to perpetuate the Idea that haughtiness and vanity will only get you so far. The high and mighty will be brought down and laid low before forces too powerful to control.  

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar L. Lopes

March Sadness and Humanity’s Hope

Tom Hanks (L.) meets with Astronaut Jim Lovell

Today is Sunday, March 15. In poetic terms, it’s the ides of March.

According to historians (and to playwright William Shakespeare), Julius Caesar, the “noblest Roman of them all,” was assassinated on that date. He was warned by a soothsayer to “Beware the ides of March” and avoid setting foot in the Roman Senate.

But Caesar ignored the warning. Instead, he was killed at the Theatre of Pompey, where the Roman Senate met.

Look where we are today.

This used to be a time when fans of college basketball could root for their favorite teams. The NCAA championships take place in March, which gave rise to the description “March Madness.” Not this year, I’m afraid. It’s morphed into something else; that is, something approaching “March Sadness.” It’s a sad epitaph indeed, and not just for college basketball.

The NBA, or National Basketball Association, has suspended its season. So have Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the PGA Tour, and the Masters Golf Tournament. The National Hockey League has also postponed its season, as have the XFL, the Association of Tennis Professionals, and the Women’s Tennis Association. The opening run of the Formula 1 racing season has been cancelled, too. And NASCAR has moved back its opening-day events by two weeks or more.

In addition to which, production of many cable television shows has been halted. The nation’s museums are closed, while movie theaters’ doors have been shuttered as well. Lamentably, Broadway’s Great White Way has dimmed its lights. And the Metropolitan Opera House has lowered its golden curtain on upcoming performances. “La commedia é finita!” the house has announced. Translation: “The play is over!”

All this because of the coronavirus outbreak. But that’s not the worst of what’s happened. There are real lives at stake, with so many families and friends being affected. Workers and employers sent home, multiple school closings, businesses and stores shuttered, elderly loved ones and relatives in peril — all at the mercy of this unseen menace. Unable to participate in life’s simple pleasures, we’re about to closet ourselves away, for our own safety and for the safety of others.

Oh, and financial markets around the world have taken a nosedive. While Wall Street is all wound up, we’ve wound our way down. Big time! We ignored the warnings, and now the ides of March are upon us.

Despite the dire news, the final straw occurred the other day when word got out that Tom Hanks and his actress wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for the coronavirus while working on separate projects in Australia.

Oh, no, not him! Not Tom Hanks!!! Please, Lord, say it ain’t so! My God, if Tom Hanks and his spouse can be hit by the coronavirus, is there any hope for humanity?

Who Ya Gonna Call?

The nation is reeling. In times of stress, who do we turn to? Who can we rely on to save us from ourselves, and from our worst impulses?

Why, the self-same Tom Hanks. That’s who! Who better than filmdom’s most reliable and most beloved screen actor?

So let this Sunday homily be my open invitation to Mr. Hanks:

Dear Tom,

Please excuse the directness of my approach. We need your help. Let me rephrase that: America needs your help. At this terrible moment in our country’s history, when things are looking grim for all Americans — and indeed, for the world at large — only you can save us.

Now, now. Don’t give me that look. You know the one I’m talking about, Tom. That clueless, wide-eyed Forrest Gump stare. I know you can do this. You’ve helped us out before — and you can do it again.

Try taking a look at your own past, Tom. See what you’ve been able to accomplish with your movies. Come on, Woody. Don’t let your get-up-and-go get the best of you. Let’s go over those exploits together, shall we?

In Saving Mr. Banks, you played Walt Disney (and you don’t even LOOK like Walt). As good ole Mr. Disneyland himself, you managed to convince the curmudgeonly P.L. Travers into granting your studio the movie rights to her book, Mary Poppins. Now, if you can charm P.L. Travers, then you can charm anybody.

As Forrest Gump, you FINALLY won the heart of the woman you loved, Jenny Curran. (Just between us, I thought she was undeserving of your affection, but that’s me.) If you can win young Jenny’s heart, you can win anybody’s heart.

                               Jenny (Robin Wright) sits with Forrest Gump (Hanks)

As terminally ill AIDS victim Andy Beckett in Philadelphia, you won a wrongful termination suit against your former law firm — with Denzel Washington’s help, of course. If you can beat your former law firm, you can beat any law firm.

In Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, as attorney James B. Donovan, you successfully negotiated a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And you did it by staying true to your profession as a defender of your client’s rights (even if that client happened to be a Soviet spy). Heck, if you can negotiate a successful prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union, you can negotiate anything. Am I right so far?

And, in Saving Private Ryan, as Captain John Miller, you practically lost your entire squad in trying to locate and bring Private James Ryan back to his mother’s side. I can’t help recalling, Tom, that earlier in the picture, you informed your skeptical squad members that, “This Ryan better be worth it. He better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb, or something.”

Do you remember that line?

Towards the end, after Captain Miller is mortally wounded by enemy fire, he gathers what strength he has left and grabs hold of Ryan so he can hear what Miller has to say. Miller’s final words to him are, “Earn this… earn it.”

                              Captain Miller (Hanks) whispers into Private Ryan’s ear

His meaning was clear: “Earn the sacrifice that my men have made in helping to save you.”        

Now, I know you can’t cure this disease, Tom, or invent a longer-lasting light bulk, but surely you can do something, even if you’re holed up in the outback. Let me make it plain, then: You can continue to encourage us by your honesty, your devotion to your craft, and the truthfulness you convey in all your movie roles. No, really, I mean it!

We need your kind of courage, Tom, more than we’ve ever had at any point in our recent history. We need your strength, we need your fortitude, and especially your ability to inspire — as you’ve done throughout your career. That calm, resolute manner you showed as Astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13. That’s what I’m talking about. I know you have it in you, sir.

Pandora’s box has been pried opened. The ills of this world have spilled out and spread a contagion called COVID-19. Help us to close the lid, Tom. Keep giving us hope that better days are ahead. Take away the sadness, help restore the madness. In a pinch, you can deploy Buzz Lightyear! Consider this a really big pinch…

Come on, Tom! Let’s get the ball rolling. You and Rita can overcome this affliction, of that I am certain. In doing so, you would have fulfilled your mission — just as Captain Miller did, just as Jim Lovell did.

                                     Tom Hanks as Astronaut Jim Lovell in ‘Apollo 13’

You are humanity’s last, best hope. Don’t let us down in our time of need. Get back on your feet, mister. Do it for me, and do it for America. And for the world.

You’ve earned this!

Yours sincerely,

Joe Lopes

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Seven): The Law is On His Side

Male cast members of Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1993)

‘I Fought the Law and the Law Won’

Americans love lawyers.

Now, before you throw a fit or have me committed to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward, let me elaborate.

We enjoy watching television shows (and movies, if you want to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth) about lawyers because we’re fascinated by the concept of the law and its defenders. Whether we like them personally or not, issues related to lawyers and the law are hammered out in trials, thus giving rise to the ubiquitous courtroom drama.

Courtroom dramas are the very essence, if not the bane, of our existence. They’re part of everyday life, based on the incontrovertible view that people tend to commit crimes. Along with their criminal activities come the post-criminal investigations. Witnesses emerge, evidence starts to pile up. Soon, these assorted elements get introduced (or not) in a forum deemed appropriate to the circumstances. That forum happens to be the courtroom.

And where there are courtrooms, there are judges. Judges, as anyone who’s ever been confronted by one will tell you, are the no-nonsense arbiters of the law; they are the experts, the so-called professionals in matters of jurisprudence.

So who are the arbiters of the facts? Why, the jury, of course. And juries are made up of ordinary citizens — with all our biases and prejudices and accumulated knowledge, both pro and con, of the facts. For, indeed, we, the people, are the ultimate judges of what can be deemed factual.

Okay, but who are the individuals who bring these criminal cases to court, to be heard by a jury of one’s peers, to be adjudicated by a judge? Those individuals are the lawyers, the people trained in presenting a case and arguing the merits before a court of law. This is also where the heart of the “drama” takes place. You might call it a ringside seat, where the “ring,” in this instance, takes the form of a large rectangular room.

As obsessed as we are with high-voltage courtroom dramas — and we can cite numerous examples that fit that description — there is one actor I know of who, at one time or another, appeared to have cornered the market in his association with the law, both on the side of what’s “right” and on the side of what’s “wrong.” And that actor is Denzel Washington.

Not only does Denzel make the perfect attorney at law (in looks, manner, and speech), but his recurrent forays into such related subgenres as crime capers, police procedurals, investigative journalism, and criminal behavior — to include his participation in the crimes themselves (via his earlier ghostly “embodiment” in Heart Condition) — have given him a unique perspective quite apart from his fellow actors.

Certainly his stature as a figure of authority has had something to do with it. Writer and movie critic David Thomson, in his book The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, referred to Denzel’s “extra confidence” and the authentic “command” he brings to his parts, even to the “silly films along the way.”

We’ll be exploring his commanding presence (and, along the way, some of those “silly films”) in this next installment, which we have subtitled “The Law is on His Side.”

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Beatrice (Emma Thompson) hears the proposal by Don Pedro (Denzel Washington)

We begin, of all things, with a star-studded production of Shakespeare’s comedy of errors, Much Ado About Nothing. Filmed on location in Italy — specifically in the province of Tuscany, at a real Italian villa blessed with sunny skies, verdant pastures, authentic locales, and moonlit nights — this is your standard-grade period piece.

As straight a screen adaptation of the English poet’s opus as you can get, much ado is made of the fact that good-ole reliable Denzel plays a supporting role, i.e., that of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, instead of his usual male lead. It’s back to ensemble work for the workaholic Mr. Washington!

Heading up this ribald dramedy, then, is Irish-born actor, director, and producer Kenneth Branagh, the closest Hollywood has come to that unrivaled thespian and multi-talented performer, director, and theater manager Sir Laurence Olivier.

An Olivier wannabe in everything but name only, the self-directed Sir Kenneth stars as Benedick, a member of Don Pedro’s court. Arrogant, boastful, and self-assured to a fault, the handsome nobleman has a “thing” for the equally brash yet beauteous and witty Beatrice (Emma Thompson, Branagh’s wife at the time). It’s that age-old gag where the one, Benedick, insists that the other, Beatrice, is beneath his contempt, and vice versa; where “I hate your guts” means “I love you truly.” You get the drift.

The main conflict (besides the obvious one twixt Beatrice and Benedick) takes place when Benedick’s companion, the young count Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), expresses his heartfelt passion for Beatrice’s comely cousin, Hero (the charmingly attractive Kate Beckinsale). Don Pedro is pleased with the match and forthwith blesses the union to everyone’s satisfaction — everyone, that is, except his rebellious half-brother, the jealous Don John (a brooding and bearded Keanu Reeves, who mugs his way through the picture). Don John has designs of his own where the bride is concerned; consequently, he hatches a side-plot to discredit the virtuous Hero before her betrothed. Zounds, the scoundrel (boo, hiss!).

Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) is tricked into accepting Beatrice (Emma Thompson) as wife

Mixed into this exhilarating brew is the cretinous Constable Dogberry (Michael Keaton, who acts as if he had accidently stumbled onto the set of Beetlejuice), accompanied by comparably inept associates. In addition to Branagh, Thompson, and Beckinsale (they sound like partners in a British law firm, don’t they?), the other cast members — among them, Richard Briers as Hero’s father Leonato (and the owner of the villa), Gerard Horan as Borachio (his name, in Spanish, translates to “constantly drunk,” which he is), Imelda Staunton as Margaret, and Brian Blessed as Antonio, Leonato’s brother — bring their proficiency in iambic pentameter to Shakespeare’s words with enthusiasm and zeal.

As the only African American member of the group (and one of a handful of American English speakers), Denzel’s Don Pedro comes off well enough physically. He certainly looks the part of a potentate, who here epitomizes the literal law of the land; and he performs it with the utmost taste and command (there goes that word again) born of self-confidence. It’s evident the actor’s earliest stage encounters with the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon (in Othello and Julius Caesar) make all the difference.

Yet, there is something not quite right. To these ears, Denzel’s dialogue sounds mannered and leaden. His speech does not “roll trippingly on the tongue.” There’s a clash of American English with its British variant in the enunciation department, which is to be expected. However, an absence of spontaneity creeps into passages that demand a less measured approach. Taking nothing away from his delivery per se, one notices an overly cautious reading of Don Pedro’s lines than there needs to be — an over-compensation, if that clarifies things, as if the speaker had placed the emphasis on every word of text so as to make his meaning clear.

There are several examples of this occurring, the first in the scene where Benedick overhears Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio discussing Beatrice’s true feelings for him; the second, in the quieter moments between Don Pedro and Beatrice, where he gazes intently into her eyes and proposes a marital union between them. Thompson, as Beatrice, rattles off her riposte with a gentle but casual air of indifference, accompanied by a toss of the head. Whereas Washington, on the receiving end, ever-so-cautiously articulates every vowel and syllable, along with the appropriate punctuation.

Yes, yes, I know. I’m being excessively picky in my assessment. This is still a marvelously photographed and gorgeously costumed realization, if I can be blunt about it. For instance, those opening slow-motion shots with a lusty male contingent bobbing up and down on their mounts, along with those of buxom young ladies in various forms of undress, are notable for their sex appeal and air of anticipation — a balm to Shakespeare addicts.

More likely, I’m making … well, much ado about nothing!

The Pelican Brief (1993)

Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) joins forces with Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts)

On a more serious note, the initial pairing of Denzel Washington with everyone’s favorite screen sweetheart, Julia Roberts, in The Pelican Brief was cause for jubilation among their millions of dedicated fans. The onscreen chemistry this oddly-matched couple generate lifted the film adaptation of another of ex-lawyer John Grisham’s windingly dense legal thrillers to near-Olympian heights at the box office.

If magnetism and “star power” can be manufactured, bottled, and sold over the counter, then these two brightest of movie lights might have cornered the world market. Call them the twin “flavors of the month,” which, where their followers were concerned, had placed them at cross-purposes to one another. Despite that handicap, both Washington and Roberts shined at playing protagonists who win the audience’s favor. One couldn’t help but root for their success, no matter what project they took part in.

Warner Bros. Studios’ belief in their staying power as box-office draws led to this faithful if needlessly drawn-out conspiracy yarn about the murder of two Supreme Court justices. The book, published in 1992, was Grisham’s third novel and second literary effort to top the New York Times bestseller list (after The Firm).

In the movie, Julia plays law school student Darby Shaw who unwittingly stumbles across an elaborate plot by a ruthless oil tycoon to exploit some oil-rich Louisiana marshland inhabited by an endangered species of pelican — to wit the raison d’être for the avian title. Her subsequent legal brief on the incipient nature of this scheme spells out the particulars in detail.

Before you can say, “What the hell does all that have to do with the death of two Supreme Court justices?”, the next layer to be revealed connects Darby to the assassin Khamel (Stanley Tucci), the person responsible for those murders. Although the late justices were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they were both staunch environmentalists. The idea is for the tycoon to profit handsomely from this oil venture by getting the clueless U.S. President (Robert Culp), whose campaign for reelection has been financed by this same tycoon, to appoint two new justices favorable to the scheme. Thus everybody “wins,” except for the defenseless pelicans.

Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington), investigative reporter turned action hero

We warned you this was a needlessly complicated story line. Having read several of author Grisham’s books, however, I can report that this 1993 screen edition is true to the original tome, a rarity among films of this nature.

Readers may be wondering, too, where Denzel might fit into the action. Is he a cop or is he a lawyer? Actually, he’s neither. On a seemingly unrelated note, Dee plays Washington Herald investigative reporter Gray Grantham, who receives a tip from an informant named Garcia about those two assassinations. One thing leads to another, and soon Darby Shaw links up with Grantham, as the two curious individuals — the rookie law student and the veteran journalist — join forces to begin the laborious task of unraveling the maze of deceptions.

I would be remiss in my sworn duty to keep the dénouement a secret. I will say this: the very antithesis of the usual slam-bang, shoot-‘em-up police/crime thriller, The Pelican Brief, written and directed by veteran filmmaker Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Presumed Innocent), is a more thoughtful case in point. In view of our stated theme (vide the guardians of law and order and their being on the right side of justice), Denzel occupies an integral secondary spot.

Some critics complained that there were no love scenes between him and Ms. Roberts — and why should there be? As a matter of fact, they don’t fall in love at all, which is how the novel played it. “Any romance would have been rather tactless,” wrote Roger Ebert in his December 17, 1993 review, “considering that the story takes place in the week or two immediately after her [law professor] lover has been blown to pieces.”

How about that! A logical, well-thought-out screenplay for once that makes perfect sense. Consequently, audiences ate this feature up, which only goes to show that Hollywood can still shock and awe you when it wants to. On the other hand, in one of the myriad subplots to director Robert Altman’s labyrinthine The Player, released in May 1992 (a year and a half before The Pelican Brief hit the big screen), the little film-within-a-film Habeas Corpus (with Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, of all people!) subverts the whole idea of staying faithful to one’s original work.

You’re probably wondering: “What the hell is he talking about?” I’m glad you asked! Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to watch both The Pelican Brief AND The Player, in that order. To test your knowledge of each, there’ll be a pop quiz on Wednesday. The best of luck to you!

Philadelphia (1993)

Lawyer Joe Miller (Washington) refuses to take Andy Beckett’s case

From our current crisis relating to the mounting coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, we harken back to a time when HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and the AIDS epidemic (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) were placed front and center in the debate about how to treat those afflicted with the sexually transmitted disease.

With an all-star assemblage of top-shelf acting talent (Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, Joanne Woodward, Charles Napier, Ann Dowd, Roberta Maxwell, Roger Corman, et al.); an Oscar-winning music score by Howard Shore; and a similarly feted Best Original Song (“The Streets of Philadelphia”) by Bruce Springsteen, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia was the first mainstream Hollywood production that directly addressed the issue of AIDS in the workplace.

Released in December 1993 — in the same month and year as The Pelican Brief — TriStar Pictures’ Philadelphia also took on the related topic of homosexuality. Unfounded fears of being infected with the HIV/AIDS virus through touching and non-sexual transmission were an indispensable subtext in the script’s depiction of associate attorney Andy Beckett (Hanks), a rising star in one of those typical “white-shoe” Philadelphia law firms. With his worsening condition becoming more and more apparent, the firm’s partners contrive of a scheme to dismiss Andy on the grounds of incompetence.

The bulk of the drama follows Andy’s pursuit of justice in a court of law — not only for himself but for others fighting for their choice of lifestyle and/or sexual orientation. This is where Denzel’s participation as ambulance chaser Joe Miller becomes a lifeline for the terminally ill attorney.

Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks) asks lawyer Joe Miller to defend him

Andy wears the marks of his affliction not so much as a badge of honor but as a constant reminder of the life and death struggle that he, and others like him, face on a daily basis.

Combining many of the elements discussed above — that is, the law and its authority in Much Ado About Nothing and the criminal investigation intrinsic to The Pelican BriefPhiladelphia is a film both utterly absorbing and periodically cloying, itself tinged with what used to be termed the “Disease of the Week” syndrome. That it overcomes the worst tendencies of this genre of movies can be traced directly to its screenplay and to its lead actors.

It’s been pointed out that Andy’s parents are depicted as almost too nice to be true. Too, Andy and his gay lover, Miguel Álvarez (Banderas), are loving, caring individuals openly accepted by family and friends (a hell of a stretch at the time), but their emotional relationship to one another is stillborn, as is their steadfast commitment to stay together come what may. (A scene of the two men in bed was cut from the finished product; it’s been restored for the home edition on Blu-ray and DVD).

Joe Miller (Washington) now represents the interests of ex-lawyer and HIV/AIDS victim Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks)

Despite these deferential nods to outward civility, the movie’s best moments look inward at the surrounding characters, most notably at Andy’s legal representative, Joe Miller. Miller, a straight-arrow African American male, is frightened out of his wits with representing a gay man in court. He can’t even bring himself to properly shake Andy’s hand he’s so biased. His hatred of gays spills out in a potent scene with his wife, where his use of the word “faggot” colors his negative view of his client.

Interestingly, the film’s screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, recalled, in a December 2018 BuzzFeed News interview with reporter Adam B. Vary, how “Some people thought that [Denzel],” during a radio talk-show program, “was going to play the gay character. People called in [to the station] and said the most vile things about him. He was stopped on the streets by fans. People were pretty blunt about how they felt about gay people who were carriers of this fatal disease.”

The misunderstanding was eventually cleared up, but it proved the point that Americans at the time had a long way to go in their grasp and understanding of the problems affecting recipients of the HIV/AIDS virus.

How Denzel’s character begins to overcome his prejudices occurs in several of Philadelphia’s key scenes. Reluctant at first to take on Andy’s case for “personal reasons,” Miller reverses his initial thoughts when he observes Beckett at a library doing research for his case. When one of the librarians asks Andy if he’d be more comfortable in a room by himself — where he’d be away from others who are uncomfortable with his presence (including the librarian) — Miller walks over to where Andy is seated and greets him cordially. Miller’s steady gaze at Andy (and at the librarian) forces the librarian to depart, as does another researcher.

We can infer from this confrontation that Miller, an African American, had undoubtedly experienced the same kind of intolerance as a struggling law student, but for racially motivated reasons. After Miller sits down at the table, Andy hands him an extract from a 1973 law equating the carriers of HIV/AIDS with victims of discrimination, which perfectly underscores the dilemma they face: how to overcome the built-in prejudices inherent in their case by citing the applicable law, along with its precedents.

Other moments in the picture either reinforce or obscure the argument, including one where an African American law student, thinking Miller is also gay, tries to pick him up at a pharmacy. The attempt does not end well as Miller erupts with a volley of verbal invectives against the law student.

Andy (Hanks) listens as his attorney Miller (Washington) cross-examines a witness

Once the case is presented in court, the gist of the drama begins to take hold. Thankfully, the trial scenes are handled in non-sensationalist fashion by director Demme. Outside of the occasional objections, they’re almost matter of fact, a respite from the torpor of real-life court trials or the heavy-handedness allotted to TV courtroom dramas (I’m thinking of the worst of Law & Order).

But the most moving episode of all (for opera buffs such as yours truly) is the well-known example of Andy expounding to Miller on the essence of Maria Callas’ art in a recording of the aria, “La mamma morta,” from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Without going into specifics, both Washington and Hanks’ handling of this sequence is a case study in how to convey emotional intensity with only their eyes and bodies as props. Miller is touched by Andy’s love for the art form, which symbolizes his love of life.

In the film’s final sequence, a terminally ill Andy is greeted by family, friends, and well wishers at home. But his most welcome visitor is Joe Miller, who caringly places Andy’s oxygen mask over his mouth so the ailing attorney can take one last breath before expiring. Upon seeing Andy’s pitiful condition, Miller extends his two hands on either side of Andy’s face. He is no longer afraid to touch Andy or of becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. His only sentiment is sympathy for the man. Where fear once dominated his relationship to his client, empathy and love have taken over. Miller has finally come to terms with his prejudices: He gives back to Andy that which Andy had given him — his humanity.

While Philadelphia proved to be a feather in Hanks’ cap (he won the first of two back-to-back Best Actor Awards for this and the following year’s Forrest Gump), Denzel reconfirmed his own status as a co-equal contributor  — both for the subtlety of his performance and the camaraderie he shared with fellow actor Hanks. Their dual roles as lawyers, one the defendant and the other the defendant’s counsel, secured Tom and Denzel’s positions as two of this country’s hottest screen properties.

End of Part Seven

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I Saw Them Standing There’ — How the Fab Four Pleased, Pleased a Budding Fan Like Me

Paul McCartney (R.) shows his guitar to Ed Sullivan before the Beatles’ live television appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in New York City, Feb. 9, 1964. In the center are, John Lennon (L.) and Ringo Starr, partial view. (Photo: Associated Press)

Storm Clouds a-Comin’

Ah, to be young again and relive those treasured moments from one’s past!

One such moment — indeed, one of the more pleasurable experiences I can recall from my youth growing up in the Soundview section of the Bronx — was the first time I laid eyes on the Beatles, live and in the comfort of our parents’ living room.

That took place, of course, on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show on the CBS Television Network. The performance was broadcast “coast to coast” on February 9, 1964, not three months after President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, another of those life-altering events that, frankly speaking, was not so pleasant. When the nation needed a lift, however, the Beatles’ initial U.S. tour did exactly that.

My family and I also bore witness to the Mop Tops’ mammoth Shea Stadium concert, broadcast live as well on August 15, 1965. If the Beatles could impress my Portuguese-speaking, Brazilian-born parents, then their future in our home was secure. No doubt the gathering storm had turned into a veritable tornado.

By that time, the Fab Four’s music and exuberant personalities had exploded across the globe and onto every continent — even in Brazil, the country of my birth, where the group’s recorded output went on to make an immediate and enduring impact. Not only was their sound a fixture in every record shop, but in the way people dressed, in the way they wore their hair, the way they talked, the way they walked, and especially how their music was played.

How could that be? The Beatles didn’t sing their tunes in Brazilian Portuguese but in the Queen’s English. Back in the group’s Hamburg days, when German-language versions of their “I Want to Hold Your Hand” were all the rage, the boys used to feature the Mexican pop ballad “Besame Mucho” (“Kiss Me A Lot”) as part of their act. Paul even got to record the number in June 1962 during the band’s ill-fated relationship with Decca records. It also turned up in their later January 1969 “Get Back” sessions (released on Beatles Anthology 1 in 1995) and as part of the Let It Be film.

In spite of this backdrop, many Brazilian and/or Argentine artists, including (but not limited to) Roberto Carlos, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, the Beat Boys, Erasmo Carlos, Milton Nascimento and others, took the Lads from Liverpool as their guiding lights.

A notable example of the above was a young performer named Ronnie Von (born Ronaldo Nogueira), a 23-year-old singer-turned-actor who, in 1966, introduced the Beatle’s Dylanesque “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” on Agnaldo Rayol’s TV show, then a year later sang John Lennon’s “Girl” on the live Sunday afternoon program Jovem Guarda (“The Young Guard”). The song was translated into Portuguese and retitled “Meu Bem” (“My Beloved”) for the Brazilian market.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t Von’s wisp of a singing voice that served as the main attraction, but his oh-so-bashful looks that seemed to “mow the crowd down,” so to speak. The dreamboat Ronnie would shyly croon the number with forelock hanging precariously over one side of his face. He barely managed to get the lyrics out (in truth, he edged ever closer to incoherence), which endeared him even more to the female members of the audience.

The artist known as Ronnie Von (aka Ronaldo Nogueira) ca. the mid-1960s

It was obvious from this milestone performance that Ronnie Von had connected with Brazilian youth by virtue of the Beatle’s music. And it seemed equally evident that the British invasion had hit South American shores about as hard as it did the North American variety.

So when and how did their music and reputation affect me personally?

Public School Daze

I was all of 11 or 12 years of age and living in the Bronx when Beatlemania had been on the scene for several seasons. What I heard on the radio, and from what most of the kids at school had told me, was that the group’s tunes had become the Number One pop hits in the land. Soon afterward, one of those hits had smacked me right between the eyes (and in the pit of my stomach) at, of all places, our public school’s auditorium.

Yes, that’s correct, at Public School 77 in the South Central Bronx, located on East 172 Street between Ward and Manor Avenues. My family had already taken up residence at nearby Stratford Avenue, about a two or three block walk from the school.

As near as I can remember, P.S. 77 had what was known as “assembly day,” which normally occurred every Friday morning (at least, that’s when our school held it). On those days, all the school kids had to be dressed in white shirts or blouses, blue pants and skirts, and red ties or kerchiefs. (Note the colors, symbolic of the American flag). That was a requirement — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you forgot to bring your tie, one of the teachers would pull out a clip-on from his or her desk. If you failed to wear a white shirt or blouse (or blue pants and skirt), you were sent home with a note to your parents which stipulated, in no uncertain terms, that you could not return to class until you were properly dressed. Try doing THAT today!

I was in the sixth grade at that point, so this particular assembly day must have taken place sometime between the months of September 1965 and June 1966. I don’t believe it happened in the fall, but it wasn’t in the winter either (I have no recollection of having to wear a coat to school that day). So I’ll take a wild guess and say the assembly in question must have occurred around the spring of 1966.

In prior assemblies, we students were privileged to have seen a number of programs: from puppet shows (I remember a colorful presentation of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale), a chamber orchestra, magicians, and short educational or animated features (of the “Don’t Do This or You’ll Be Sorry” type) showing the hazards of smoking or playing with matches, along with public service announcements about hurricanes and such — something we hardly ever experienced in the Bronx, at least not at that time.

On that specific assembly day, we were treated to a talent show. Kids from some of the lower and upper grades performed their acts on the school’s stage. My memory is a bit fuzzy as to what the majority of students did that day. However, one group REALLY got my attention, and the attention of everyone present.

Three boys roughly my age, from either the fifth or sixth grade (neither of them were in my class, by the way), took it upon themselves to form a singing group. The tallest of the boys, Ronald Naso (we called him Ronnie), stood in the middle and played an acoustic guitar. The other two boys, Joseph Pavone and David Diaz, flanked Ronnie on either side. After a brief pause, Ronnie looked about and started strumming the guitar as all three boys chimed in at once:

     Last night I said these words to my girl

     I know you never even try girl

     Come on (come on), come on (come on)

     Come on (come on), come on (come on)

     Please, please me, whoa yeah, like I please you

It was the Beatles’ “Please, Please Me,” from the group’s first UK album of the same name (the song was released as a single in both the U.S. and the UK in early 1963). Reliving that moment in my mind’s eye, I am unable to recollect, for the life of me, what exactly went through my head. Surprise, I suppose, or maybe shock. Quite feasibly, I might have been stunned beyond belief. A fleeting lapse of consciousness took hold, and of numbness — about as apt a description as any.

But saying I was oblivious to the event, as it was happening in front of me, isn’t quite accurate, either. All of us, including our teachers, had no idea what to expect. I don’t want to belabor the point and state the obvious; that is, to spew forth tiresome clichés about how the three boys had wowed the student audience (which they did — girls screaming, lots of yelling, vigorous cheers and applause).

I couldn’t begin to capture the exuberance if I tried, or the sense of excitement and discovery we collectively experienced concerning what we had heard. It must have been a magical moment, otherwise I would have wiped it from my memory. After it was over, there was chatter galore from the student audience as to who they liked the most. And, best of all, their names — Ronnie, Joseph and David — started circulating among the crowd. Within a day, the youngsters had turned into celebrities.

As I write this, I’m struggling to decipher what made these boys stand out from the other so-called talents. It might have been the simple fact that each of them bore a passing resemblance to the Fab Four. Yes, that must be it! As a matter of fact, dark-eyed Ronnie was a dead ringer for hazel-eyed Paul (tousled hair over his forehead and all); blue-eyed Joseph actually “looked” like bashful George (except for his short haircut); and hook-nosed David could easily have passed for a hook-nosed John (despite David’s dirty-blond locks).

A group portrait of the Beatles, straightening their ties, backstage at the Odeon Cinema in Luton on Sept. 6th, 1963. (L-R) Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon. (Photo: Tom Hanley/Redferns)

Was it my imagination? Had I subconsciously associated their physical aspects with my burgeoning affection for the Beatles and their tunes? I really couldn’t say. Well, then, how did they sound? Did the tone and timbre of their voices add or detract from the image I had inadvertently formed in my head?

Here’s the answer: Ronnie, Joseph and David excelled in three-part harmony, and, to tell you the truth, all three of them sang in tune. They did take the number a beat or two slower than the original, but considering the ad hoc nature of the circumstances they made “Please, Please Me” succeed in their favor. Like the title of that 1965 Beatles’ hit, they had worked it out.

But hold on a minute! Where was “Ringo”? I couldn’t help noticing that the trio needed a fourth member to complete the picture. If their idea was to mimic the Fab Four, the boys had come up short. I began to imagine that I could be the one to fill the drummer’s shoes (I don’t know WHY I thought that, since I couldn’t play the drum to save my life). All I remember was seeing myself joining the boys on stage and singing along with this terrific trio. By doing so, I could (hopefully) transform this motley crew into that fabulous foursome.

Fat chance of that happening! For one, I was much too shy at the time and much too self-conscious about getting up on a stage and warbling my amateurish way into a song — any song! “Please, Please Me,” my butt! For another, there was no way I would have had the chutzpah to do what those brave public-school lads had done. Kudos to them for trying, though. They had more courage than I could ever muster.

Beatlemania or Bust!

It was shortly after this occurrence that I sent away for a Beatles songbook. I must have torn apart that songbook every which way. Along with the lyrics and sheet music to all their hits (up to and including the year 1965, if I’m not mistaken), the songbook was filled to the brim with photos and mementos of the Mop Tops’ concerts — in other words, a Beatlemaniac’s dream! I even started wearing my hair long in a Beatle-like manner. Well, if you can’t join them, be them!

Between 1965 and 1967, my obsession with the Beatles peaked with the television debut of a syndicated cartoon series on ABC: The Beatles half-hour TV program solidified my love for their music, with each of the two individual segments devoted to one of the group’s songs. I owe my knowledge of their song lyrics to this Saturday morning showcase and to my trusty songbook. But my fandom did not end there.

There was one winter when I begged my mother to buy a purple Navy CPO jacket, just like the one the Beatles used to wear in their Sgt. Pepper period. It was a hideous thing, made of heavy wool with rows of brass buttons and shoulder epaulets. It was hot as hell, too. I wore it once to school and even tried dancing in it, sweating profusely with every arm movement (somehow, I survived the ordeal). Along with the CPO jacket came a matching 1960s long-sleeved blue shirt with super-wide collar and bright-yellow polka dots. Trashy and kitsch, it too was a one-shot deal. Both articles of clothing hung in my closet for years before mom convinced me to toss them out (oh, the pain).

So much for Mod fashions from Carnaby Street!

The Beatles Songbook – circa 1964-1965

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’

As these stories tend to go, a short time later Ronnie and Joseph found their way to one of my classes. Coincidentally, we all wound up going to the same junior high school (or middle school, as they’re called in some regions): to be precise, James M. Kieran Junior High School 123.

While at Kieran, I got to know both of them quite well. Ronald Naso lived a few blocks from the school, and we would often get together afterwards to play touch football. We’d chat about the latest James Bond flick and, of course, the Beatles. Instead of practicing how to conjugate the verb “to be” in French class, Ronnie and I would bounce song lyrics off one another, for instance, from John Lennon’s heartfelt “If I Fell in Love With You.”

Joseph Pavone and I went on to attend James Monroe High School (no longer in existence). Joe even went to Fordham University in the Bronx, where I, too, had graduated from. I never did get to know David Diaz, though, since he must have moved out from our old neighborhood some years before.

Needless to say, neither Joseph Pavone nor Ronald Naso (nor I, for that matter) developed into a performing artist of any renown. Years later, I ran into Ronnie at an outdoor basketball court. He had grown bigger, and had also filled out some. I did manage to keep in touch with Joe for a while after graduation from Fordham. Last I heard, he was working for the Metro North rail system. They both must be retired by now, David included.

The Beatles’ Brazilian influence continued, however. In 1969, pop singer Milton Nascimento, along with lyricist and friend Fernando Brant and the brothers Marcio and Lô Borges, wrote an offbeat number dedicated to John and Paul. They called it “Para Lennon e McCartney” (“To Lennon and McCartney”).

The song is in the form of a “challenge” to the British duo, sort of a question and answer session where Milton attempts to “educate” both Lennon and McCartney about what’s going on in the world (a few years before Marvin Gaye’s attempt). That he, Milton, is a native of South America, from the State of Minas Gerais. So why are they not familiar with the problems relating to the West? Why do they feign ignorance of Third World issues, their being from the First World? Their visibility as artists should place them in the unique position of addressing social injustice. Still, they have nothing to fear from him, Milton assures them, for he’s also one of their own.

The high literary quotient and elevated quality of the lyrics make “Para Lennon e McCartney” one of Milton, Brant and Borges’ most memorable song structures.

More recently, in January 2008 (and for several years thereafter) the Rio-based musical theater team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho brought to life a song-filled spectacular in honor of the Fab Four. They called their revue “Beatles in the Sky With Diamonds.” With a cast of 11 singing actors, accompanied by piano, cello and percussion, Charles and Claudio led audiences through a magical mystery tour of the group’s output, to include “Eleanor Rigby,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “Help!”, “Get Back,” “Because,” and various other novelties.

Ronnie Von today, at age 75, still singing and performing

Which brings me back to present-day matters. Whatever became of the so-called “Brazilian Beatle,” Ronnie Von? He’s still alive and kicking! Currently at age 75, Ronnie Von had been a fixture at São Paulo-based TV Gazeta since 2004 as a singer-host and presenter. Unfortunately, Ronnie was fired last July 2019 by the station due to budget cuts and alleged low ratings, but vowed to come back to live television. Supposedly, within hours of the announcement of his firing, Von received a proposal for a new show to debut in 2020.

In the wise words of the Lads from Liverpool:

     Any time at all

     Any time at all

     Any time at all

     All you gotta do is call

     And I’ll be there!

Beatlemania dies slowly.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

‘We Talk About Cinema to Talk About Everything Else’: A Look at the Future of Brazilian Cinema

The Brazilian documentary film ‘Indianara’

(Today’s guest contributor is Quebec-born freelance writer Justine Smith. Justine has been writing professionally since 2014 as a film and cultural critic. She has contributed to a wide variety of publications in Canada, the USA and the UK in both English and French. Some of her regular outlets include The National Post, The Globe and Mail, the Roger Ebert website, Cult MTL and Hyperallergic. In 2015, she was selected to be a member of the Locarno Film Festival’s Critic’s Academy. Since 2018, she has collaborated on the Fantasia Talk Show, affiliated with the Fantasia International Film Festival, as a host and correspondent. In early 2019, she began working on the Fantasia programming team, and has also appeared on CBC radio and television as an expert on movies and culture.)

By Justine Smith

October 21, 2019

Indianara, a Brazilian documentary about [a] transgender activist, ends in tears. After tireless work trying to initiate social change and help improve the conditions of LGBTQ+ citizens of Brazil, the country elected a far-right government led by populist candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Indianara is one of the four Brazilian movies that recently played at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma [FNC] in Montreal.

It is also representative of the kind of film that might be under threat under the new government of Brazil. As the country shifts to the right politically, the film industry finds itself in a vulnerable situation. Films that subvert the regime’s ideology are already running into roadblocks. While the film industry has been thriving internationally, garnering awards and acclaim, its future is uncertain.

Bolsonaro was elected in October 2018, but his nationalist rhetoric has been on the rise for years now. With little information available in English language sources, the question of Brazil’s cinematic future is a mystery outside of the Portuguese-speaking world. Yet, the ramifications of Bolsonaro’s actions are of international importance.

A glance at the most critically acclaimed films, playing at the Nouveau Cinéma, reveals a Brazil in upheaval:

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, Brazil’s entry for the Best International Feature Film, is based on a novel that begins in 1950. It’s the lush story of two sisters, separated by their father’s conservative values, who yearn to reconnect but are unable to. With mythic invocations of Euridice and Orpheus, the film is a melancholic examination of the Fourth Brazilian Republic, leading up to the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état. The political situation remains in the background, unveiled through radio programs and insinuated changes, but the values of the society having profound and often disastrous effects on the two sister’s ability to live their lives. Rather than be rich in nostalgia, the film laments the characters’ failed promise as repressive social conditions hamper them.

Scene from ‘The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao’

Divino Amor, set in the not-so-distant future, represents Brazil in a world where Carnival has been replaced by The Festival of Supreme Love. In this dystopian future, the Brazilian government puts on a front of being a secular bureaucratic system, but it just barely conceals its real values and influences, as the country has transformed into a barely-veiled theocracy. It’s hard not to think of Bolsonaro’s political slogan (his version of “Make America Great Again”), “Brazil above everything, God above all.”

Centered on a profoundly religious civil servant, Joana, the film is a desperate and sometimes wickedly funny portrait of divine providence. As the film hits on its surprising climax, [it] takes a shift as Joana becomes increasingly aware that the religiosity of her community is not rooted in strong belief, as much as it has become a way to control and surveil people. While potentially touched by a divine miracle, Joana is ostracized and humiliated, abandoned by the religion she loved so dearly.

The movie ‘Divino Amor’

The critically acclaimed Bacurau is a violent and subversive film about a small village in Northern Brazil that suddenly finds itself wiped off the map. Cut off from the rest of the world; outsiders invade the village; an unpopular campaigning governor, southern tourists and the animal [trophy hunters] after the Greatest Game of all. Of the moment, the film derives tensions between the rural and isolated communities and the outside forces that view them as disposable.

With echoes of Brazil’s violent past, within the film, it becomes clear that the more powerful hierarchical forces have underestimated the revolutionary spirit of their targets. Bacurau is about resistance as much as it is a portrayal of the cyclical intergenerational trauma of Brazil’s violent history. Bacurau feels like a movie on the precipice of gearing up for a new fight, as vulnerable communities find themselves (once again) forced to take up arms to defend their lives and their land.

The critically acclaimed feature ‘Bacurau’

Among the best films of the year, they represent a fraction of the groundbreaking films coming out of the country. Zoé Protat, director of programming at the FNC, said that the programming team was drawn to the strength of the film’s artistry but also their political integrity. They are films that represent [and] that display a love-hate relationship with their country.

These three films are financed by Ancine, the Brazilian agency that funds and promotes the Brazilian film industry. In the lead up to more significant changes, the agency has been publicly attacked by the government. The director and president of the organization, Christian de Castro, was removed by court order in August, part of a more significant trend of changes happening since March. Brazil’s Minister of Citizenship Osmar Terra said that the new Ancine director would have a conservative profile, “just like the current government.” As bureaucrats investigate the inner-workings of the agency, the money is frozen, not just for production but travel as well.

At the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, they say they did try to invite guests from Brazil but struggled in their dealings with Ancine. Protat suggested this isn’t a new problem, but an ongoing frustration. Even under former leadership, the inner-workings of Ancine were opaque and complex, she says. But the situation only seems to be getting worse.

In Lisbon, one of the biggest and political documentary festivals starts this week. Since 2002, DocLisboa has been a boundary-pushing festival. Three weeks ago, it received news that the guests they invited from Brazil will no longer be able to attend because of Ancine. Earlier in the year, festivals like Indie Lisboa and Queer Lisboa made a point of featuring and highlighting Brazilian cinema in solidarity, but the situation has escalated. The team from DocLisboa decided, three weeks before the opening of their Festival, to restructure their programming.

“We will never be a neutral film festival,” explained one of the Festival’s programmers, Miguel Ribeiro, over Skype. They could not bring over the filmmakers on such short notice, but the Festival responded on September 23rd, by releasing an official statement about the situation:

“It’s clear that there is an agenda for the elimination of diversity and freedom, aiming at a form of art that is, at its core, popular and democratic: cinema. In Brazil, a dictatorship is being installed — several principals of the rule of law are being explicitly violated. Given this, it’s impossible to remain neutral.”

In program changes, they included a showcase of the films of Eduardo Coutinho, a political documentary filmmaker well-known in Brazil. They will present Chico: Artista Brasileiro, directed by Miguel Faria Jr., a film suppressed in Uruguay, and Portraits of Identification, by Anita Leandro, a portrait of the political prisoners taken during Brazil’s military dictatorship with the testimony of survivors. There are also public debates on topics like “Can one be neutral?” addressing media neutrality. Several other Brazilian films are also featured in the programming, treating a variety of important social questions and movements.

Ribeiro had been following the developing story of Brazil’s cinematic future since the election of Bolsonaro last fall. He helped outline the variety of changes and conditions in Brazil, most of which rarely make it to the English language media. Under the shroud of mere bureaucratic changes and language, it becomes clear that artists are under threat of restriction and silence, while government-sanctioned art will increasingly be in service of propaganda for the current leadership.

Understanding the situation in Brazil is only further complicated by its complex and contradictory media empire. Ribeiro suggests a documentary film by Pablo López Guelli, Our Flag Will Never Be Red [A Nossa Bandeira Jamais Será Vermelha], that is playing at the festival. A harsh indictment of a media controlled by oligarchs, the film makes a passionate case against the dominant fraudulent bent of the mainstream Brazilian media cycle.

‘A Nossa Bandeira Jamais Sera Vemelha’ (‘Our Flag Will Never Be Red’)

Bolsonaro has come out and said that he wants to impose “cultural filters” on film production; in other words, censorship. The choice is absolute; follow newly imposed filters or the government “will privatize or extinguish [Ancine],” he said. Specific films like the 2011 movie about a sex worker, Bruna Surfistinha, were singled out as the types of films that would no longer receive government support. Many of the other targets, in line with Bolsonaro’s political platform, include drug-use, feminism, LGBTQ+ communities and indigenous people.

In late July, The Brazilian Cinematheque, located in São Paulo, was placed under military and political control. Brazil’s audiovisual history is in the hands of bureaucrats who plan to use the archives as a platform to promote Brazilian values. One of the first projects set by the new leadership is a showcase of Brazil’s military achievements. The new direction, however, denies that the institution has taken a more conservative perspective.

One of the films playing at DocLisboa, Chico: Artista Brasileiro, was meant to open a festival in Uruguay. The film, which depicts the life of singer Chico Buarque, who was a revolutionary voice against the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled from 1964-1985. The film, initially released in 2015, was pulled from the Festival after pressure from the Brazilian Embassy in Uruguay.

‘Chico: Artista Brasileiro,’ a film about singer, composer, songwriter and author Chico Buarque de Hollanda

Buarque, who is still alive, was also recently awarded the Camões Prize for Literature, the highest award for the written arts in the Portuguese world. Bolsonaro has expressed his displeasure with the choice and refuses to sign the award. While Buarque has received his prize money from Brazil, the symbolic gesture of Bolsonaro’s opposition still resonates. “Bolsonaro refusing to sign is like a second Camões Prize for me,” Buarque responded in O Globo.

Other filmmakers have come forward saying they’ve been facing problems with the new Ancine leadership. Last month, the producers of the film Marighella, directed by Wagner Moura and starring Seu Jorge, announced that the film’s premiere, scheduled for November 20th, had to be cancelled as they were unable to fulfill new demands by Ancine.

The film, which depicts the life of Carlos Marighella, a politician and guerrilla fighter who resisted against the Brazilian military dictatorship in the 1960s, also faced violence during its production. Some believe that the film is being censored by “obstructionism.”

Seu Jorge in the biographical film, ‘Marighella’

This is just the tip of the iceberg and as these changes are rarely direct, it’s difficult to assume intent. But, taking those incidents in the context of other actions against the arts, it becomes [worrisome]. Step by step, the industry is being dismantled and rebuilt in service of the propagandistic forces of the government. The message, though often weighed down in bureaucratic language, is clear: Ancine needs to bend to the will of the government or be eliminated.

For their September issue, the Cahiers du Cinéma featured Bacurau as their cover story with the headline, “Bolsonaro’s Brazil,” and three articles devoted to the cinema in Brazil. In an interview from Cannes earlier this year, one of Bacurau‘s co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho spoke on the conditions of working in Brazil under Bolsonaro and the importance of using art as a tool of resistance. He said:

“Today, under the extreme right-wing politics of Bolsonaro, the situation has become so absurd that we need to reaffirm things like ‘Education is important,’ and ‘all people need to be treated equally.’ Conversations have become so extreme, absurd and explicit. Cinema, music, literature need to listen to what’s happening, or else it gives the impression that it’s deaf.”

Later in the same issue, in the article “Le cinéma Brésilien à l’ère de Bolsonaro” (“Brazilian Cinema in the Age of Bolsonaro”), the author Ariel Schweitzer discusses with a Brazilian critic the state of cinema. “Is it possible,” writes Schweitzer, “that when a country is suffering, it’s cinema can thrive?” To which Brazilian critic for Folha de S. Paulo, the country’s largest daily newspaper, Inácio Araújo answers, “That’s perhaps true in some cases, but when a country goes bad, its cinema risks [going] very badly as well.”

The article in Cahiers suggests more censorship and budgetary cuts are to come. It’s not just films and filmmakers under threats, but festivals as well: this will only further close off the industry from outside involvement and discussion. While there are privatized industries that can continue to fund films within Brazil, without government support productions will face increased pressures from the point of financing to distribution.

While right now the Brazilian cinema seems to be thriving, that might not be the case for much longer. The situation is changing from one day to the next, and the prognosis looks worse and worse.

Ribeiro notes that the situation in cinema in Brazil is part of a small part of a worrying trend in the country, one that targets vulnerable members of society. “We talk about cinema to talk about everything else,” he says. By limiting the movement of filmmakers, it prevents their ability to criticize conditions and changes within Brazilian society publicly. Restricting films, in most cases, works to restrict speech as well.

When we talk about cinema, we are talking about everything. We are talking about a government that restricts the arts, movement and freedom of expression. As we see, the Brazilian government violently acting against its people, cinema, as a tool for empathy and resistance, is being restricted.

As citizens of the world, we have a responsibility. Bringing awareness, but also understanding that what is happening in Brazil is happening elsewhere. Far-right parties are gaining power across the globe, and film industries dependent on government funding and support are being threatened by campaigns and movements that seek to silence them. These policies that seek to repress the arts are interconnected [within] systems that seek to restrict dissonant voices that are critical of the government’s dangerous and dehumanizing policies.

What is happening in Brazil is not a unique case; in different forms, it can happen anywhere.

(All translations from the French were done by Justine Smith. Special assistance in translating the Portuguese language by Francisco Peres.)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes