Issue 3/2005 - Hoffnung Südamerika?

Heroes without Character

The rediscovery of Brazilian cinema

Bert Rebhandl

Macunaíma, one of the best-known figures in Brazilian culture, is a »hero without character«. That is the subtitle of Mário de Andrade’s novel »Macunaíma«, written in 1926. What is meant is not an ironic lack of qualities, as with Robert Musil, but, on the contrary, a subjectivity with multiple defining factors. Macunaíma is on the one hand a native and a natural being, and on the other a character in a modern novel. Mario de Andrade has borrowed parts of his fictional mythology from a German ethnologist: »Vom Roroima zum Orinoco« (From Roroima to Orinoco), a six-volume travel account by Theodor Koch-Grünberg, contains many names and fables that have been worked into the novel. Above all, the myths and legends of the Taulipeng and Arekuna Indians form a thread through the many transformations and jumps in time and place that occur in »Macunaíma«. De Andrade gives a grotesque slant to the European’s view of the original inhabitants of Brazil with reference to the »primitivisms« of European modernism. When Macunaíma was made into a film by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade in 1969, it became a canonical work of Brazilian cinema as well. In 1942, Sergio Milliet was already writing about the novel: »Macunaíma« is not only a great and remarkable work: it is a source of Brazil’s language and legends, psychology and biology, folklore and literary history for the literati of tomorrow. Macunaíma is virtually a dictionary, an encyclopaedia of Brazil.« This statement suggests what kind of representational ambition cultural products should live up to. They are part of a »state of the nation« discourse (Xavier Ismael) that also includes negotiation about the way Brazil positions itself in relation to a Western modernism understood in teleological terms.
For example, in 1929 the »Querschnittfilm« (cross-section film) »São Paolo, a symphonia da metrópole«, in direct analogy to Berlin or Moscow, was produced in São Paolo – it was made by two Hungarians who took their inspiration from contemporary German cinema. The many different attempts at appropriation reached their culmination in 1974 in a film that caused the European ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss to fall into a sceptical turmoil of representation critique: »Triste trópico« by Arthur Omar is a collage about the life of Arthur Alves Nogueira (1882-1946), who studied medicine in Paris, came into contact with the Surrealists and, upon his return to Brazil, turned to Messianism. »Triste trópico«, with its complex soundtrack featuring a wide variety of music and a centrifugal structure based around allegedly authentic footage of Nogueira, is the most radical critique of teleological thinking ever achieved by Cinema Novo. Arthur Nogueira’s journey inland to the impoverished people in the dry regions, his increasing predilection for the irrational and, finally, his adoption of a historically-based theology of abrupt transformation bears a resemblance to the storyline of Joseph Conrad’s »Heart of Darkness«. But this story is no longer about a colonial experience; it already concerns a post-colonial crisis: Nogueira has returned home from Paris, but finds the country to be no longer his own. »Macunaíma« still had a basically linear structure. This picaresque novel was adorned with ethnographic details, but its course remained undisturbed. Arthur Omar was the first to go beyond the concept of Cinema Novo, which aimed, through representation, to make a class the subject of political history. For him, cinema is an extension of the techniques of the doctor Nogueira, who only gradually comes to lose his faith in progress. No strategy associated with Cinema Novo – neither the populism to which Nelson Pereira dos Santos resorted , nor the hermetic world theatre with which Glauber Rocha ended – was in a position to mend this rift between an »aesthetic of hunger« and a technique of progress.
After the seventies, Brazilian cinema saw itself forced, in its most interesting moments, to undertake its own iconic readings. In 1964, the documentary filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho had worked on a film about agricultural workers in the north-east. During the filming, one protagonist was killed by the army. The project »Cabra marcado para morrer« (A Man Destined to Die) was called off. It was not resumed until twenty years later, during a period of liberalisation. The members of the dead political activist’s family had gone into hiding in 1964. Coutinho now set off to look for witnesses. He showed them the film made all those years ago, and in the end even found the man’s widow. »Cabra marcado para morrer (vinte anos depois)« itself displays the ruptures in the historical course of progress. The picture of presence and solidarity from the sixties has turned into a picture of absence and grief. Only as such is it suitable for representing the disappointments and interruptions that go towards forming the »state of the nation«.
The film »Baile perfumado» (The Perfumed Ball) by Paulo Caldas and Lírio Ferreira, made in 1997, uses a similar structure to target the centre of Cinema Novo’s revolutionary aspirations. It too contains historical footage, this time some Benjamin Abrahão made of Lampiao, a famous bandit of the thirties. These pictures have survived; in 1964 they were already made into one short film with the title »Memória do cangaço«. In Glauber Rocha’s »O dragão da maldade contra o Santo Gueirrero« (Antônio des Mortes, 1969), Lampiao is a legendary figure depicted in a traditional folk song that is meant to give legitimation to younger »bandits«. In 1997, the makers of »Baile perfumado« have a different focus: they no longer aim to bring up to date Lampiao’s political legacy (in other words, to formulate a new revolutionary practice). Instead, they reconstruct the story of a media representative who goes into the wilderness to film the leader of a resistance movement. This recalling (of the »Memória do cangaço«) becomes the goal of a melancholy research effort, which in the end arrives at the pictures of the real, historical Lampiao, but, owing to the astounding similarity of the actor who plays him in 1997, now allows them to be seen in an other than totemic light. By choosing an actor for an authentic hero and making him look almost exactly like Lampiao, Paulo Caldas and Lírio Ferreira reintroduce the factor of representation into the discourse, a factor that had been lost when looking at the authentic Cangaçeiro. Lampiao is himself a »hero without character«, a construction of political iconography and folk culture. The modernity of Brazilian cinema consists in its having developed a constant stream of new experimental forms for these, without recourse to mythologies of origin.

The film exhibition »Brazil. Cinema Novo and Tropical Modernism, 1929-2003.« ran from 25 May to 19 June 2005 at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna.


Translated by Timothy Jones