Arábia (Araby, 2017)

One last film for my week of South American cinema, is another Brazilian film that blends a fictional narrative form with documentary elements to create a beguiling blend of the two, reminiscent somewhat of another 2017 Brazilian film, Baronesa, which I reviewed earlier this week (and whose director was also involved with this one).


There have been a number of hybrid fiction-documentary works in recent years, not least from Brazil and South America, and here too there is this sensibility at work. While the film is clearly fictional in form, it takes stories and situations from real life, showing sequences of real work by people with very little agency. The framing narrative is the journals of an ailing worker called Cristiano, and the film quickly moves from its original story to follow Cristiano’s words in a sequence of scenes that have a mysterious building power to them. The film washes over me such that I can’t, even at fairly short remove, remember a lot of the details, but I’m left with the sense of a lyrical vision — the opening images are of a young man on a bicycle to the 60s singer-songwriter sounds of Jackson C. Frank. As the film develops, it laces in these ideas of itinerant work and the dangers to one’s livelihood, and then of storytelling itself, who tells the stories and who has the power (both in fiction as in life), and like with a lot of hybrid films, the form becomes a way to give a voice to society’s traditionally voiceless.

Araby film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Affonso Uchoa and João Dumans; Cinematographer Leonardo Feliciano; Starring Aristides de Sousa; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 14 September 2019.

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A Deusa Negra (Black Goddess, 1978)

One of the most famous Brazilian films in the mid-20th century was a French-Brazilian co-production, Black Orpheus (1959), marrying a Brazilian setting with an imported director and almost 20 years later, it has some qualities in common with the rather more rare hybrid of Nigerian and Brazilian in Black Goddess. There’s a feeling for the displaced, for folk rituals and syncretic religious figures that both share, perhaps the result of an outsider’s gaze.


This is a curious film. It’s a Brazilian-Nigerian co-production about Babatunde (Zózomi Bulbul), a man seeking an insight into his past — his ancestors were shipped off into slavery in Brazil — by returning there with the symbol of a goddess, in search of that goddess’s priests and answers as to what happened to his ancestor. The opening scenes of 19th century troops wending their way across a mountain, then falling into battle, suggests Werner Herzog — but if one must make comparisons to his work, then it’s worth noting that while his films are from the point-of-view of the coloniser, Ola Balogun makes his from the side of the colonised (a relatively rare point of view, especially in this period).

As Babatunde makes his way around Brazil, he plunges into an almost documentary-like sequence in a favela, then onto a jungle temple (candomblé), taking a woman from back home as his guide, who is trailed by her jealous suitor. Moments of (possibly unintentional) humour come, such as when there is a fight that leads to the suitor’s death and the response is basically an ‘oh well’ shrug. Throughout, the history of transatlantic slavery between Africa and Brazil is emphasised, as well as the continuing hold of syncretic African religions even amongst modern Brazilians. The end of the film sees a sort of ritual in transfigured time that brings past and present into contact, seemingly allowing our protagonist to break the fourth wall and fix his gaze on us.

At my screening, the film was introduced by the director Ola Balogun, whose rather wild and effusive style didn’t address the film itself, but he did tell some Yoruba creation myths, and then invite everyone to dinner on the Friday night, as well as telling us of his interest in clothes design (he gave out his e-mail for those who wanted to get in touch). A singular presence, and one responsible for an oddly fascinating film.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ola Balogun; Cinematographer Edison Batista; Starring Zózimo Bulbul, Léa Garcia; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Tuesday 26 June 2018.

Two 2017 Brazilian Films Between Documentary and Fiction: Pendular and Baronesa

One of the most noticeable trends in cinema, of the last decade in particular, has been films which intentionally blur the lines between documentary and fiction, interrogating the ways in which we approach filmed media and the values we place on what we see onscreen. Women filmmakers like Alma Har’el in LoveTrue (2016), and women from South and Central America such as in some recent Mexican films, seem to have taken up this hybrid filmmaking with particular success, not least in these Brazilian examples.


Pendular (2017) [Brazil/Argentina/France]

I rather liked this film about a relationship between two artists, as largely expressed through space and movement. Certainly they never quite seem very comfortable with one another, but he has an enormous warehouse loft and at the outset they demarcate each others’ space. This soon becomes a line of contention and tension, as she does her dance work while he engineers enormous sculptural pieces which rely on suspension and balance — another metaphor for their relationship, of course. Oh and there are some rather intimate sex scenes between them, which have a natural feel, and extend the sense of two people who are alternately pulled together and keep each other apart.

Pendular film posterCREDITS
Director Júlia Murat; Writers Murat and Matias Martini; Cinematographer Soledad Rodríguez; Starring Raquel Karro, Rodrigo Bolzan; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 11 March 2019.


Baronesa (2017)

This is a curious film, which deals with people from an impoverished background living in a favela in Belo Horizonte (familiar territory perhaps for a number of filmmakers), but while it comes across very much in the style of a documentary, it does appear to be a fiction film. If so, the actors and director manage to strike an incredibly accurate, naturalistic tone — women hanging out, discussing their partners, touching on sex, alternately laughing and, at one point, running from gunshots. It all feels very unforced, and scarcely exceeds one’s attention at a concise 70 minutes. I notice some reviews namechecking Pedro Costa, which seems odd (perhaps they are reviewing the poster image), given that this seems to bear little relationship to his work. It feels very much like its own thing, another of many recent entries that blur the lines between drama and documentation.

Baronesa film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Juliana Antunes; Cinematographer Fernanda de Sena; Starring Andreia Pereira de Sousa; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 2 October 2018.

As Boas Maneiras (Good Manners, 2018)

After yesterday’s review of The Mafu Cage (1978), this more recent film also deals with animals as well as confronting class and race in modern society, although it delves further into creepier, gorier fairy tale elements. (As this is a Brazilian film, I should mention that I’ve got a themed week around South American cinema coming up on my blog in a few weeks’ time.)


As a film pitched somewhere between a horror and a fairytale, the London Film Festival programme went out of its way not to give away any details, and while I don’t quite think their belief that it’s best watched without knowing anything really holds up — not least because I think there are plenty of pleasures to it no matter how much you know — I shall nevertheless try to tread carefully. Let’s just say it takes tropes from well-worn animal-based horror legends and places them in a Brazilian setting (the city of São Paulo), extending the metaphor to be one about both class and race in one of the most starkly divided of cities between those with wealth and those without (a split which is, unsurprisingly, largely between white and black citizens). Clara (Isabél Zuaa) is a maid and nanny to Ana (Marjorie Estiano), who is heavily pregnant with what appears to be a difficult pregnancy. The filmmakers then develop the story with fairy tales in mind, including a picture book-style animated origins sequence, and a heavy reliance on matte painted backdrops, giving the film a sort of distance from its subject matter that aestheticises it just enough that the gore is less shocking, but no less potent in the way it develops its themes. I admired it more than I loved it, but it’s a fine film with some great central performances.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra; Cinematographer Rui Poças; Starring Isabél Zuaa, Marjorie Estiano; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Embankment Garden Cinema, London, Friday 12 October 2018.

Aquarius (2016)

For a film that’s been controversial in its native country (though I gather it’s more to do with politics external to the film itself), and for one with an 18 certificate, this isn’t quite what I expected. Primarily it’s that the tone is so unhurried, and lacking in melodrama. It’s a quiet film that takes its time to observe the elderly Clara as she lives her life by the beach in an upscale area of Recife. Recounting the plot (her desire to stay where she is leads to conflict with the building’s owners, who want to redevelop the site) suggests a kind of film that this really isn’t. Through this pleasant miasmatic haze of beachfront living there are periodic little breaks — tiny brief shots that jolt the audience: a body being disinterred, a baby which has messed itself being cleaned, some graphic sex — but these are just hints at the direction perhaps a flashier more insecure director might have gone. This is a character study, and a very fine one.

Aquarius film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kleber Mendonça Filho; Cinematographers Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu; Starring Sônia Braga; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Wednesday 29 March 2017.

Mãe só há uma (Don’t Call Me Son, 2016)

Perhaps going in with low expectations from some decidedly lukewarm reviews helped, but I ended up really rather liking this story of confused identity. It’s an emotive subject matter (mix-ups at birth have been the subject of several good films) but the film doesn’t wring it out for melodrama. That said, I found it affecting (in a low-key way) and the lead character Pierre’s​ clash with his new family to be quite moving. The gender fluid identity issues — specifically the believability of his emotional journey (and I use the masculine pronoun because that’s the one used in the film by the character, played by Naomi Nero) — aren’t an area I can really comment on, but although they do seem to be a reflection of deeper familial divisions being explored, it doesn’t feel like they are being deployed exploitatively, though of course I’d be keen to read some trans opinions. What I’m left with is the lead actor’s defiance of normative expectations about his behaviour, and the seething undertow of anger from his birth father, though the film ends with a touching moment of emotional openness.

Don't Call Me Son film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Anna Muylaert; Cinematographer Barbara Alvarez; Starring Naomi Nero; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 24 March 2017.

Criterion Sunday 48: Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus, 1959)

Black Orpheus occupies an odd little space in the corner of film culture. Primarily a French film, albeit one filmed and set in Rio de Janeiro, it came out in the first flush of excitement around the French nouvelle vague, and went on to win the Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival (admittedly the Cannes organisers weren’t particularly enamoured about the new young voices threatening to up-end their nation’s cinematic traditions). It’s essentially a one-hit wonder (neither its director nor its stars ever went on to create any other films which are particularly remembered), and gained great success as a colourful piece of exotica enlivening the dour European cinema landscape of the era, and this is probably how it should be contextualised now. It’s certainly not a particularly progressive film, and though it focuses on black characters — itself something worth celebrating — they are portrayed with a somewhat colonialising attitude as simple, brightly-attired and constantly dancing with a joie de vivre in the face of (aestheticised) poverty. That said, it’s also undeniably an enjoyable film for exactly these reasons, reworking the Greek myths with its story of Orfeu (Breno Mello) who is engaged to be married but falls in love with the exotic Eurídice (Marpessa Dawn, herself an American by way of France). Things all get pointedly mythic towards the end, but in the meantime there’s plenty of scenes of their pretty little hilltop favelas, not to mention sequences set at Rio’s carnival. If it’s an odd little dead end of cinema history, it’s at least a rhythmic one.

Criterion Extras: There are short French interviews from the period with director Marcel Camus and, a few years later, star Marpessa Dawn, rare chances to hear them in their own words. There are also featurettes narrated by experts about the history of bossanova music, and the way the film is situated within Brazilian society (it’s not considered particularly reflective, unsurprisingly enough).

More substantial is the feature-length documentary made for French television, À la recherche d’Orfeu Negro (Looking for Black Orpheus, 2005, dir. René Letzgus/Bernard Tournois). It starts out seeming as if it’s going to be a fairly straightforward talking heads number, featuring interviews with surviving cast and crew members, including star Breno Mello. However it soon widens out into more of a look at the film in the context of Brazilian music and musical celebration, settling into a laidback series of song recitations recalling the film and atmospheric shots of Rio preparing for the carnival. Some of the film’s attitudes are critiqued, but mostly there’s a warmth on display, as a number of the original settings are revisited. Without being overly didactic, it’s an interesting companion piece to the movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Camus; Writers Camus, Vinicius de Moraes and Jacques Viot; Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin; Starring Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 August 2015.

Que horas ela volta? (The Second Mother, 2015)

I don’t have much of a handle on Brazilian cinema, but the examples I’ve seen seem to promise a laidback outdoor-living lifestyle riven with poverty but hardly hopelessness. Maybe that’s the kind of thing that makes it to screens outside the country, but The Second Mother, while not contradicting this — it’s about a domestic servant — at least gives a bit more ground-level social context. It reminds me of the Colombian film Gente de bien, released earlier this year, in the way it subtly but brutally dissects class tensions. In that film the son of poor parents goes to live with a rich family over the summer and is gradually shunned (a swimming pool is again a key locus of tension), but here the effects of class are both more subtle and more damaging. Val (Regina Casé, quite a big star in her native country) is a live-in servant at the home of a rich São Paulo couple, introduced caring for their young son before we flash forward a decade to when he’s applying for university. In many ways, as the English title suggests, she’s more of a mother to him than his real one, Barbara (seen only as a harried professional woman, conducting TV interviews or hosting parties), and there’s a genuine tender fondness between them. But, it turns out, Val has a daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila), whom she’s not seen in a decade, who is coming to the big city to apply to become an architect. It’s when Jéssica arrives that things start to break apart, because she doesn’t have her mother’s internalised acceptance of their place in the pecking order, and after seeing the cramped basement conditions her mother is housed in, is happy to accept a spacious guest room from the family’s father Dr Carlos, and swim in their pool — lines which Val would never cross and which she gets increasingly agitated over, even as Barbara and Carlos remain polite (though in the mother’s case through ever more obviously gritted teeth).

All the drama really is in the little gestures, social faux pas, which become a series of small details that build — both for the viewer and, it turns out, for Val — into a damning indictment of privilege. Aside from the swimming pool, there’s also, for example, a set of coffee cups with coffee pot which Val gets for Barbara on her birthday, a present you get the sense Val can ill afford but feels compelled to give on such an important occasion (but also because she wants to ask if her daughter can come to stay for a short while, a question which is awkwardly brushed off initially). Immediately we sense that this gift is tacky in Barbara’s eyes and, though gracious, she quickly hides it away, even hustling Val back into the kitchen when she tries to use it at a dinner party, preferring something a bit more Scandinavian. The film is filled with this kind of observation, making it, in its small way, something of a domestic horror story, albeit one in which the most vicious thing that happens is that boundaries are enforced between the servants’ quarters and where Barbara spends her time. Or perhaps more vicious still is the way that a mother can grow up not even knowing her own daughter because of the work she does. The film’s original title translates as “What time will she come home?”, a plaintive plea to Val from the young son at the start about his mother, but which ends up applying just as much to Val’s relationship to Jéssica. It all makes you wonder about the feel-good angle of the film’s poster, though that does come after a fashion. And most welcome it is too.

The Second Mother film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Anna Muylaert; Cinematographer Bárbara Alvarez; Starring Regina Casé, Camila Márdila; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 16 September 2015.