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.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW 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
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.
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 Marcel 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
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.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Anna Muylaert | Cinematographer Bárbara Alvarez | Starring Regina Casé, Camila Márdila | Length 112 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 16 September 2015