Friday, May 21, 2010
Blog written by Rodrigo Brandao, director of publicity, Kino Lorber Films
By the end of 2009, the internet was flooded with Top 10 lists. The best of the year, the best of the decade, and of course, the best of the best. The assumption was that we needed someone to cut through the clutter, and that these lists are (or would be) useful tools as historical and curatorial documents – maybe an express lane to our past.
Of course, the assumptions within these selective practices need to be examined, and although not all lists are born equal, most of them (at least in the film world) seemed to bring a whiff of the canonical, as if motivated by the simple desire (and excitement) of creating a hierarchical division.
It goes without saying that looking back (i.e. making history) should be an act of re-interpretation, or at least, a moment to re-examine the very process in which selection takes place – and not an opportunity for exclusion.
Mostly made by young and still independent filmmakers in Brazil, the films on my list of the best the decade, reflect the importance of “looking back and re-interpreting Brazilian culture” in the way Brazil is reinventing itself at the beginning of the 21st century.
And while some of these films have been successful outside Brazil, others are still largely unknown outside Latin America. Well, be as it may.
So, here it goes:
Madame Sata (2002 / Dir. Karim Ainouz)
Madame Sata (2002) has many similarities with another Brazilian film that captivated thousands of film lovers around the world: City of God (2002).
Both films depict real-life stories from Rio de Janeiro's past. City of God focuses on the development of Rio de Janeiro's slums during the 1960s and 70s, while Madame Sata is the story of Francisco dos Santos, a famous criminal in the Rio de Janeiro of the 1940s.
Also, both of these films are also energetic portrayals of a stunning city surrounded by violence, musical vitality and a unique kind of multiculturalism and racial politics.
Yet, at its core, Madame Sata is the anti-City of God.
Ainouz's film is, first and foremost, a character story about a bipolar transvestite and a capoeira master who was widely famous in Rio de Janeiro for being a street criminal – and nothing else.
The film re-captures the figure of Francisco dos Santos from the hands of canonical, government-produced and neoliberal history, and makes him into much more than an enemy of the state recorded on criminal records.
With Madame Sata, dos Santos is a father, a creator of street law and ethics, and also, a one-man sexual revolution. This is the Brazilian film to beat from the last decade.
Praca Saens Pena (2008 / Dir. Vinícius Reis )
As a family drama about marital infidelity, Praca Saens Pena has the most unlikely male lead: a history professor.
Paulo, a high school teacher working at a Catholic institution, barely makes enough to get by – and yet, he lives a stable life with his wife Teresa and their teenage daughter Bel.
But when Paulo decides to take on a book assignment to write about the history of his neighborhood, Tijuca, his deep immersion into urban collective history frustrates his family and then, pushes his wife into an affair with a younger lover.
Besides being an intimate and incredibly well-crafted (and acted) melodrama, Praca Saens Pena also works as an examination on the very nature of looking back. Is historical investigation always tied to something in the present? Do we sometimes look at the past simply as a way to validate our present moment?
What is specially interesting about Praca Saens Pena is that the main characters' need to recover the history of his neighborhood is directly tied to the way the place is changing in the present.
And in that sense, looking back, at least for Paulo, becomes a way to effect change in the present. And yet, that is exactly how he almost loses the very thing that kept him grounded: his family life.
Yellow Mango (2002 / Dir. Claudio Assis)
On the contrary of the two title above, Yellow Mango isn't based on a historical fact pr research. Instead, Yellow Mango tells four short stories about intersecting characters who live in a poor neighborhood in the city of Recife, in the Northeast of Brazil.
The scenario is a bit depressing, and so are the character's lives: Dunga, an effeminate gay man working at a low-budget hotel, has a crush on an unscrupulous butcher, named Wellington, who is himself married to an evangelical woman named Kika. Wellington has a mistress Dayse, and, as you already suspect, not a single character is this movie is on a path to dignified happiness or intellectual fulfillment.
Yet, what's so interesting about this film is the way in which it combines religious fanaticism with a picture of a society completely ruled by endemic poverty – both economic and social-cultural. What's left is desire, capital, and a kind of faith that looks more like a black hole than divine light. Still, Yellow Mango never feels unbelievably pessimistic.