Last month’s election campaign in Rio was mounted with flair. Samba in the name of assorted candidates blared from speakers attached to motorbikes and cars. Thanks largely to the poor black majority and other working- and middle-class Cariocas, former lathe operator Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) of the leftist Workers’ Party garnered 40 percent of the Rio vote in the presidential primary. Simultaneously, the Red Command drug gang threatened a terrorist act after the arrest of one of its leaders. Shops closed, and locals stayed off the streets. (Retribution in the form of machine-gun fire at the governor’s palace came two weeks later.)
One-fifth of Rio’s 7 million residents live in favelas, where narcotics trafficking is the economic linchpin. Not surprisingly, crime and race were key themes at the 350-film Festival do Rio (September 26-October 10). Jose Padilha’s documentary Bus 174 delves into the backstory behind the real-life hijacking of a Rio bus two years ago by a black drug addict and thief. “Sergio,” as the SWAT commanders called him (real name Sandro Rosa do Nascimento), had grown up on the streets and survived the notorious Candelaria massacre of homeless youths by the police a decade earlier. Padilha intercuts interviews with newsreel footage in which the besieged man plays maniacally to cameras, gaining the visibility most Rio blacks lack.
Another black man vying for recognition is the macho gay gangster, inspired by the late João Francisco dos Santos, in Karim Ainouz’s meretricious fiction, Madame Satã. The man sees red after being barred from a whites-only nightclub. He transforms himself into the eponymous female impersonator. Audiences of all races come to see his popular act.
Here in New York, transgression and its consequences dominate “New Cinema Novo.” The series of recent Brazilian movies opens with Beto Brant’s The Trespasser (2001), a brutal, formally deft picture about two greedy engineers in São Paulo who put out a contract on their wealthy partner. Unfortunately, the psycho hired gun begins barging into their offices. Displacing their ire, the two shaken businessmen attempt to kill each other.
Luiz Fernando Carvalho’s splendid To the Left of the Father (2001) is an update on the return of the prodigal. The director adapts Raduan Nassar’s 1975 novel, Lavoura Arcaica, set some decades ago on the farm of a Lebanese Brazilian family. The authoritarian father advocates denial of the senses, while one son runs away to stimulate them. Carvalho does not judge the boy’s incestuous relationship with his own sister, but condemns the savage act others commit in its name.