What with the current release of Madame Satã and the breakout succès d’estime of City of God, it’s tough to ignore this week’s Brazilian inundation. The two concurrent (and superficially connected) series struggle with a sense of cultural lostness, whether in the shadow of slavery and colonialism, or knee-deep in the bog of contemporary third-world economics. At MOMA, Alain Fresnot’s Desmundo (2002) revisits the 1570 Portuguese settlements and the plight of orphaned teenagers shipped across the Atlantic to be doled out as frontier wives to slave traders and bestial sugar barons. Focusing on one utterly recalcitrant maiden (Simone Spoladore) and her efforts to escape her new husband’s jungle rule, the movie’s cold eye never wanders far from outrage, the result approaching a feminist remake of The Mission.
José Joffily’s cliché-choked Two Lost in a Dirty Night (2002) follows two homeless émigrés in Manhattan, dreaming of success and embroiled in petty crime, while Anna Muylaert’s charming and assured family-madness comedy Durval Discos (2002) remains in São Paulo with a functionally dysfunctional mother and son supported by a rundown record store, their static lives churned up by the formulaic appearance of an adorable orphan. None of the films approach the sophistication or eloquence of the nation’s Cinema Novo movement, represented by Glauber Rocha’s seminal folk-epic Antonio das Mortes (1969).
A pair of talking-head docs pick up the slack. João Jardim and Walter Carvalho’s Window of the Soul (2001) addresses the aesthetic-perceptual issues of seeing, not seeing, and the great stretch of variations between, interviewing Wim Wenders (who waxes fondly about the “framing” his glasses provide), blind photographer Evgen Bavcar, Agnès Varda, Oliver Sacks, José Saramago, etc. More insightful still, Eduardo Coutinho’s Edificio Master (2002) simply talks with dozens of inhabitants of a massive Copacabana apartment house, each possessing a dramatic history and the dynamic camera rapport to make the tumultuous stories great cinema.
The Anthology showcase, centered on the past and present of the African diaspora (Bush II supposedly said to the Brazilian president, “You have blacks, too?”), takes slavery and its legacy of racism as its playing table. The backdraft of slavery is addressed directly but sentimentally in O Aleijadinho (2000), a portrait of the 19th-century mulatto artist, and Joel Zito Araujo’s Denying Brazil (2000) doubles as a fascinating personal history of Brazil’s popular soap operas and an archival record of media stereotypes and institutional prejudice. Araujo’s narrational observations are sensible and smart, but taken merely as film the vintage footage is often shockingly adroit.
For sociopolitics, the sharpest cleaver is Zozimo Bulbul’s Aboliçao (1988), an epic two-and-a-half-hour piece of angry agitprop that details, by way of artwork, interviews, self-regarding re-enactments, and scholarly research, the century of injustice and violence that followed the 1888 “abolition” of Brazilian slavery by the Portuguese queen. Bulldozing through subtleties and shooting the wounded, Bulbul presents a virtually comprehensive portrait of Brazil as post-colonial waste-yard. As a people’s-history educational tool, it’s a must-see.