LGBTQ cinema is thriving in Brazil, manifesting in movies that are playful and daring, outright denying even a modicum of conventional, naturalistic filmmaking. Of course, in the past, there’s been the work of the late Argentine-born Brazilian director Hector Babenco, who populated his notable films with gay characters (1981’s Pixote, 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman). But the current wave of LGBTQ-themed and -made cinema is a recent and distinct phenomenon, having taken off well into the twenty-first century with adventurous films by the likes of Karim Aïnouz, Daniel Ribeiro, and others.
That these contemporary LGBTQ movies were made in Brazil is timely and of the utmost importance. Although the gay community has great visibility there, and gay marriage enjoys legal status, the country has recently experienced “an all-time high” of “victims of homophobia” (including murders and suicides). The opposition to alternative lifestyles, perspectives, and identities is only getting worse under the conservative government currently in power. Just last year, a far-right libertarian group, Movimento Brasil Livre, shut down the first major exhibition dedicated to queer art in Brazil — nearly a month before it was scheduled to end. In this context, the Museum of the Moving Image’s two-day series “LGBTQ Brazil” — curated by Ela Bittencourt (a Voice contributor) and co-presented by Cinema Tropical — couldn’t be more necessary, existing amid the distressing rise of censorship in the country from which these films originate.
Camp, kitsch; sensitive, distant; introspective, detached — the short and feature films in the series represent a myriad of modes and moods, styles and genres, that reflect the inclusivity and plurality of the LGBTQ community. The selections in the program that hark back to and wrest influence from previous eras’ artists and film movements make the biggest impression, such as Carlos Nader’s Passion of JL (2015). This intimate, highly emotional film consists of archival footage, photographs documenting artwork, and, most especially, the audio diary recordings of José Leonilson. An influential artist in Eighties Brazil, Leonilson received his first solo exhibition — featuring his embroideries, drawings, and paintings — in the U.S. at the Americas Society last fall. (The show ran through February 2018.) From 1990 until 1993, the year he died of AIDS, he kept an audio diary.
Leonilson’s voice is the only one heard in Passion of JL, giving the film a sense of close proximity to the artist, as if he were resurrected and speaking directly to you. Leonilson is a lonely man (he identifies with Harry Dean Stanton while watching the famous opening of Wim Wenders’s 1984 Paris, Texas), racked by contradictory and overwhelming thoughts and feelings — which isn’t the warm vibe he gave off according to his friends, but is apparent in his close-to-the-heart art. Initially, he talks candidly about love and the lack of it; about being “needy”; about coming out to his Catholic parents, whom he loved; and about the U.S. bombing Iraq in the Nineties, which he cries over. As the film, and the tapes, go on, Leonilson slowly deteriorates, his thoughts becoming more abstract. Mirroring his decline, the hissing feedback of the cassettes on which Leonilson records his thoughts becomes steady and ever-present. The tapes are stirring; Nader’s filmmaking, not so much. His audiovisual combinations are often basic, functioning merely to underline what Leonilson is saying. That said, Passion of JL, a film made by a friend, is a work of great love at a moment when that value is not to be taken for granted.
Uirá dos Reis and Guto Parente dedicate Sweet Amianto (2013) to Leonilson, and their film, a colorful fantasia, shares with the artist’s work a voluptuous romanticism. It follows a trans woman, Amianto (Deynne Augusto), whose boyfriend leaves her, initiating an existential conundrum that involves heightened forays into nether realms and imaginative planes. Amianto simply must find a way to go on. In one scene, she locks herself inside and weeps while watching John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers (1956) on the couch. In another, dead friend Blanche (dos Reis) — a visible, glittery apparition functioning at once as muse, godmother, and cheerleader — consoles Amianto, rousing her out of the apartment and into a bar.
Sweet Amianto drifts into numerous narrative digressions, which are bracketed either as daydreams or as part of a story-within-a-story. Blanche tells Amianto a tale (actually based on one from Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Charles Bukowski’s collected newspaper columns) of a man waking up yellow one day, with red spots all over him. A subsequent interlude sees Amianto envisioning a blissful, idyllic life (twirling in a forest, bathing nude near a waterfall) shared with a guy she picks up at a dance club; that is, until the relationship sours, and they engage in a domestic quarrel that ends with Amianto leaving. Sweet Amianto indulges in the flights of fancy that infect a person in love, one who has caught a love sickness. Infatuation colors reality, as it does the film; reds, violets, and blues conjure delusions and fantasies, all the while opening up narrative possibilities that are broadly laid out, then abruptly finished. Sweet Amianto is a film definitely in the realm of the senses.
Tavinho Teixeira’s Sol Alegria (2018) takes the fragmentary construction of Sweet Amianto even further. It is a mishmash of pieces made up of bright colors and a love of all things artificial. It lampoons organized religion and the nuclear family while, according to Teixeira, also being about what it means to be a family. The one in the film is a ragtag bunch: a bearded father in suit and sailor cap; a gun-toting masculine mother; a feminine son with pink hair; a virginal daughter who, confoundingly, is pregnant; an impish companion in a nun’s habit. It begins with the family settling in a church, which actually is more of a haven for pansexuality than religion, and ends with each one of them giving a nocturnal carnivalesque performance.
As Bittencourt’s program notes mention, Sol Alegria draws from an assortment of landmarks in Brazilian cinema: the deliberate destruction of narrative cohesion seen in the Marginal Cinema movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies; the crass camp of Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Macunaíma (1969); the ghoulishness of the ultra-black “Coffin Joe” horror films, the first of which was 1963’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. Part of the pleasure of the movie is not knowing where it will go next.
“LGBTQ Brazil” showcases many other such exciting and perplexing films emerging out of the country. They practice the art of artifice, and flatly reject boring realism. The best of the bunch perform a nod to past Brazilian artists and film movements by either outright acknowledgment or by borrowing their DNA to create Day-Glo–vivid dreams (and nightmares) specific to the present moment. It all adds up to a burgeoning class of cinema marked by passion, inhibition, and sensuality.
Museum of the Moving Image