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Brazilian Cinema Reborn
Lázaro Ramos in Madame Satã (2002)

Brazilian Cinema Reborn

Director Karim Ainouz and others discuss filmmaking and the state of the industry in Brazil.

Kevin Matthews Email KevinMatthews

An exciting aspect of Brazil's new wave is the emergence of talented screenwriters who have no ambitions to direct.

"I hate to tell stories," explained Brazilian director Karim Ainouz following an Oct. 27 screening at UCLA of his 2002 film Madame Satã. Ainouz participated in a panel discussion on the state of Brazilian cinema before the screening and fielded questions on Satã afterward. The three-hour event at Royce Hall was sponsored by the UCLA Latin American Center, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and the Consulate-General of Brazil in Los Angeles.

Satã, Ainouz's first feature film, is the story—all right, the portrait and elaboration, the condensation—of João Francisco dos Santos (Lázaro Ramos) before he becomes "Madame Satã," a black transvesite singer and legendary Carnival performer born in the 1930s in Rio de Janeiro's seedy Lapa district. The name does homage to the title character of Cecil B. DeMille's "Madam Satan."

Joao is a thief, prostitute, and inspired street fighter who proves attentive whenever he remembers that he is also a father to the baby of his Laurita. The real Joao/Satã eventually adopted eight children and spent a life in and out of prison, where we find him at the film's opening. In the movie—not a biography but faithful to facts, according to Ainouz—Laurita and Taboo are female and male prostitutes who become João's family, put up with his mostly verbal abuse, and miss him like sunlight when he's locked up.

We get to know João through furious, bright, or furiously tender scenes.

"Story-telling really bores me in a way," Ainouz said. "I'm much more interested in doing something that's visceral."

That goes a long way towards explaining aspects of Satã that have won it a mixed reception. Negative reviews of the film complain that it makes violence sexy, sex violent, time hard to track, and the protagonist hard to like. Ainouz's João, who never swallows an indignity, does appear to be consumed as much with puerile aggressive drives as with his will to reinvent himself.

But there's little profit in condemning João's character flaws, which show up almost incidentally. According to Ainouz, the key to making the film, and to selecting scenes out of a mass of source materials, was to keep constantly before him a vision of something at João's core. João "had something in him that was full of life and full of generosity and full of anger," Ainouz said.

Not a Genre, Not a Movement

Several participants in the panel discussion on Brazilian cinema disputed the notion that violence is a particularly prominent feature of contemporary Brazilian cinema. The critical and financial success of City of God (2002), an artful bloodbath set in a Rio favela, or slum, has contributed to what the panelists said is a false impression.

Professor Randal Johnson, director of the UCLA Latin American Center and an expert in Brazilian cinema, emphasized the variety of the country's current cinematic production, agreeing with Ainouz that Brazilian film today is definitely "not a genre." Panelists nodded at Johnson's impression that the top-grossing productions in Brazil are more often than not comedies.

The "great diversity of aesthetic proposals" that characterizes Brazil's so-called new wave of cinema, Johnson said, is also evidence that Brazilian film is not in the grip of a movement "anywhere near analogous" to the ideologically programmatic Cinema Novo of the 1960s.

Director Bruno Barreto (Four Days in September, 1997, among other credits) explained that he had returned to his native Brazil after a well-timed, 16-year interval split between Los Angeles and New York City. He remarked that the spirit of collaboration that exists in Brazilian film circles in unmatched, and that an exciting aspect of Brazil's new wave is the emergence of talented screenwriters who have no ambitions to direct.

Barreto left Brazil in 1989, the year that Fernando Collor de Mello was elected president. Many associate Collor's administration with corruption, but for the panelists the disaster of the early 1990s under Collor was the complete loss of film production in Brazil. Much of the panel discussion was devoted to lingering debates about the best way to build up Brazilian cinema, which is in any event experiencing a rebirth.

Producer Don Ranvaud noted that the nation was producing between 50 and 60 films per year, keeping crews employed, and paying them improved wages. Panelists credited Ranvaud with some role in nearly every important Brazilian film project of the last decade.

The panel discussion was moderated by producer and director Deborah Calla of Calla Productions.

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