“Premiere Brazil!” at MoMA and P.S.1 (Jul 14-27)

by on July 14, 2011Posted in: Festivals

The ninth-annual Premiere Brazil! festival (which opens tonight at the Museum of Modern Art) programs the best of a thriving national cinema that should be on the radars of serious cinephiles and casual fans of Portuguese pop alike. Curated in collaboration with the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, the programming mixes mainstream entertainment with gallery-installation crossovers and sweeping political documentaries. Most of the films have never screened in the U.S. before–and won’t again any time soon.

 

Craft (Riscados) is playing Thursday July 14 at 8:00, Friday July 22 at 4:00, and Sunday July 24 at 2:00.
 
The opening-night selection Craft (2010) belongs to — and plays against — a long tradition of “backstage melodramas.” Its story of an aspiring actress (Karine Teles) moonlighting as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator nods to a classic of the genre, All About Eve (1950), but its style is closer to the verite-contemporary aesthetic of the recent and underrated Applause (2009).

 

Undiscovered acting talent Bianca (Teles) has her her eyes on the stars and her feet in the gutter as she trudges through humiliating commercial promotions and ribbon-cutting events. Her Big Break arrives at an audition for an upcoming French-Braziliain co-production, where she goes over so well with the film maker that he decides to re-write the role based on her own life.

 

Craft‘s handheld direction trails the characters as they move through gritty everyday environments, giving the strong ensemble cast the time and space to flesh out their performances. The technique makes for a strong stylistic counterpoint to the classic Hollywood allusions–Marilyn Monroe’s breathy Happy Birthday routine is restaged alongside Carmen Miranda’s iconic banana number from The Gang’s All Here–giving old-fashioned clichés a nicely ironic frisson.

 

VIPs (VIPs) is playing Friday July 15 at 7:30 and Wednesday July 20 at 8:00.
 
One of the best selections of the fest is Toniko Melo’s slickly-produced crime picaresque VIPs (2010). Based on the true-life exploits of the country’s notorious con artist Marcelo da Rocha, this Brazilian Catch Me If You Can swept the 2010 Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, taking home the awards for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. It’s just the bestest.

 

Wagner Moura stars as Marcelo, a high school student with no foreseeable future who’s struggling with issues of self-identity. Following the steps of his absentee father, Marcelo hits the road in hopes of becoming a pilot. His resourcefulness and chameleon-like nature help him rise quickly from washing planes to underworld drug smuggler. The grander Marcelo’s schemes become, however, the more his malleable persona threatens to expose his true self to the world.

 

At a swift 95 minutes, the film could actually stand to put on a little weight. Marcelo’s transformation happens so abruptly that the film looses some dramatic weight in pursuit of narrative drive. In the end, however, Wagner Moura’s strong lead performance makes the film work splendidly. His performance blends hapless innocence with an almost psychotic charm, and he brings a spontaneous energy to the character that makes even his wildest exploits believable. MoMA’s screening will be the International Premiere, but with its mainstream appeal, I suspect that VIPs will continue to have a screening life in the US, hopefully with wider theatrical and/or video distribution down the line.

 
Utopia and Barbarism (Utopia e barbárie) is playing Sunday July 17 at 5:00 and Saturday July 23 at 1:30.
 

 

Fans of Chris Marker won’t want to miss Silvio Tendler’s Utopia and Barbarism (2009), a kindred spirit to Marker’s own A Grin Without a Cat (1977). Like Grin, Utopia and Barbarism investigates the international history of political oppression and revolution in the second half of the twentieth century, but whereas Marker’s film ends in the late 1970s, Tendler has the added challenge of going all the way up to the new millennium and beyond. It took him nineteen years, but Tendler has produced a monumental work of dizzying ambition and dexterous political insight. Traveling “in search of the dreams and struggles of my generation,” Tendler crisscrosses global conflicts from World War II to Algeria, the Prague Spring to the Perestroika, Tianamen Square to American Civil Rights, and the scattershot of 1968 revolutions around the world.

 

Clocking in at 120 minutes, Utopia and Barbarism can’t help but be hindered by its enormous scope and limited runtime. The film challenges viewers to keep up with its breakneck pacing and political hopscotch, and it is no easy task. But the lack of historical exposition is compensated by revealingly personal interviews with the activists, artists and journalists who lived through the events. The talking-heads line-up includes the late critic Susan Sontag and legendary directors Gillo Pontecorvo (Battle of Algiers), Fernando Solanas (The Hour of the Furnaces), and Cinema Novo pioneer Caca Diegues. After two-hours worth of oppression, assassinations and genocide, you might begin to wonder how the radical spirit continues to endure, but the answer is readily apparent in the realist yet never defeatist tone of the interviewees. Their sincerity and conviction saves the film from turning into a nihilistic political tirade.

 
Cao Guimarães Retrospective

 

One of the centerpieces of this year’s fest is a retrospective of experimental filmmaker Cao Guimarães. Though his style is highly conceptual, Guimarães embraces chance more openly than most other documentarians would dare. The people that he films are less “subjects” than participants. They’re allowed a significant amount of agency and personal space on-screen, such that one gets the impression they are saying and doing what they’d like to rather than what the director tells them to. And, in some cases, they take over the camera entirely, such as in Two-Way Street (2002).

 
Two-Way Street (Rua de mao dupla) is playing on Friday, July 22 at 7:00 and Tuesday July 26 at 4:00

 
Two-Way Street is a concept film that, at first, seems more appropriate for a gallery than a movie theater. The film asks the question, “What do our dwellings and possessions say about ourselves?” Taking a most literal, objective approach, director Cao Guimarães’ had three pairs of strangers switch homes for 24 hours, video tape their experience, and report back to the camera their interpretation of the home’s original owner. The charm of Guimarães’ participants ultimately wins over, however, and the economical editing and smart split-screen juxtaposition of images make for a very cinematic essay. Some of the characters are too polite (or uncomfortable with the project) to do much digging, but the film is strongest when the participants are at their most curious. There’s a giddy joy when one character raids another’s porno stash, but the film ends on its best note when an aging poet waxes rhapsodically about the nature of loneliness. He’s a show-off and more than a little earnest, but the brings a dynamic presence to the screen, and that’s exactly what the film calls for.

 
Accident (Acidente) is playing on Tuesday July 19 at 8:00 and Saturday July 23 at 8:00.
 
Guimarães’ Accident (2007) is an anti-travelogue that openly resists narrow conceptions of nationhood and cultural heritage. Like Almereyda’s similarly constructed Paradise, Accident presents itself as a series of documentary vignettes filmed over a variety of locations. Whereas Almereyda made the globe his canvas, Guimarães’ sticks to his native country. As his camera criss-crosses the land, it carefully avoids the sambas, carnivals, and scenes of gang violence that stereotypically define “Brazil.” Instead, Guimarães shows us thriving subcultures of teen rockers, gay cruisers, bike enthusiasts, and marching tuba players, as well as sleeping dogs and everyday people doing their everyday thing.

 

With repeated shots of open doors, windows, errant pedestrians and people waiting in chairs, there’s always the feeling that something is about to happen or someone’s about to arrive—but it never does and they never do, at least not on camera. Accident unfolds like a series of establishing shots that refuses to establish anything. It elides coherent structure for chance and serendipity. The result is a demanding, occasionally boring, film that’s just as often vigorous and full of life. By reminding us how impossible it is to condense an entire culture in a few images–that the deeper one looks the more nuance and diversity one can discover–Accident thoroughly embodies the artistically heterogeneous spirit of Premiere Brazil!

 

Cullen Gallagher wrote on W.C. Fields for Alt Screen in April.
 
Premiere Brazil! 2011 is playing at the Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1 July 14-27.

 

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