Reviews Of Three Nelson Pereira Dos Santos Films

by on April 23, 2019

The picture comes from "Tent Of Miracles":

Bay Area filmgoers who caught the Pacific Film Archive’s “1968 And Global Cinema” film series may have seen and enjoyed the anti-colonialism satire “How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman.”  However, those attendees could not have personally asked the film’s director Nelson Pereira dos Santos about the film.  The director had unfortunately passed away early last year.

The anniversary of dos Santos’ death is not the only reason for the Archive’s holding its “Remembering Nelson Pereira dos Santos” film series now.  Dos Santos earned the honorific of the Father of New Brazilian Cinema for a body of work which both brought international attention to Brazilian cinema and lovingly championed the marginalized of Brazilian society.  The example set by dos Santos inspired other Latin American filmmakers to creatively question racism and the legacy of colonialism in their societies.

Because the Pacific Film Archive serves once again as a screening venue for the SFFILM Festival, the dos Santos series has gone on temporary hiatus.  However, once it returns on April 26, it’ll be screening one of the series’ strongest entries “Tent Of Miracles.” Dos Santos’ film adapts a satirical novel by Jorge Amado, best known in the US for “Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands.”  Despite being released in 1977, “Tent Of Miracles” deals with still timely themes in a way which will satisfyingly anger the new generation of white nationalists.

For dos Santos’ ribald film suggests that a society benefits from having more interracial sexual relationships between blacks and whites.  Such relationships make a society more democratic by rejecting the blind acceptance of white racial purity that undergird far too many societal structures.  Replacing whites who feel entitled by dint of their skin color to a majority of society’s bounties becomes the ultimate path to a more equal society.

One particular moment dramatizes the necessity of this thesis.  It comes when prominent and openly racist Dr. Nilo Argolo has his only direct conversation with the film’s hero Pedro Archanjo.  The latter has become a popular sensation with a paper advocating miscegenation and its sociopolitical benefits. The former has seen Archanjo’s paper but patronizes it as having one or two minor useful points but is otherwise useless.  When the two men “talk,” it’s clear from Dr. Argolo’s manner that he and Archanjo are not talking as intellectual equals but as a supercilious master to his servant

Present-day respectable white Brazilian society shares Dr. Argolo’s attitude towards Archanjo’s work.  But as the film begins, that condescending attitude gets put to the test. Visiting Nobel Prize-winning academic Dr. Livingstone effusively praises Archanjo’s work at a high-profile public reception.  The privately embarrassed Brazilian elite try to save face with a public celebration of the centenary of Archanjo’s birth. But once more information turns up about the life and ideas of this man privately regarded as someone of no consequence, the celebration turns into an act of elite damage control.

American viewers will recognize what happens to the Archanjo celebrations as similar to present day conservatives’ treatment of Martin Luther King’s life and legacy.  The ideas that made this civil rights icon despised as a radical get trivialized or quietly ignored. A publicly announced academic conference on Brazilian racial issues gets surreptitiously dropped.   Instead, the Brazilian elites are more comfortable naming a construction project after Archanjo. The project unsurprisingly will not help the poor. The only public intellectual engagement the elites allow with Archanjo and his ideas is an essay contest for elementary school children…who lack the ability to really understand what Archanjo advocated.

The darkly comic course of the official non-celebration gets contrasted with poet Fausto Pena’s film-within-a-film cinematic biography of Archanjo’s life.  Not only does the viewer learn about Archanjo’s aforementioned advocacy of miscegenation but that the forgotten intellectual practiced honoring the Orixas. In the white elite’s world, Archanjo was only a beadle at Bahia’s School of Medicine.  But to the medical school’s students, his ideas about intermingling European materialist science with Afro-Brazilian Orixa traditions made him an intellectual hero.

The excerpts from Fausto’s film also capture Archanjo the man: the heavy drinker, the gambler, the stud.  This fictional radical practiced what he preached. Not only does he have a passionate sexual relationship with the Finnish (or is it Swedish) Kirsi, but he supports his godson Tadeu’s efforts to get married to the white daughter of a colonel.  Archanjo is also seen praying to his Orixa shrine and using his knowledge of Orixa magic to tame a vindictive goddess. The Orixa sequences will confuse some Western viewers who are slow to realize a bit of magic realism is occurring onscreen.

For “Tent of Miracles”’ real aim is to celebrate the Afro-Brazilian culture of Bahia that Archanjo participated in.  Starting with the Gilberto Gil song that plays during the opening credits, the film immerses the viewer in the richness and diversity of late 19th-early 20th century Brazilian black culture.

“Tent Of Miracles” does admittedly fail most of the Bechdel test.  There are definitely more than two female characters in the film. However, such characters never talk to each other nor do their conversations stray much away from men.

The film’s two most significant female characters feel underbaked.  Dr. Edelweiss, tasked with organizing the Archanjo celebration conference on racism, does nothing significant once she realizes her work setting up the conference is being discarded.  The mulatta actress Ana Mercedes comes across as someone whose personal and professional loyalties seem to shift with the wind.

But “Tent Of Miracles”’ more significant sexist shortcoming is in not considering the revolutionary potential of miscegenation for women.  Miscegenation intertwines both racial and sexual elements in its taboo-breaking. What would it take for a black or mulatta woman to have a white lover without reinforcing the stereotype of white sexual domination?  The film doesn’t answer this question. Having Kirsi and the colonel’s daughter take actions to support their choices of black male lovers works a bit better. Yet these women’s choices are not accompanied by glimpses into any motivation deeper than love.

At least dos Santos avoids the usual Hollywood cultural imperialist trope of making the Archanjo-admiring Dr. Livingston a major character in the film.  Once he’s served the plot’s purpose of throwing his intellectual petrol bomb among the Bahia elite and showing his admiration for Archanjo’s work extends to the bedroom, he quickly disappears from the story.

By the film’s end, contemporary attempts to fairly address Archanjo’s intellectual legacy come to naught.  The Brazilian elites prefer to keep the forgotten sociologist/anthropologist remembered as a harmlessly empty name.  The leftist artists either can’t get their act together or find their efforts undercut by outside forces. Yet dos Santos finds a plausible way to make these failures less of a tragedy than expected.

Despite its retrograde sexual politics, so much of “Tent Of Miracles” still remains relevant today.  Positive film portrayals of miscegenation are few and far between. More importantly, mocking those blinkered enough to obsess over racial purity is always the right answer.  Dos Santos’ film happens to do so in very entertaining style.

***

A film shown earlier in the dos Santos series performed a different type of cinematic subversion. “Rio, Zona Norte” withered the spirit of the chanchada musical (and the musical genre’s meritocratic tropes in general) by exposure to the harsher aspects of Brazilian life.

The sense of bustling optimism created by the combination of the film’s opening title music and its period footage do nothing to dispel this assessment.  When this footage appears again later in the film, it becomes a harbinger of doom.

“Rio, Zona Norte” introduces its central character Espirito (singer Grande Otelo) lying on railroad tracks near death thanks to what turns out to be a skull fracture.  Flashbacks alternate with present-day sequences showing the efforts to save the man’s life.

The film reveals working-class Espirito has an ear for composing sambas from the heart, even if such songs aren’t always commercially viable.  He dreams of making a living from his samba compositions. With his future composition money, the would-be composer can provide a stable home for his delinquent son Lorival.  But the corruption of the music business and Lorival’s own personal problems eventually cause Espirito’s dreams to come to nought.

To Espirito’s credit, he has a good heart.  Such compassion makes sharing what little he has with the homeless Adelaide and her child a matter of course.  Espirito’s concern for Lorival’s well being comes out of a determination to correct past parenting mistakes.

Also in keeping with musical tropes, several of the musical numbers provide moments of joyous magic.  An improvised audition at a coffee bar turns into a professional confirmation of the would-be composer’s talent.  The rhythm of a railroad train’s clacking wheels inspire Espirito to improvise a samba. Those moments show subtly but persuasively how samba is the music of city life.  On the other hand, that aforementioned moment of inspiration on the railroad winds up being connected to the injury Espirito eventually receives.

The life-threatening skull fracture turns out to be the first of many disruptions dos Santos throws into the musical genre’s rosy view of life.  Big-talking violinist Moacir leaves an initial impression of being untrustworthy or at least fated to let Espirito down. Life in Espirito’s favela never looks like a downscale paradise.  Finally, Espirito’s willingness to look for the best in people more often leads to disaster. Paternal love for Lorival blinds the samba composer to just how much of a delinquent his son has become.

“Rio, Zona Norte” does nod to genre tropes with the big break moment.  Famed singer Angela Maria is so impressed by one of Espirito’s sambas that she wants him to have the song arranged so she can publicly sing it.  However, instead of sparking a 180-degree turn of the composer’s fortunes, this break is followed by further mishaps climaxing with the incident that leads to the life-threatening skull fracture.

Dos Santos’ film does have at least one Dennis Potter-like moment where uptempo music is juxtaposed against human tragedy.  Yet the effect “Rio, Zona Norte” achieves doesn’t involve semi-suppressed general loathing for samba music. Instead, the film finds samba music admitting life’s tragedies while simultaneously transcending those bad moments in life.  Maybe that’s the best a listener can expect from popular music.

***

The neo-realist drama “Barren Lives” proved a world cinematic calling card for both dos Santos and Brazil’s Cinema Novo.  An adaptation of Graciliano Ramos’ acclaimed novel, the film follows the struggles of a poor migrant family in Brazil’s northeastern sertao to find a life better than that of animals.  But as dos Santos’ bleak tale shows, both man and land treat this family as beings of little significance.

Take the seemingly endless shot of the top of a mountain that opens “Barren Lives.”  Said mountaintop appears empty. The harsh discordant noise on the soundtrack resembles an off-key air raid siren.  A flicker of movement soon justifies drawing viewer attention to this wasteland. It takes several further long moments before that earlier flicker eventually resolves itself into the ant-sized movement of the family at the core of this drama.  If the pace of revelation feels slow, that’s because the camera acknowledges that a family consisting of two parents, two young boys, and a dog walking on foot will not be setting the land speed records of an invading army.

A further long wait occurs before the members of this family can be discerned as individuals, as if they were too insignificant to receive immediate acknowledgment.  That moment is the viewer’s real introduction to Fabiana and Vitoria, who are accompanied by their two sons and their dog Baleia. Unless there was a shortcoming in the English subtitles, the English-speaking viewer doesn’t learn the names of the father (Fabiano) and mother (SInha Vitoria) until the very end of the movie.  By contrast, the family dog’s name is learned a lot sooner. It’s as if Baleia gets treated more humanely while the human family gets treated more like animals.

Fabiano may be a cowboy, but he’s far from the romanticized master of his own destiny.  He’s more like a sharecropper who works with horses and cattle. His lack of testosterone poisoning means avoiding angering those he perceives as more powerful than him.  Yet that stance results in his getting cheated out of his wages and gratuitously beaten by the police for supposed disrespect.

If the family’s sons still retain a sense of curiosity or romance, that’s because something hasn’t been cut out of their souls yet.  Taming a wild horse still feels like an admirable expression of manhood rather than hard and sometimes dangerous work. Asking about the concept of Hell is simply curiosity about a place the child doesn’t realize is a step or so below their current existence.

The north-eastern Brazilian sertao may be a physically barren desert.  But the area’s sociopolitical barrenness comes from the obvious unlikelihood of Fabiano and Vitoria’s family ever possessing more than the clothes on their back and the food and water they can carry.   Admittedly, Fabiano’s wasting hard-earned money on watered-down booze and gambling doesn’t help the family’s situation. Unfortunately more telling is the fresh start conversation Fabiano and Vitoria have.  Rather than a talked-through dream of a mutual future, the talk turns into a pair of divergent monologues. Vitoria dreams of having an honest-to-goodness bed. Fabiano’s lost in admiration for a former neighbor who’s done well for himself.

Boots Riley’s recent talk at the SFFILM Festival does raise the applicable question of whether the hardships befalling migrants like this fictional family was the product of an unjust economic system or mostly circumstances outside their control?  Certainly the drought that ruins the family’s crops was outside the family’s control. Yet Fabiano in particular has no leverage in convincing the man whose land the family’s living on to provide better housing or fairer pay.   The barrenness thus referenced in the film’s title refers not only to the land’s condition but also to the high unlikelihood of the migrant parents and their children truly rising above their stunted and withered social situation.

(“Tent Of Miracles” screens at 7:00 PM on April 26, 2019 at the Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center Street, Berkeley).  For further information about the film and to order advance tickets, go to https://bampfa.org/program/remembering-nelson-pereira-dos-santos .)

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