Film Reviews

Frame It on Rio

Brazil's big moment in the international cultural sun is still ahead of us. Hipsters might resist this assertion; after all, they've been onto Brazil since at least 2002, when Fernando Meirelles released Cidade de Deus (City of God), the Southern Hemisphere's answer to The Godfather. All of a sudden, everyone knew what a favela was and DJs such as Diplo and the U.K.'s DJ Bongo were making regular crate-digging expeditions to Rio for "funk carioca," AKA baile-funk. M.I.A.'s 2004 album Arular relied heavily on baile rhythms, and longtime players such as DJ Marlboro and Edu K were suddenly household names in Brooklyn.

Meirelles went on to direct the very non-Brazilian international hit The Constant Gardener and is on the cusp of releasing an adaptation of José Saramago's best-selling Portuguese novel Blindness with an international cast headlined by Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo. Whereas every Brazilian film was once produced through local funding, the rest of the world has now taken notice. Meirelles' countryman Walter Salles, director of 2004's Motorcycle Diaries, is shooting an internationally bankrolled adaptation of the stateside equivalent to Che Guevara's road narrative: Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Rounding out the Big Three of Brazilian directors is José Padilha, whose newest film, Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), about an antidrug police squad in Rio, recently won Brazil's Oscar equivalent, the Golden Bear, and was partly funded by Harvey Weinstein.

But given all this exposure, how many great Brazilian novels of the past 100 years can anyone name? How many poets? How many painters? Out of a country of nearly 200 million people — with the fifth-largest land mass of any nation, the ninth-largest economy (and growing), and a long history of cultural brilliance — only a handful of Brazilian filmmakers and a thin lineage of musicians are known to the mainstream. The momentum is still forward-moving.

Enter, stage south, the 12th Brazilian Film Festival of Miami. With the international market focusing both red eyes on Rio, there has never been a better time to scout the Brazilian output. Part of the government-funded Inffinito Festival Circuit, which goes from Buenos Aires to Vancouver to Milan (and soon to Australia and Japan), Miami's fest is still the largest competitive screening of Brazilian films outside the homeland. Eleven feature-length films are competing for Crystal Lens awards, in addition to 12 short films, four special screenings, six digital screenings, and five tribute screenings. Recognized by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture as a market and business festival, the BFF also hosts two networking lunches June 2 and 3 at the Surfcomber Hotel that include pitch panels and caipirinha happy hours in addition to the requisite opening- and closing-night parties, at the North Beach Bandshell and the Lincoln Theatre, respectively.

The festival will also demonstrate to City of God devotees that Brazilian film has more to offer than gang-violence ballads — but if that's what you're looking for, you can find it in Johnny Araújo's O Magnata (The Magnate). Structured sort of like a Tom Petty music video, the film tracks the downfall of a rock star-slash-gangster affectionately dubbed "The Magnate." Massively talented but also possessing some serious daddy issues, the Magnate (Paulo Vilhena) spends most of his time trying to prove how tough he is, which gets him into trouble when he steals a Ferrari with a guy who's much better connected than he. The idea that the crime world always has a more dangerous inner circle is one of those movie tropes that never gets old, and O Magnata uses it effectively.

Despite the myriad kids fawning around him, it's understood that the Magnate is overextended, which lends tension to the love story that develops within the larger action. Music, in the Brazilian tradition, measures the pacing. About every 15 minutes, the film goes lyrical to highlight the many guest stars playing themselves in the film, most famously punk band Charlie Brown Jr. and skater Bob Burnquist. At times, the culture presented is so American-influenced that it seems the characters from Alpha Dog will stroll onto the screen at any second. The two works share an incredible number of commonalities, including a threesome scene in a swimming pool. (O Magnata's is better.)

At the polar opposite of O Magnata's frenetic, youthful pace is the competition screening O Grão (The Grain), directed by Petrus Cariry. If Carl Theodor Dreyer were Brazilian, this is the film he would have made. Stretching its 88 minutes to the maximum, O Grão tracks the last days of a goat-herding family's matriarch. The ironically named Perpétua tells her grandson Zeca the fairy tale of King Amitabh and Queen Mahduri while the rest of the family struggles to make ends meet. All the tropes of American country songs hold true here: The father drinks too much moonshine and gambles away the money for Perpétua's medicine, the floors are made of dirt, the son plays with his dog all day, and the daughter is marrying a repairman who's promising more of a future than he can deliver. Families like this, as the father says, "stay where they're born, like a plant." Although the insight into Brazilian rural life is intriguing and the cinematography is handled well, the pacing isn't justified by anything like the final miracle in Dreyer's Ordet, and the simplicity presented begs for a visual contrast that the fairy tale, told only through dialogue, could have delivered.

Much more experimental than either of those is Gustavo Spolidoro's hilariously named Ainda Orangotangos (Still Orangutans). Set in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the movie jumps from character to character in the manner of Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth, the difference being that Spolidoro's film consists of only one 81-minute take. The camera begins on a train during the daytime and ends up in a car racing through city darkness. Unlike Hitchcock's Rope, there are no hidden cuts, and the camera is never shy about traveling outside, where the environment cannot be easily controlled if it wants to remain realistic. The organization of this feat cannot be underestimated and is worth watching with a production assistant's glasses on: scanning the background for gawkers, booms, and lights; thinking about how the cameraman is situating himself to capture all the action. The advancement of digital technology no doubt made the film possible, mostly obviating the need for gaff setups, but still, the execution is notable and worth repeating with a plot that amounts to more than disconnected scenes of little dramatic quality.

With Araújo, Cariry, and Spolidoro navigating the wake left by Walter Salles and Fernando Meirelles, the festival is another reminder that Hollywood may still be the film world's Marrakesh, but the most interesting fruits are growing elsewhere.

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P. Scott Cunningham