It would be impossible to overestimate the tremendous influence of Nelson Pereira dos Santos (b. 1928) over the dramatic course of modern Brazilian cinema. Throughout his incredibly prolific and ongoing career spanning almost half a century, dos Santos has steadfastly dedicated himself to a mode of politically engaged yet populist cinema diversely embodied in such classic works as his stirring city symphony, Rio 100 Degrees, his stark neorealist classic Barren Lives and his ribald tropicalismo masterpiece How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman. Sharing the daring stylistic innovation that is one of dos Santos' signatures, these truly landmark films offer unusually frank explorations of once taboo socio-political issues – class inequity, poverty, racism – using real non-studio locations from Rio's sprawling favelas to the remote and barren Northeast region and local dialects to present an unvarnished and authentic vision of Brazil from notably distinct perspectives. While Barren Lives reveals dos Santos' consummate skill adapting great literature for the screen, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is a showcase of his utterly fearless and ambitious address of the complexities of Brazilian culture and history, here the history and legacy of colonialism. Spanning an extraordinary range of styles and genres – from neorealist documentary to avant-grade counter cinema, from science-fiction to historical bio-pic to anthropological documentary – dos Santos' remarkable oeuvre is united by his striving to define a kind of a national cinema able to inspire Brazilian and international audiences alike.
Born in São Paulo into an intensely cinephilic family of originally Italian decent, dos Santos did not discover his vocation as a filmmaker until after completing his university studies in law and next working as a journalist. After a brief apprenticeship in the commercial cinema, dos Santos landed his first feature, Rio 100 Degrees which instantly placed him at the very heart of a raging debate in Brazil about the ideological and cultural responsibility of the cinema and popular arts to represent the nation, with dos Santos accused by both the Communist Left and conservative Right of betraying the "official" image and ideal of Brazil. This experience and a period studying and traveling in Europe convinced dos Santos of the need to remain resolutely independent in style and spirit from any official doctrine, an attitude that would inform all of his work as a director and screenwriter. For his steadfast dedication to a kind of neorealist practice, for his uncompromising independence as a director and producer, but above all for his restless search for quintessentially Brazilian subjects, dos Santos is credited with paving the way for the efflorescence of the Cinema Novo movement in the 1960. Indeed, young Cinema Novo directors such as Glauber Rocha and Joaquim Pedro de Andrade revered dos Santos as their spiritual leader and senior statesman, and habitually referred to his films as a major touchstone for their own work.
Offering a rare opportunity to look beyond dos Santos' best known films, this retrospective celebrates the incredible diversity of his oeuvre by including such rarely screened work such as his hilarious comic satire El justicero, his avant-garde Hunger for Love and his zany science-fiction fantasy Who is Beta? The Harvard Film Archive is honored to welcome and pay tribute to one of the legendary figures of Latin American cinema. – Haden Guest
This event is the 2nd Annual ARTS@DRCLAS - HFA film retrospective and is co-sponsored by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) Brazil Studies Program, with additional support from the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and Haden Guest
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. With Átilá Iório, Maria Ribiero, Orlando Macedo
Brazil 1963, 35mm, b/w, 100 min. Portuguese with English subtitles
Widely acclaimed as a masterpiece of early Cinema Novo, Barren Lives is based on the classic novel by Graciliano Ramos revolving around a landless family facing the extreme conditions of the Northeast Brazilian desert. Dos Santos imparts a dire treatise on agrarian reform with an austere means of production and few words. The dialogue that is spoken is often less directly articulate than the parched land, grating sounds and overexposed, dizzying views from the eyes of each of the characters, including their loyal, stoic dog. At the mercy of the contradictory whims of Nature, Fate, and Authority, the family follows glimmers of hope on a desperate journey to become “real people.” Dos Santos’ woodcut realism reaches the height of parable without sacrificing tender nuance and the idiosyncrasies of all creatures who exist in this arid atmosphere.
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. With Fréderic de Pasquale, Sylvie Fennec, Regina Rosemburgo
Brazil 1973, 35mm, color, 85 min. Portuguese with English subtitles
The critical success in France of How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman made possible dos Santos’ delirious science-fiction vision of free love in a post-apocalyptic wilderness besieged by flesh hungry zombies contaminated by an unnamed nuclear attack. Who is Beta? follows two statuesque survivors drawn irresistibly together only to be entranced by the arrival and sudden disappearance of a third, the bewitching raven haired Beta. With its cartoon-like depiction of extreme violence and desire, Who is Beta? offers a heady Pop-infused companion to Hunger for Love. Yet beneath its giddy play of surfaces, dos Santos' underappreciated film gradually reveals a darkly ambiguous metaphoric dimension.
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. With Jece Valadão, Odete Lara, Daniel Filho
Brazil 1963, 35mm, b/w, 100 min. Portuguese with English subtitles
For his first in a long series of wildly imaginative literary adaptations, dos Santos reinvented Nelson Rodrigues' novel about a pathological gangster with solid gold teeth and a voracious appetite for women and power. Embracing radically modernist narrative techniques, Golden Mouth offers a splintered, refractive portrait of brutal masculinity that returns repeatedly to the same moment from different vantages, each time revealing unexpected perspectives on the brutal yet strangely charming criminal. Lurid and disturbing, Golden Mouth delivers a savage satire of marriage and class pretensions, revealing a similar venality at the corroded heart of the sanctimonious bourgeoisie, the moneyed elite and the working class as they all mercilessly claw their way up and down the rickety and ruthlessly hierarchical Brazilian social ladder.
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. With Jece Valadão, Glauce Rocha, Roberto Batalin
Brazil 1956, 35mm, b/w, 100 min. Portuguese with English subtitles
Inspired by Italian neorealism and a fervent desire to forge a brand of cinema fully engaged with the harsh realities of the class struggle and the dire blight of poverty in post-WWII Brazil, dos Santos set out to make a dynamically comprehensive film portrait of his country's most iconic city, Rio de Janeiro filming on location and using a cast of non-professional actors. By turning unprecedented attention to the sprawling favelas, or shanty towns, at the heart of Rio, dos Santos offered an alternate vision of the city as a dramatic backdrop for its stripped down narrative following a Sunday in the life of young black peanut vendors as they each traverse different Rio neighborhoods in order to sell their humble wares. Dos Santos' first feature proved a dramatic launch of his career when the film's release was abruptly suppressed by federal officials, who accused Rio, 100 Degrees of being Communist propaganda and for presenting a negative image of Rio. Fiery debates about the ban subsequently exploded within the Brazilian Congress and across the nation until finally the decision was overturned. Retrospectively heralded by Glauber Rocha as the developing world's first truly revolutionary film, Rio, 100 Degrees was not only the first cinematic engagement with the favela, which would become an iconic and important subject of Brazilian cinema, but also one of the first films to openly address the stratification of class and race in Brazilian society.
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. With Arduíno Colasanti, Adriana Prieto, Márcia Rodrigues
Brazil 1967, 35mm, b/w, 105 min. Portuguese with English subtitles
A shockingly irreverent follow-up to the rural austerity of Barren Lives, dos Santos’ Godardian social satire owes more than a nod to the self-conscious antics of the French New Wave. The pampered son of a general, El Justicero is a hipster playboy who fancies himself a James Bond/Jean Paul Sartre urban hero. “Archetypical” yet “full of contradictions,” he sees that justice is achieved for the disadvantaged while taking advantage of certain bourgeois perks. His exploits are closely followed and eventually directed by his biographer who decides a film is not only more lucrative than a book, but it gives him the luxury of reviewing previous scenes. Unlike Bond, El Jus eventually experiences an awakening which threatens to compromise the entertainment value and glamour of his life story.
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. With Nildo Parente, Isabel Ribeiro, Leila Diniz
Brazil 1970, 35mm, color, 83 min. Portuguese with English subtitles
In another literary adaptation – this time Machado de Assis’ novella O Alienista – and his first color film, dos Santos unleashes an extravagant, maddening excoriation of Brazil’s military dictatorship of the 1970s. As usual, the director exploits all cinematic constituents in his palette – a radically intrusive and discordant soundtrack, non sequitur editing, exaggerated camera angles and all manner of carnivalesque pageantry – to illustrate the tale of a doctor/priest on a mission to discover truth through the study of madness. The population of his asylum grows as his definition of sanity fluctuates until it finally threatens to incorporate the entire town. The film’s own irrational reversals and allegorical codes gleefully mock the arbitrariness of authoritarianism in all its varied guises.
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. With Carlos Vereza, Glória Pires, Nildo Parente
Brazil 1984, 35mm, color, 185 min. Portuguese with English subtitles
Dos Santos recreates the memoirs of Graciliano Ramos, the celebrated author of Barren Lives who was imprisoned in the 1930s under the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas. Arrested during a post-rebellion sweep of suspected communists, the left-leaning intellectual Ramos is taken on a journey through Brazilian prisons and consequently, a tour of the underground political histories and ideologies of Brazil. While conditions gradually worsen, his connection to his fellow prisoners only deepens and his views on humanity and artistic expression expand. Regardless of which side of the bars they reside, all are depicted with a remarkable even-handedness and many of the unlikeliest characters play a part in bringing life to Ramos’ writings and his writing to life.
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. With Grande Otelo, Malu,
Brazil 1957, 35mm, b/w, 90 min. Portuguese with English subtitles
Setting up the gracefully jarring dichotomies that disrupt dos Santos’ otherwise “traditional” film, the opening credit montage features the discovery of a body on the train tracks while a cookie-cutter Hollywood soundtrack idly plays. The injured man is Espírito da Luz Cardoso (literally “Spirit of the Light”), a struggling composer whose sambas unite and uplift the marginalized Brazilian people in his midst. Based on the life of composer Zé Keti – who actually appears in the film as the popular singer Alaor – Espírito’s story unfolds through flashbacks which overflow luxuriously with song, yet also expose the manifold divisions within Rio’s social strata. A victim of exploitive businessmen who suck the life out of his music, Espírito witnesses each of his dreams dashed one at a time by unrelenting tragedy. Apparently oblivious to his inherent goodness and irrepressible joy, the plot of the film – much like capitalism’s surge through 1950s Rio de Janiero – boldly charges forward leaving true beauty and vitality lying upon its tracks.
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. With Ana Maria Magalhães, Arduíno Colasanti, José Kleber
Brazil 1972, 35mm, color, 84 min. Portuguese with English subtitles
In keeping with Cinema Novo’s reappropriation of Brazilian culture from its Western absorption, dos Santos travels to the colonial crime scene of 16th century Brazil. A French Huguenot is captured by the Tupinambá and participates in their culture for several months prior to his planned execution. This insider/outsider perspective – similar to that bestowed upon anthropologists and documentary filmmakers – is one of many methods dos Santos uses to constantly undermine and call into question narrative authority. No particular character, sex or culture emerges more “savage” than the other, no single point of view directs the action, and no heroes or other cinematic tropes lay claim to the audience’s sympathies. Using a naturalistic verité camera and interspersing actual historical texts, dos Santos crafts a thoroughly subversive reevaluation of “official” histories and mythologies. In the face of subjects who utterly defy objectification or total comprehension, the audience is forced into actively engaging with that which they wish to consume.
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. With Leila Diniz, Arduíno Colasanti, Irene Stefânia
Brazil 1968, 35mm, b/w, 76 min. Portuguese with English subtitles
An extended research tour of US university film programs introduced dos Santos to the American avant-garde filmmakers, among them Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, who would directly inspire his formally radical adaptation of an allegorical short story about adultery and colonialism by Guilherme de Figueiredo. Filmed in both Manhattan and Brazil and set against the background of the Vietnam War and its protests, Hunger for Love uses a rigorously abstract soundtrack and narrative structure to evoke the acute paranoia of the period building up to the December 1968 military coup that tipped Brazil perilously close to a conservative dictatorship. With its harsh critique of the decadent tendencies of the Sixties counterculture, Hunger for Love offers a key expression of the self-consciously “ideological” phase of Cinema Novo.
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos
Brazil 2011, digital video, color & b/w, 88 min. Portuguese with English subtitles
Dos Santos' latest film is a celebratory documentary tribute to Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim that gathers together a wonderfully wide range of the best interpretations of Jobim’s now canonical ballads, sung by the likes of Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald and Caetano Veloso.
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. With Ilya São Paulo, Sonia Saurin, Maria Ribeiro
Brazil/France 1993, 35mm, color, 98 min. Portuguese with English subtitles
After an extended period directing original screenplays, dos Santos returned to the creative engagement with literature that was the wellspring of his early masterpieces, offering a combinatory adaptation of five stories by the renowned Brazilian novelist João Guimarães Rosa. Openly embracing a mode of magical realism, dos Santos' celebrated film tells the story of a farming family defined by the absence of its father who abruptly abandoned his wife and children, sailing away down the river, including his son who continues to communicate with his father, speaking daily to him from the river bank. While offering an evocative vision of rural Brazil as a timeless land of mystery and solemnity, The Third Bank of the River is also bitingly satiric in the remarkable depiction of religious belief when the family moves to the city and its youngest member, a mesmerizing little girl, is revealed to be a kind of saint, capable of miraculous acts. In a gesture back to his earliest work about rural Brazil, dos Santos cast as the lonely mother Maria Ribeiro, star of Barren Lives.