Even in an age of DVD proliferation and Internet dialogue, many major filmmakers — especially those hailing from the developing world — remain neglected. Since the 1950s, Nelson Pereira dos Santos has been a model for independent filmmaking in Brazil, where he both predated and later participated in its celebrated Cinema Novo movement of politically and aesthetically challenging films. If he's not yet a fixture of world cinema repertory, UCLA Film & Television Archive hopes to rectify that with its seven-film, in-person tribute to the filmmaker, now well into his 80s and still working.
One of the reasons for dos Santos' neglect as an auteur — his stylistic versatility — makes this series particularly enjoyable to watch. Dos Santos fearlessly probes his country's economic disparities and racial tensions with an arsenal of techniques, including neorealist production, modernist sophistication and documentary essay. His career seems like the work of a dozen filmmakers, each assured in his own expression of cinematic grammar informed by dos Santos' movie-mad childhood and film studies in Paris.
Initially studying law in his hometown of São Paulo, dos Santos dabbled in film production, which led him to Rio de Janeiro, where comedic chanchada musicals were produced to play alongside Hollywood imports. Boldly taking a page from the Italian neorealists, dos Santos organized a cooperative to produce his first feature, Rio, 100 Degrees (1956), a depiction in broad strokes of a day in the life of the city. It was the first Brazilian film to feature the favela slum and the plight of the black and mulatto youth who lived among the tourist and affluent populations. The film's deglamorized vision of Rio enraged the Brazilian government, which banned it from commercial release, but public outcry eventually reversed the decision.
Dos Santos' first commercial success was the acerbic The Golden Mouth (1963). Like a fusion of Citizen Kane and Rashomon, it presents a story in which the ex-lover of a notorious gangster gives a reporter three contradictory accounts of a crime while her dejected husband and daughters look on. Eccentric characters, hothouse emotions and sordid details produce a psychodrama that's lifted into social farce; its portrayal of a morally corrupt middle class colluding with criminals condoned by the political establishment in the interests of a sensationalistic media allows no one to escape unscathed.
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The Golden Mouth was based on a drama by noted playwright Nelson Rodrigues, and dos Santos continued to prove himself a master of adaptation with Barren Lives (1963), based on Graciliano Ramos' famed 1938 novel about migrant workers. (For a period of time in the '30s, Ramos was a political prisoner under Getúlio Vargas' fascist dictatorship; his account of the ordeal was adapted by dos Santos into the moving, mainstream period drama Memoirs of Prison in 1984.) Barren Lives took advantage of the harsh landscapes in Brazil's rural northeast to fashion a stark and severely beautiful tone poem about a destitute family living on the verge of starvation.
The northeast also is the setting for two of dos Santos' mid-period masterpieces, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971) and Tent of Miracles (1977). The former is a deeply fascinating pseudo-documentary based on 16th-century European encounters with Brazil's cannibalistic Tupi people. Mistaking a Frenchman for a Portuguese enemy, the natives capture him and prepare for his ritual ingestion through a complex cultural exchange that lasts several months. The largely naked cast often is filmed with a handheld camera and from a distance; narrative devices such as historic texts and voice-overs register as typical ethnographic inquiry. But the film's sly juxtapositions create a subversive testament to anti-imperialist resistance. (The film begins with a TV announcer reading a 1557 French letter written to John Calvin about the "beasts with human faces," but the images show happy, graceful Indians who seem much freer than the armored French soldiers sauntering among them.)
Tent of Miracles, adapted from Jorge Amado's satirical 1967 novel, presents the cultural frenzy that ensues after a celebrated American professor visits the coastal city of Salvador and pays tribute to an unknown and deceased Afro-Brazilian writer, Pedro Archanjo. Rather than honor the city's history of black culture and achievement, however, the local media, as well as various commercial and academic institutions, indulge in self-serving opportunism. Dos Santos presents Archanjo's life as a film-within-a-film produced by an independent moviemaker whose conversations and debates highlight the sociological nuances — a framing device that evokes the work of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. It's a brilliant and fittingly self-reflexive touch by a filmmaker who has built a career expressing the unofficial stories of his country's people.
CINEMA ACCORDING TO NELSON PEREIRA DOS SANTOS | UCLA Film & Television Archive | Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum | April 20-May 12 | cinema.ucla.edu