In Marília Rocha's film A cidade onde envelheço (Where I Grow Old, 2016), two Portuguese friends try to establish roots in Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Francisca has been in the city for over a year and is structured, organized, and obviously nervous because of the recent arrival and prospects of having a roommate in Teresa, her old friend who is frisky and full of life.
Getting used to the new landscape, Teresa browses the city, walks the streets, visits shops, and meets new people. While looking for a bathroom in a bar she comes face to face with a young crew that will soon enough become her friends. One man tells Teresa she reminds him of a friend from Spain and wonders if she has a similar face. He looks at her and says, it's the eyes— you know… ancient eyes.
Rocha's first narrative feature delicately explores the estrangements and encounters of these two women, with this new world and with each other, the intensity of their bond enforced by a shared yearning for Lisbon, the ocean, the salt on their skin. The melancholy of the story builds with very little dialogue and plenty of gestures, silences, and stares.
A cidade onde envelheço is a quiet meditation how a place casts meaning on one's identity. What is home for Francisca and Teresa? It could be this new country, this new city whose significance is anchored in the relationships they build day after day. Or it could be that the past weighs heavier than anything else, pulling them back to a place they left and to which they thought they would never return. In Francisca's question to Teresa— do you want to grow old here?— lies much of the film’s beauty.
Rocha's film displays hallmarks of a diverse Brazilian film industry that has evolved over the past fifteen years. Previously disrupted by neoliberal policies in the period known as "the recovery," Brazilian cinema grew as a consequence of new legislation and federal and state financial support starting in the mid-1990s. From the early 2000s the film industry has seen the diversification of genres, the consolidation of regional/local production (challenging the monopoly of the Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo creative axis), and an expanded audience for national films. Moreover, Brazil has witnessed a growing appetite for small films that, even if not box office successes, nevertheless leave a mark on the Brazilian cultural scene.
Such is the case of A cidade onde envelheço, a film widely distributed in Brazil's main urban centers and several Latin American countries after traveling and winning awards at numerous festivals— Brasilia, Biarritz and Santa Maria, among others. The Mina Gerais-based Rocha has a background in documentary filmmaking, having been honored with a retrospective at Switzerland's prestigious Visions du Réel. Rocha's first narrative work demonstrates strengths that have characterized the Brazilian auteur-film scene for the past two decades— films that are critical, intelligent, demanding and innovative; counter dominant global and local trends; and have enormous market potential at home and abroad.
Aly Muritiba's 2015 To My Beloved transits a similar path. The film tells an intricately-crafted story about pain and loss, revealing that the certainties we have about who we are are intimately knitted to our relationships with our loved ones, and who we thought they were. Fernando's adored wife Ana has died, leaving him alone with their young son Daniel. Every night Fernando organizes, folds, unfolds, irons and cleans Ana’s personal objects such as shoes, earrings and dresses. He also watches films from her old VHS collection that show her dancing as a child, or with family, or walking through the streets.
Fernando discovers more tapes when sorting through what Ana left behind in her office. These he watches obsessively because they reveal that Ana has been unfaithful. In a subtle but definitive blow, Fernando's world becomes reduced to frantically searching for more evidence of her betrayal. He neglects his son and his dispassionate job as a forensic police photographer. He prints stills from the VHS tapes and roams the city in search of the sordid motel rooms where Ana's encounters took place.
When Fernando finally finds Salvador, a working-class and devoted Christian man, he rents a house in Salvador's humble backyard and methodically invades the man's life, becoming part of Salvador's family routine as a silent and persistent menace. Ana's betrayal is thus reconfigured as something more than sexual unfaithfulness— her affair was also an open repudiation of Fernando's cultural and class background.
Muritaba has wide experience in the Brazilian short film scene, having directed three films based on life in prison and received more than 100 awards for them. His 2014 short Brasil chronicles one day in the life of two brothers, one a policeman and the other a young student, who face each other in one of Brazil's many nation-wide protests from 2013.
Brasil, Aly Muritaba (2014)
Given Muritaba's signature interweaving of private and public selves, the personal and the political, we are led to wonder what bothers Fernando the most. Is it Ana's desire for this other, or the man's obvious lower class? Salvador's house in the outskirts of Curitiba, his zealous Christian advocacy and his strong ties to his wife and daughters qualify him as an improbable man to be desired by Ana. Fernando seems wounded beyond repair. Everything infuriates and at the same time disorients him.
Muritiba shows remarkable command of the narrative, capturing Fernando’s jealousy and rage in carefully crafted shots of his eyes staring at his television screen. The film contains minimal dialogue, static shots and an unsettling score. Images of empty rooms and objects conjure the feeling of something hovering above the surface at all times, a sinister reality that may be nothing more than life itself— the terrifying weight of personal commitment, responsibility, and close relationships.
Rich social portraits weaved from details of people's private lives is a trademark characteristic of veteran filmmaker Cláudio Assis, the third director featured in Filmatique's Spotlight on Brazil. Assis is a key member of the film scene in Brazil's northeast state of Pernambuco with a film career that spans over 20 years.
Pernambuco has a long history of film activity, with some key heights in the 1920s and 30s, the 1970s, and their own local "recovery" signaled by Lírio Ferreira and Paulo Caldas' 1997 Baile perfumado (Perfumed Ball). This recovery and subsequent expansion resulted from a close collaboration between filmmakers and state support. Several filmmakers have worked on Assis films as producers and writers— a tight camaraderie translates to the themes of the films themselves, furthering a tradition of collective filmmaking most recently evidence by the 1960's Cinema Novo.
Assis' third narrative film Febre do Rato (Rat Fever, 2012) is an hallucinatory tale of a group of friends, one of whom, Zizo, is a poet and a freedom fighter. Located in the slums of Pernambuco's capital, Recife, the film depicts how love, sex, drugs reign in the ramshackle houses, which linger in front of skyline of luxury condos. The slums serve as testament to Brazil's profound social differences and the rapid gentrification of the city, both being sources of Zizo's rage.
Luminous black and white photography lends a magical aura to the harsh reality of these slum dwellers, while slow motion shots provide moments of relaxation in what could otherwise be an overwhelming story. Sexual encounters evade any conventional notion of beauty that informs mainstream cinema. Assis aims rather to construct a tight narrative, a tribute to a city that moves beyond the exoticism of past film traditions.
Addressing signature preoccupations, Assis' most recent feature Big Jato (Big Jet, 2014) tells the story of Xico, an adolescent poet who lives in a small town in the backlands of Pernambuco. Xico alternates between life with his hard-working and heavy-drinking father, Francisco, who makes rounds with a sanitary truck cleaning the sewers; his uncle Nelson, a free-thinking and hard-partying radio host; and his own surrealist dreams.
Once more resisting exoticism, Big Jato portrays a Brazilian northeast detached from the drought and depressive characters that characterize most stories told here. Assis' characters are rich, complex, and vibrant— the landscape verdant and filled with exuberant beauty.
Poetry is a constant fixture in Assis' short and feature films. It is what gives his characters hope and a chance to decipher life's many conundrums. Viewed by his father as unproductive and effeminate, Xico's poetic excursions and relationship to Prince, the town's official and potentially insane poet, are what drive him to leave the town, never to return and forever to long for it.
Essay by Paula Halperin
Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and History
Guest Curator, Filmatique