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Rotterdam 2012: Boca Porn

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Rotterdam 2012: Boca Porn

Walter Hugo Khouri is an undervalued master. I had seen two of his films before watching a third in the Boca do Lixo series. Both 1964’s Eros and 1968’s The Amorous Ones are strangely disquieting films about casanovas facing mortality. In both films men use and abuse women to compete with each other, and then, upon realizing that the women are human beings, get slapped with their own desperation. The films’ tones shift from light to dark while the characters keep consistent. Men end alone, lost in nature, their charm wound up.

One could say many of the same things about 1980’s Invitation to Pleasure, which played at Rotterdam. Its two male leads are a middle-aged dentist and his businessman friend who set up a bachelor’s loft to have sex with young women together, each man glancing at the other as they go. In time, one wife finds out; the other’s known all along. And just as the men are trapped inside their desires, the women are trapped inside a social condition. “Don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s better out there,” the younger wife hears, and fears she’s heard right; the older has long since decided not to give up the big house and nice clothes. These women’s minds are dying. Is their place better than that of the screaming girls in the loft?

Like other Khouri films, Invitation to Pleasure ultimately wanders into a brutal night that won’t end, as the characters must confront each other. The way in which they all end up trapped in a room together is distinctly this filmmaker’s, and raises the larger point that, even as Boca filmmaking moved toward pornography, it still saved space for the auteur. That’s because most Brazilian films, period, were moving that way. The country’s notable films often had some sacanagem (dirty play) in them, whether Norma Bengell’s beachside humiliation in Ruy Guerra’s 1962 art-house hit Os Cafajestes or the stream of sex comedies called pornochanchadas that began their box-office dominance in the early 1970s. But in 1976 in particular, the Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses performed extremely well in Brazil, and in the Boca in particular producers like the industrious Antonio Polo Galante began pushing filmmakers toward showing hardcore sex.

There were an enormous number of ways to make porn creatively. One could carry comic surrealism, as Rotterdam program titles Fuk Fuk Brazilian Style (in which a dwarf lugs a box of dildos) and Sit on Mine and I Will Enter Yours (in which a man with a penis growing from his forehead finds love) did. One could go in an equally surreal, more serious direction, as Carlos Reichenbach’s Empire of Desire (in which a raving lunatic wanders the beach while couples entwine inside the beach house) did.

One could also forego directly making a porn film and instead produce a commentary on them, as Cláudio Cunha’s brilliant 1977 film Snuff, Victims of Pleasure (written by Reichenbach) did. Two shady producers, one of them mangling Portuguese with a British accent, set out to make a movie. “It’s not a porn film!,” one says, trying to convince potential co-workers, “It’s a feature! It’s an international production. Sure, there are some strong scenes. But the director wants realism!”

The “strong scenes” will turn their film from porn to snuff. Snuff, Victims of Pleasure began with a projection-room screening of black-and-white footage of what’s said to be a real rape, which hooks the viewer’s interest as to whether it actually was. Now the producers want their leading man to shoot a starlet on screen. We look through the camera lens on location alongside them, and as the movie we’re watching becomes the movie they’re filming our desires catch up with theirs. The lead goes mad, and rants, “I am an actor!” into a mirror, but the camera stands in the mirror’s place, and so he’s really talking to us. We’re making his movie.

And then a little later, suddenly, Cunha shows a scene of the film-within-the-film, switching from the naturalistic color he’s presented both fiction and reality in back to cheap black and white for the production. This separation—their situation isn’t ours—shocks us into our seats. The recognition of what people are capable of doing to each other is scarier than anything that anyone on screen actually does. It’s only a movie, we can tell ourselves, but snuff fantasies are real.

Cunha also produced Snuff, Victims of Pleasure, and marketed it so brilliantly (parking ambulances outside theaters, paying audience members to scream) that he helped the film sell four million tickets. Five years later, Cunha’s film Profession: Woman met with a very different reaction. The film, which drove him bankrupt, was kept by the censors for two years, and released finally in a butchered cut.

He turned to theater, where colleagues looked down on him as though he were a pornographer. So he made an actual porn film to spite them, taking over the theater at night and shooting himself as a director guiding a troupe of eager young actors toward self-discovery. The finished film’s title, Oh! Rebuceteio, has no direct English translation, though the director tells the audience it means “big confusion.” An old producer asks himself, upon witnessing a stage full of sex, “I should have demanded a script. How did I expect this experimental theater?” Cunha’s grinning leader sits in the audience, hands forward, urging, “Come on, everybody! Let’s release our demons!”

They do so creatively. There’s the scene of a day in the park, with a gigantic bear encountering frolicking ladies—and there’s the Roman orgy in which women rub themselves with watermelon and carrots. My personal favorite involves a woman and a priest together in a confession box. They can’t help themselves, and make new sins to confess. There have been many versions of this scene in other movies; the twist here is that the couple is soon joined by a nun. As the threesome ensues, the theater audience on screen leans forward, then back. It’s guiltless fun.

The Rotterdam International Film Festival ran from January 25—February 5.