The 40-odd festival titles I caught at Rotterdam this year offered consistent amazement. In addition to the Boca do Lixo series, highlights I saw projected (as opposed to on a screener or on a video monitor) included Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance, Nathaniel Dorsky’s The Return, Raya Martin’s Buenas Noches, España, Jean Painlevé’s The Octopus, Mohammad Rasoulof’s Goodbye, Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea, and Raúl Ruiz’s Ballet Aquatique. I’m going to discuss a few more in particular. While my beat consisted of older Brazilian films, the new Brazilian films I saw at Rotterdam were nearly as exciting. Three stood out, each of them, in different ways, addressing film history.
Júlio Bressane was an essential member of the Cinema Marginal group, though not of the Boca do Lixo, since he lived and worked in Rio de Janeiro rather than in São Paulo. His 1969 film Killed His Family and Went to the Movies opens with the protagonist’s title action, then spends the rest of its running time hallucinatorily bleeding his life into whatever’s happening on screen. The movie’s a hoot, and many of the rest of Bressane’s films make a similarly joyful noise.
As Bressane has aged, his work has mellowed, culminating in his latest film, Rua Aperana 52. This memory play takes place at the director’s titular address. We never see the filmmaker’s face, only his hand holding a weathered photograph of the house from years before. The photo triggers recollections consisting of clips from his previous films, often with soft music; a long scene of Chico Buarque singing on a hilltop, guitar in hand, sets the tone. The clips’ source films are never identified, and there’s no voiceover explaining them; it’s more like a Jonas Mekas movie, where you know that the people are important to the filmmaker even if you don’t always know who they are. Several clips suggest friendships with artworks as well as with people. Yet whether it’s showing a couple dancing together on a country roadside or a hand open to a page of Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas on a beach, the impression the film gives throughout is of a sweet, gentle life.
It’s obvious that Bressane is rooted in nostalgia, less so that Kleber Mendonça Filho grounds his work in historical dialectics. Mendonça Filho, a longtime film programmer, quit his job as a film critic two years ago to make his first feature; he finished editing Neighbouring Sounds during Rotterdam’s opening weekend, and the following Wednesday the film had its world premiere. I was at that first press screening, and have rarely felt so excited watching a new film.
From the opening onward, you’re in a thrilling filmmaker’s hands: A series of still photos of fields and farmers burst forward, led by drumbeat, filling the widescreen frame. This story of how a suburban neighborhood’s residents react to their new security guards stands rooted in the past, though what that history is exactly and how it affects each character takes an entire film to figure out.
We can untangle history if we simplify it, that is, and Mendonça Filho won’t let us. The film is constantly working on multiple levels, engaging multiple discourses from multiple angles, both at the level of image (two or more characters interacting in a roving medium shot, the camera not taking sides) and sound (three or more tracks running simultaneously, including a composed score, peoples’ voices, and the noise of domestic machines). Among the film’s most brilliant aspects is the way in which it leads you to expect some kind of violence each time that different perspectives, especially between people of different races and/or classes, meet. But its director knows, and knows that we know, that movies have taught us to expect that. Some of Neighboring Sounds’s characters grow so paranoid that they make their own nightmares, which means they’re making their own movies. Mendonça Filho draws on horror-film references to show how easily people can turn each other into monsters.
Neighboring Sounds navigates a particularly Brazilian kind of social dynamic, in which people across cultural lines address each other while harboring differently buried layers of suspicion and resentment. Calling Eden’s Ark “Brazilian” is trickier, since both the film and its filmmaker are co-productions. Marcelo Felix was born in Brazil but moved to Portugal when he was young, where he still lives and works as a filmmaker and poet; Eden’s Ark is listed as being from Italy, Portugal, and Brazil. In a way the multiculturalism’s appropriate, since the movie deals with silent films, which more so than almost any sound film could address a global public.
Eden’s Ark, which more specifically deals with silent-film preservation, is an essay film exploring a philosophical problem. “We are guilty of fighting for memory when life is about oblivion,” the female narrator (Isabel Machado) says. If the way of nature travels towards death, is it unnatural to want to keep films alive?
This question leads in turn to wondering whether films have lives of their own, as well as whether they have their own memories or simply memories we viewers assign them. Celluloid images of Joan of Arc in the trial box and Harold Lloyd on the clock face present themselves digitally, alternating with views of landscapes, whether mountains or arctic plains. Nature—inhuman, indubitably autonomous—contrasts with cinema. “The traveller may lack a memory of landscapes,” we hear, “for they seem to contain all the world’s memory, his included.”
What’s gone will come back in some form through memory—even, perhaps, the thousands of silent films now thought to be forever lost. Flickering through Eden’s Ark is an imagined silent film, glimpsed in pieces, created just for the occasion. The voiceover says, “And while we use images to remember what there is, and keep the images we’ve created, maybe what’s left unsolved will come and join us.”
The International Film Festival Rotterdam ran from January 25-February 5. The writer thanks Mariana Shellard, Ed Gonzalez, Gabe Klinger, Eugênio Puppo, and all associated with the IFFR Trainee Project for Young Film Critics.