The films we consider historically vital are usually films we can easily see. For every movement an Intro to Film course might deem major, from Russian Formalism (Battleship Potemkin) to Italian Neorealism (Bicycle Thieves), there’s at least one exemplar that can be easily procured. In an alternate universe, The Margin would be deemed every bit as integral to the history of the avant-garde as Meshes of the Afternoon. But how many have seen The Margin? Very few people saw the film in Brazil, let alone abroad, after its release in 1967, but many of its viewers were deeply inspired by it, and built Cinema Marginal off of its example, from essence to name. For those who know this hidden history, the film is totemic.
The film’s director, Ozualdo Ribeiro Candeias, earned his training as a trucker. He wasn’t a cinephile, and many of the films that I immediately thought of as influences while watching (including major Brazilian avant-garde films like Limite) he didn’t see until years later. What he knew was São Paulo. We get that sense from the film’s opening, in which, after watching a series of still photos of people behind fences, we take on a boat driver’s position. Views alternate between the boat’s wooden bottom and steady, direct, passing views of people on shore whose attention has been caught. They’re women washing clothing, or kids, whose eyes have been caught, and since there’s no discernible fictional character to assign the boat’s perspective to, their eyes meet ours. But then the boat parks, and a man in a white suit steps out.
This play of first- and third-person runs throughout the movie, alternately challenging, inviting, and daring us. A black hooker in a skirt approaches and says, “What’s up, man? Aren’t you enjoying?” In traditional shot-countershot, respecting the fiction, she’d be looking off screen at an angle, and the response would be his gaze at a matching opposite one. But what happens in Candeias’s movie is that she looks and speaks directly to the camera, and then the film cuts out to show the two people interacting on screen. Instead of the comfortable middle distance at which most movies place us, The Margin is making the fiction reality, and then breaking out to turn it fiction again. And each time that this happens, rather than growing used to it, our confusion mounts over exactly how to feel. The camera follows the woman, her glancing back at it, the responding gaze moving from her face to her ass; the camera follows the man, all the way to a field, and watches him watching it from time to time, clearly nervous, as he starts to undress.
The film keeps splitting up the two people throughout this walk: They’re near each other but isolated, only seen together briefly as she stands over him. Once she moves down, they split again. The screen practically shivers. If people can be far apart while still this close together, that means we, too, might be distant from each other. The idea doesn’t just have philosophical implications; it affects how society works, day to day. A poor old woman approaches the camera. “What have you got for me?” she asks, and gets no answer.
The Rotterdam International Film Festival runs from January 25—February 5.