In the 1960s, a branch of Brazilian cinema emerged so daring, thrilling, and varied that in hindsight people disagreed even over what to call it. For critic-filmmaker Jairo Ferreira, who chronicled the movement, its unconventional narratives and formal audacity made it the “cinema of invention”; for filmmaker-critic Glauber Rocha, briefly a member but chiefly part of the rival Cinema Novo movement, its films were “udigrudi,” a Brazilian spin on the American underground. The consensus term, finally, was Cinema Marginal, and though many of the movement’s titles were censored by Brazil’s military dictatorship, it meant marginal and not marginalized. To be marginalized implies a passive victimization; to be marginal can—and often did—suggest a proud self-definition.
While some of the filmmakers worked in Rio de Janeiro, many came out of the Boca do Lixo (“Mouth of Garbage”), a dirt-poor slum district in the heart of Såo Paulo. The eponymous hero of Rogério Sganzerla’s 1968 film The Red Light Bandit, a postmodern Robin Hood who fought the law from a favela, came to symbolize fringe works that nonetheless spoke for the masses. For all their strong differences in stories and the ways of telling them, the films of Sganzerla, Carlos Reichenbach, Ozualdo Candeias, and other filmmakers represented in this year’s remarkable Boca retrospective at Rotterdam (programmed by Gabe Klinger and Gerwin Tamsma) also had much in common. Many were made far from any studio system, quick (two weeks of shooting or less) and cheap ($50,000 or less), using nonprofessional actors, found locations, and large chunks of improvised dialogue. They often punched both the government and commercial cinema in the nose by telling acidically funny stories out of sequence, with odd camera angles and abrupt music cues to break the spectator’s prison wall of sentiment. They showcased sex and violence and other things that life permitted, but that the screen usually didn’t. And, perhaps most importantly, they chose marginal people as their subjects, the kind whose voices you wouldn’t normally hear in a movie. Who are they? A man with his arm around a woman in Candeias’s 1981 black-and-white film The Option answers the question, staring at a crumbling stone house: “There must be all kinds of people in the world, eh?” He’s covered almost completely in shadow, and she’s lucid white.
The Option, which moves between several people, screened Friday night in a beautiful new 35mm print that, as with several of the retrospective’s titles, the Cinemateca Brasileira struck specifically for Rotterdam. As the movie opens, we see young women chopping trees. Their large, sweaty faces are obscured by straw hats, and only break from looking down at work to looking down into a bowl of rice and beans. This kind of work is the best option for some; for others it’s walking back and forth along the highway, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, looking to pick up truckers. We see the men mainly in long shot, their trucks emerging, the drivers full of chest hair and belly fat. The film splits them not just with looks (“What a shitty life,” one woman says, looking down over the highway), but with behavior. A man pulls his sleeping lover’s underwear down, and taps her soft ass with a hammer, but she won’t wake up; he finally tries to pull her over, and falls off the bed.
We don’t know what will happen when the girl wakes up. The Option moves from one woman to another, as though there’s a split between them. Each one gets her close-up, but if the effect highlights her, it also isolates her. That’s when they’re alone, or with each other. When they’re with men the women are crammed into the frame, whether beneath a beer-bellied lover on a couch or beside a husband in formal dress, walking together after a child’s funeral. A man shoves his lover against a shower wall and pours champagne on top of her, then chases her, faster and faster, around a bed as romantic music swells. The scene ends without closure—a sharp cut to a driver’s-eye view of a truck. It’s as if the world, to move forward, will simply forget her.
These trucks and their passengers, with each stop, get closer to São Paulo. The city is different from much of the rest of the country, a gigantic concrete stretch south of myriad small forest and beach communities. Yet it’s as easy for someone to live on the margins in a metropolis as it is anywhere else. Girls at a strip club rehearse their act, walking on and offstage between a frame in the nude. The different parts of chest and torso are just merchandise.
There are men, too, in the city: a real-life armless hunchback that puts a fork’s tip in his mouth to eat; a man whose legs have gone completely limp and so walks on his hands. Without the movie ever saying so, it becomes clear that they have greater liberty with their bodies than any of the film’s women have.
And where are those women? Time’s passed. Headlines of newspapers on the ground give a sense, but those are old papers, mixed in with others, and they soon go to the trash. The closing credits show still photos of São Paulo at night, full of cars and skyscrapers. The people have vanished.
The Rotterdam International Film Festival runs from January 25—February 5.