If you searched for English-language news of Leon Cakoff’s death two Fridays ago at the age of 63 due to complications after a melanoma diagnosis soon after it happened, you would have found only a translated press release. By the time two notices appeared the following Monday—one on MUBI, one on this site—the release was what they leaned on. The lack of writing seemed strange considering who he was.
You may ask, “Who was he?” For starters, he was Manoel de Oliveira’s recent co-producer, and the producer of anthology films featuring segments by directors such as Atom Egoyan, Amos Gitai, Tsai Ming-liang, and Wim Wenders. He was a partner in UniBanco Arteplex, a large Brazilian art-house theater chain. He was, as critic Amir Labaki put it, the only major Brazilian film personality “to write, edit books, produce, direct, act, distribute, and exhibit movies.” Above all, he was the founder of the São Paulo International Film Festival (Mostra), the most recent annual edition of which began this past Thursday, less than a week after his death.
You might not have heard of the festival. That’s not because it’s new: The Mostra is entering its 35th year. It’s the largest festival in Brazil, and one of the largest in Latin America. This year’s edition alone features around 300 titles.
They include international festival favorites like This Is Not a Film and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, as well as a number of Brazilian works I haven’t seen yet, both new and restored classics. Documentary master Eduardo Coutinho (for my money, one of the greatest) is appearing this year with his new film, The Songs, as well as a restored copy of his 1984 masterpiece Twenty Years Later. This year’s edition will also features retrospectives of films by directors Elia Kazan, Sergei Paradjanov, and Aleksei German, though Kazan’s films are the only ones that I know of that will all screen on 35mm. I’ve heard the Mostra programming criticized for not being adventurous enough. Yet, while it’s true that the most glaring omission from the programming is a display of experimental films the likes of which show during Toronto’s Wavelengths program, there’s still a lot of great work here.
The local press has made much of Cakoff’s bravery in fighting censorship by showing international films during a military dictatorship that lasted through the mid ’80s. I can’t speak to that, but I can address a different kind of continuing cultural censorship, one that Museum of Image and Sound director André Sturm spoke about in Thursday night’s opening ceremony amid a wave of Cakoff tributes and pledges by Mostra sponsors to continue support. Sturm described the sensation of seeing his first Turkish film during the Mostra’s 1983 edition, and the subsequent realization of untapped cinema. That’s still the case today, as festival-goers buy tickets for Azerbaijani films knowing that they likely won’t have another crack at them. For the vast majority of São Paulo filmgoers (and, really, for the vast majority of the world’s moviegoers), a festival proves their best opportunity to discover new classics on screen. It’s what I hope to do here.
It’s also why I question the festival’s choice, for the first time this year, not to overlap international titles with the earlier large festival in Rio de Janeiro, a city four hours away. While the move encourages cinephiles to visit both cities, it also means that people who stayed in São Paulo the past few weeks missed A Separation and A Dangerous Method, just as people staying in Rio will miss The Kid with a Bike.
The latest film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid with a Bike screened as the opening-night film Thursday, and left me speechless. The film has already been written about at length, but I would like to briefly comment that the brothers are in greater control of detail than they have ever been before. Throughout the whirlwind of motion that adds up to a young boy’s journey, each detail and gesture still resonates. Example: Whenever the boy calls for his father, the soundtrack makes the cry echo so that it hurts the viewer’s ears a little. He offers money to his father to stay with him. The father pushes him over a wall, and as the camera shakes we see money drop on the father’s side. The man picks up the money, and tosses it over the wall too. The man has made at least three moral choices (rejecting the money, rejecting the boy, rejecting the money again) in one shot. It all happens very quickly, yet still registers the film’s theme, that people make moral choices at any moment.
The Kid with a Bike was preceded by the restored color print of Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon, which premiered at Cannes. The electronic group Air’s score for the print quickly proves irritating and intrusive, but the images themselves vibrate with green and red to the point where the film oftentimes feels more like animation than live action. The color version, which was only discovered in 1993 and restored in 2010, makes the film feel like even more of a fantastic voyage than the black-and-white version, while also adding darker undertones: When the explorers crash into the moon this time, its eye drips thick blood. Rather than mixing old and new, the juxtaposition of A Trip to the Moon and The Kid with a Bike showed that all films are new to anyone seeing them for the first time.
The São Paulo International Film Festival runs through November 3rd. Festival information can be found here.