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São Paulo International Film Festival 2011: Tales of the Night, Histórias Que Só Existem Quando Lembradas, & The Leopard

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São Paulo International Film Festival 2011: Tales of the Night, Histórias Que Só Existem Quando Lembradas, & The Leopard

São Paulo is enormous. Its 11 million-plus citizens make it the world’s seventh-most populated city, and the people have spread out across around 2,000 square kilometers (more than 750 square miles). Innumerable roads connect the city’s different parts to each other, and make it extremely hard to get around without using a bus or a car. This in turn leads to terrible traffic.

The traffic means that a Mostra filmgoer must be clever and careful, scheduling his or her film screenings so as to be able to make them all. Fortunately, the Mostra has placed 10 of its 22 screens this year within a half-hour walk of each other, all located around Avenida Paulista, a long, major street also full of businesses, banks, museums, and malls. If one simply stays in this area, one can fill one’s schedule nicely, as nearly every film on the program plays at least once within it. But any filmgoer would tell you that convenience only makes up part of the decision as to where to see a movie. The space’s comfort and the screen’s appropriateness to the film are also very key.

For example, Reserva Cultural, located near the Museum of Art (MASP), is a small, intimate space with a lovely bookstore and café in addition to its film screens, the kind of theater better for a croissant and coffee than for popcorn and Diet Coke. The Reserva Cultural screen that the Mostra is using slopes from top to bottom of its small, square screen. With fewer than 200 seats, the space works well for watching the festival’s modest shorts programs, and equally well for watching the 2D version (a 3D also exists) of Michel Ocelot’s animated film Tales of the Night. Ocelot’s episodic film itself takes place in a movie theater, as three employees spend the night concocting stories and casting themselves as the leads. In one, a princess loves a prince best when he transforms into a wolf; in another, an Abu-like boy must face a giant bee, mongoose, and iguana in order to reach a king. The film’s human characters appear as cutout black silhouettes across a variety of backgrounds, and some, like the flattened tropicalia of the story of a boy with magic hands that make him the world’s best drummer, look fresh. You sense that the film could stop and start at any point, but though the repeated act of storytelling grows tiresome, the film’s images never bore.

A film like Tales of the Night, which depends on a charmingly implicit address to the viewer to work, wouldn’t fly at all at Cine Livraria Cultura 1. The long, wide, high screen, located within a shopping plaza, is perhaps the city’s best venue for films needing 2.35:1 projection; I saw both Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Breathing there, and felt that the space helped me notice more of their details. It’s utterly the wrong screen on which to watch Evaldo Mocarzel’s documentary Cuba Libre, as the film’s myriad scenes of a loud transsexual diva performing for camera lose even the remote charm they might have on a small screen when made so much larger than life. It’s also absolutely the right screen on which to watch Júlia Murat’s Histórias Que Só Existem Quando Lembradas (Stories That Only Live When Remembered).

Murat’s debut feature unfolds in a small fictional town in the Brazilian forest region of Paraiba, and uses the wide screen to show as much nature as possible—one especially lovely shot shows an old woman praying behind a gate, a different-colored flower placed between each bar. The woman, Madalena (an excellent, gentle Sonia Guedes), lives in opposition with an old man (Luis Serra), each morning moving to her corner of the frame to get the bread ready as he moves to his side to make the coffee. She grows much closer to a young woman, Rita (Lisa Fávero), who has come to explore the place, talking with her and sharing herself throughout later nights and deepening pools of darkness. A long shot of Rita backpacking across a rusty, abandoned train summarizes the film’s theme of the present visiting the past; a late close-up of Madalena posing naked as Rita photographs her suggests the need to record the past in its entirety. Rita capturing Madalena becomes a metaphor for Murat capturing Paraiba. They do their jobs wonderfully. Histórias’s human characters act predictably, but its images are so gorgeous that watching the film proves a treat.

It would have been nice to have also seen the Film Foundation’s remarkable restoration of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 classic The Leopard there, but it was only scheduled for the Cinemateca Brasileira. Yet this was all right. The Cinemateca is located at least 20 minutes by car from Paulista, but it’s well set up to screen Scope films. And The Leopard needs Scope, and uses it, like very few films have in the history of cinema.

What The Leopard shares with 2001: A Space Odyssey and many Japanese masterpieces of the early 1960s is an overpowering sense of grandeur combined with an uncanny eye for detail. The film locates this combination in its lead, Prince Fabrizio de Salina (Burt Lancaster), a gigantic man with precise control over his every move. The Prince’s world is being disrupted by the Italian Revolution and the arrival of Garibaldi’s redshirts. An early shot shows the Prince in his study, framed between two telescopes, all looking out at an experience of war distant to them; a little later the Prince rides in a carriage, framed between his covered, sheltered wife (Rina Morelli) and the light of the world outside.

The past is being borne ceaselessly into the future in this movie. The Prince’s stillness contrasts with his nephew Tancredi’s (Alain Delon) ceaseless motion; Tancredi is as likely to race across a frame and force the camera to follow him as the Prince is to stand firmly in its center. The contrast between the two grows most pronounced in the film’s last hour, a celebrated ball sequence and a masterpiece of intermingling major and minor details. The film watches two sets of dancing pairs, then moves to the group on the right, mimicking Italian history. Tancredi and his fiancée, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), stand in a room as people form a chain and swirl around them. They join the ring without opening or closing it; it’s an endless, continuing process, into which they naturally slide. The Prince stands alone, in another room, in close-up; as he regards his gray hairs in a mirror, a tear slips down his cheek. Like the moment of Madalena’s photographing in Histórias Que Só Existem Quando Lembradas, The Leopard needs size to show how large a single human life is, and how much will be lost when that life goes. The films show people who would otherwise vanish. Both greet the present with memory.

The São Paulo International Film Festival runs through November 3rd. Festival information can be found here.