A prominent Brazilian film critic said that he was most excited for the nine Elia Kazan films screening at this year’s Mostra. I said that the prints should be good, thinking about the complete Elia Kazan retrospective at New York’s Film Forum in 2009, which included beautiful new prints of On the Waterfront and Wild River, and about the fact that Kazan’s widow Frances was attending this year’s festival in person. “Yes,” he said, “I’m sure they’re all on film.”
The remark was surprising, until I considered it. I lived in New York for three years before moving to São Paulo last December, during which time I discovered a number of amazing films I would never have had exposure to otherwise, oftentimes on beautiful 35mm prints. Yet the city also instilled a kind of provincial thinking, leading me to assume that every other large city had the same resources. São Paulo is a wonderful place for filmgoing, with large series or retrospectives happening less than every two months, yet when you go to see an American or European film in repertory it’s often an imported print with French or English subtitles, with additional Portuguese subtitles projected electronically beneath. This was certainly the case with complete retrospectives this year devoted to major filmmakers as various as Claire Denis, Alfred Hitchcock, Luc Moullet, and Béla Tarr; one of the programmers of last year’s massive John Ford series told me he couldn’t find a single Ford print in Brazil.
Of course, the opposite is also true, as I’ve had the chance to see a number of beautiful Cinemateca Brasileira restorations of films by the most famous Brazilian filmmaker, Glauber Rocha, that rarely play Stateside due to rights reasons; additionally, good luck to my American friends in seeing major, amazing Brazilian films like The Red Light Bandit and The Gods and the Dead on film without a passport. One country’s classics are another’s unknowns. Several Brazilian classics will be showing at the Mostra this year in restored prints. Some I’ve seen already, like Rocha’s aggressively anti-colonial Der Leone Have Sept Cabeças (a Brechtian allegory set in Africa that includes song, dance, solemn Africans, and fat laughing white men) and Eduardo Coutinho’s Twenty Years Later (a beautiful juxtaposition of a fictional recreation of a revolutionary’s life alongside documentary interviews with his widow). Others, like Carlos Manga’s 1950s Hollywood parodies Carnival Atlântida and Neither Samson Nor Delilah, I’ll be excited to watch for the first time, and on film.
It’s not enough for a festival to show good films; they have to show them in good prints, with good projection. That’s why I’m additionally excited for the Film Foundation restoration of Visconti’s The Leopard (God’s gift to 35mm), and why I was so disappointed to see Aleksei German and Grigori Aronov’s The Seventh Satellite in an inferior digital transfer. The 1968 Russian film takes place shortly after the Russian Revolution, and focuses on a wide-eyed older man lost in the tide of it; the film is full of aggressive camera sweeps across hallways and corridors, which would probably have been amazing had the image had been larger than a small square in the screen’s center. I agree with something Dave Kehr once wrote, that he believed films should be seen in any condition possible, but I’m also hoping that the Mostra’s other German films and the Sergei Paradjanov films, many of which will have digital projections, will feature better ones.
I had much better luck on the festival’s first full day with digital work projected digitally than with film-to-digital transfers. Atahualpa and Wanadi Lichy’s The Mystery of the Lagoons, Andino Fragments and José Barahona’s The Lost Manuscript are two examples of documentaries that benefit greatly from being shot digitally. In the first case, the digital camera registers mist curling across a Venezuelan lagoon, then follows a man riding a “biblio-mule” across mountains to bring books to kids in rural villages, their reflections glimpsed in water as they race excitedly toward him. The film quickly becomes a series of fairly standard episodes explaining different aspects of small-town life (education, cooking, music-making, death and burial), but even when dull, it’s never unpleasant. Nor is The Lost Manuscript, in which the filmmaker travels to the Brazilian city of Salvador to uncover a manuscript by the Portuguese poet and slaveholder Fradique Mendes; he learns he has to wait three months for it, so he and his camera wander to the island of Boipeba. Along the way the film interviews several fishermen and housewives about their ancestral backgrounds, a busy mixture of African, Indian, and European; the missing manuscript becomes a metaphor for a larger untraceable heritage. Several shots contrasting small people walking in front of giant older churches bring up the contrast between modernity and history. The film’s structure wanders, and the way each interview subject speaks as an expert on Brazilian cultural history feels a little humorless. Yet, the film’s gorgeous records of sunlit cities, seas, and beaches make its greatest impact.
I also saw a digital projection of Hong Sang-soo’s new film, The Day He Arrives, which both the festival catalogue and website list as 35mm. The texture of snow and wind might have been lost in the transfer, but Hong’s clean black-and-white images still registered. As with many of his films, the lead character is a struggling, self-loathing filmmaker that can’t control his liquor; a woman he likes complains that he only comes to see her when drunk, then yells at him after he starts crying. I’ve made the comparison between Hong and Albert Brooks before, and I think it still holds. Both at their best seek awkwardness by any means necessary, often holding a shot as characters make greater and greater fools of themselves; Hong goes even further in this film by obtrusively zooming in on characters at the start of conversations, trapping them with each other. Yet his close attention also allows for pleasant moments, as the misfits make efforts to connect. A man says goodbye to a woman outside her apartment, and lingers outside her door; she, hoping to hold on to something of him, asks for a cigarette; he, in a grand gesture, gives her several; she, excited, says that she’ll smoke them later. Hong shows people at their loneliest; they’re pathetic, but also sweet.
Two South America-set documentaries, a new South Korean fiction, and a Russian classic sounds like a fairly random screening day. Perhaps, but I watched all four without leaving the same multiplex. Unlike other festivals, which host their new attractions in one venue or set of venues and their sidebars in another, the Mostra schedule reads hodgepodge, with films from different categories running together in one venue. The results have been messy so far, but they also increase the chances for discoveries.
The São Paulo International Film Festival runs through November 3rd. Festival information can be found here.