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This week, I will be focusing on Brazil, a country with a rich history of cinema as well as strange telenovelas. I recommend El Clon, which is a telenovela I watched when I used to live in Uruguay. Through the 3 films I selected, I will trace how film went from an elite criollo artform to a tool for political change.
Limite (1931) follows three people stranded on a small boat and what led them to that point. The first woman escaped prison only to be trapped in a dead-end job, the second woman was trapped in a loveless marriage, and the man was in love with a married woman. All three of these situations led them to distance themselves from modern society.
The Foundations of Modern Brazil 1889-1931
The Brazilian government has always been slow to change. They were one of the last empires in Latin America and they were the last country to outlaw slavery in the Western Hemisphere. The Republic of Brazil was only born in 1889, but the process of making Brazil a powerful force in Latin America started long before. By the 1870s, Brazil was experiencing a rubber boom and an influx of immigrants to run rubber plantations. Brazil embraced its immigrants wholeheartedly. Having a huge population of Swiss, German, or Italians running their rubber, coffee, and sugar plantations was extremely prestigious. Automatic citizenship was granted to all foreigners who were in Brazil on or before November 15, 1889, the birth of the Republic.
While Brazil declared that they were no longer an empire, they were still not entirely democratic. Only literate males over 21 were allowed to vote and power was divided between the elite and the military. The 1891 constitution gave states a lot of autonomy through the coronelismo system. This system provided positions and favors to the local coronéis who then delivered votes at the municipal and federal elections. Within this arrangement, São Paulo and Minas Gerais were the most powerful states and gave birth to the name “Cafe Com Leite” or “Coffee with Milk” since Sao Paulo was known for its coffee industry and Minas Gerais was known for its dairy industry.
The “Cafe Com Leite” system was in full effect until military revolts spread throughout the country in 1922. The movement was known as tenentismo as tenente means lieutenant. These men felt that military rule was necessary for drastic reform to be enacted. Soon, people all over Brazil were protesting this ineffective system and some turned to marxism like Luis Carlos Prestes, who would become a major political figure. By 1930, there was a coup and Getulio Vargas became dictator of Brazil. Vargas came from a wealthy Portuguese family, studied law, and was a successful member of the military. A populist, he vowed to end corruption, instate universal suffrage, and establish a modern state. This promise of modernity was late, but would not affect the impoverished people of Brazil for many years. For now, this was a state made by and for the criollo elite.
The Myth of Limite
Limite was released for the public the same year as Christ the Redeemer, the most powerful symbol of Brazilian heritage. Though unlike Christ the Redeemer, Limite was not immediately embraced by its people. Its praise came late because of the ethically questionable press strategies of its director, Mário Peixoto. Peixoto was the heir to a coffee plantation on his mom’s side and a sugar plantation on his dad’s side. He studied in England and spent a lot of time in Paris where he was introduced to Soviet and German Expressionist films. He created a myth of masterpiece before this film was widely seen by Brazilian critics.
He wrote reviews of the film from the perspective of famed director, Sergei Eisenstein and claimed that Vsevolod Pudovkin was a fan even though there is no evidence they had even seen the film. He also claimed that the film was sent to Paris where it was screened alongside City Lights and Battleship Potemkin. This myth finally culminated in President Quadros giving a 400,000 cruzeiro grant to restore the film in 1961. Today there is even The Mario Peixoto Archive founded by Walter Salles.
Critique of Gender Roles
Peixoto was influenced to make this film after seeing a photograph by Andre Kertesz in a French magazine. It was a photo of a woman’s face guarded by a handcuffed man. This ended up becoming the opening shot of Limite. This first shot is one that emphasizes the ways in which gender roles hurt everyone, but especially subordinate women. Men may be handcuffed but they use those handcuffs to further imprison women. In Peixoto’s eyes, this imprisonment is often done through the outdated institution of marriage. One of the women is imprisoned by an oppressive and loveless marriage. She is suicidal and even though this institution promises a partner for life, she is the loneliest character in the film.
Peixoto also criticizes male gender roles in a surprisingly homoerotic scene in a cemetery. The man in the film goes to the cemetery where his love is buried and finds her husband already there. Without context for the scene, you would assume the two men were lovers by the way the husband tugs at the man’s coattail to keep him from leaving or the phallic connotations of their cigarettes. Why do they have to suffer through this tension? Why does marriage not allow them to act on these feelings? Even with their suffering, we are still reminded that women get the brunt of this deal as they are standing at their respective wife and lover’s grave.
The Constraints of Modernity
Peixoto not only finds fault in old institutions but the new achievements of modernity. When one of the women escapes her countryside prison, she takes a train. That train represents mobility. It can take her away from her arid prison and towards a new life. The camera focuses on the train wheels spinning until it cuts to the spinning wheels of a sewing machine. This sewing machine becomes a new prison as her work alienates her from the rest of the world. Each character in the film feels alienated by the modern world. They’d be better off at sea. All they see on land are bars and fences. People are cut off from one another in this modern world. With echoes of Buñuel and Eisenstein, Peixoto delivers a powerful and thought-provoking film on the downfalls of this new, modern Brazil.