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São Paulo, A Sinfonia da Metrópole (1929) directed by the Hungarian-born pair, Adalberto Kemeny and Rudolfo Rex Lustig, this documentary examines Latin American modernity in this portrait of the continent’s most populated city.
In the 1920s, films were not just becoming a point of popcorn entertainment or a way to pass the time at a nickelodeon. In certain countries, the power of cinema as a strong political and unifying force was being realized, no more so than in the USSR. Lenin himself said, “You’re famous as a patron of the arts, then you must firmly remember, that film for us is the most important of the arts.” It was in this environment where cinema was given the top priority that the inspiration for São Paulo, A Sinfonia da Metrópole would be created.
In this era in Soviet film, two stand out. One is Battleship Potemkin and the other is Man with a Movie Camera. Directed by Dziga Vertov, this revolutionary documentary follows a cameraman as he wanders around Moscow, Kharkov, Kiev, and Odessa capturing urban life and the power of a unified class of workers. The Dziga Vertov style grew to become an extremely effective form of propaganda because it revolutionized the way people viewed cinema. The film does not discriminate and creates equal representation for the bourgeois and proletariat people of Russia. It uses no intertitles. The bourgeois has no better understanding of the film than the uneducated proletariat does.
He democratizes the filmmaking process by making the cameraman and his camera a subject of the film. Vertov’s cameraman is the main character of his film and also seeks to show the audience the inner workings of a camera. Crosscuts between factory machines and the insides of the camera show the proletariat that these machines are alike and therefore the camera is not an unimaginable object to yield.
As Vertov puts it, “In revealing the machine’s soul, in causing the worker to love his workbench, the peasant his tractor, the engineer his engine we introduce creative joy into all mechanical labor, we bring people into closer kinship with machines, we foster new people”.
After Man with a Movie Camera, many other director’s all over the world felt the need to dedicate a feature film to their native city as a symbol of their country’s social and political place. While Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera praised the socialist modernity of the Soviet Union, other films like Alberto Cavalcanti’s portrait of Paris, Rien que les heures, critiqued the social inequalities of the city. Other films like Manhatta and Berlin, Symphony of a City portrayed their respective cities as fastly modernizing but socially conservative. São Paulo, A Sinfonia da Metrópole definitely belongs to this category of film. The big difference between São Paulo, A Sinfonia da Metrópole and the other films that occupy that category is that São Paulo does not just speak for Brazil but for the entire Latin American continent. It speaks to the very contested idea of what Latin American modernity meant.
For the Hungarian-born directors of this film, modernity and machines specifically were represented as lyrical instruments that harmonized with the emerging national bourgeoisie’s project of a rational and liberal utopia. Machines reinforced a linear understanding of time where progress is defined as incremental steps toward the consolidation of vertical social relations and where the national bourgeoisie is at the helm. Unlike Man with the Movie Camera, machines don’t unite the working class to create a more equal society but aid the bourgeoisie in leading a more comfortable life. Machines simply modernize old habits and customs, not replace them.
One early sequence of the film shows how a local dairy factory bottles up milk and how the factory’s drivers deliver that milk to the bourgeoisie every morning. This seems to be a not-so-subtle nod to the “defunct” 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 coronelismo system was supposedly done away with in 1922 but the movie seems to show that it is in full effect. Machines have only made it easier for the workers to remain subservient to the hungry upper classes.
The machine seems to erase all the diversity of Brazil and not in a way to show the unifying power of a single class but to erase its indigenous and black culture in favor of a more western personality. This idea is summarized in a short sequence that revolves around the city’s newspaper industry. As the machines roll out the issues of the day, a split-screen appears with Sao Paulo’s skyline occupying the center of the screen as iconic images of Paris, New York, Berlin, and Chicago surround it. There is no hint of black or indigenous culture in this portrait of Brazil. They exist simply as a hub of capitalism.
In this portrait of Sao Paulo, the directors show a continent that is waking up, quite literally. The film is shot to show the rhythms of a day in the city starting with images of empty streets in the morning. It seems like Latin America was in a long slumber and to wake up, they needed to let go of their non-white heritage and assimilate. Assimilation and capitalism are probably the most defining visuals of the film. One sequence shows a single man selling items from a cart and then a sharp cut to a huge market with many vendors. Homogenous images of white upper-class crowds fill the screen. Even scenes set in a local prison show crowds of white men enjoying order, hard but fulfilling factory work, and plenty of family visits. In prison and the free world, Sao Paulo looks the same.
Machines are also homogenized. Overlaying shots play multiple images of the same train or car passing through a busy street. There is nothing quite special about them but the fact that they can exist in Latin America seems to be something the directors want to highlight and applaud. The fact that these images, which appear to be ubiquitous to an advanced society, can exist in Brazil makes it so the country’s modernity cannot be questioned. Any other defining image of particularly Brazilian culture like Samba would have downgraded its status.
In only one scene do we get a hint at the underlying inequalities that remain in this city. A short sequence portrays a disembodied hand giving alms to a hungry street beggar, and then a fistful of bills to a wealthy businessman. But because the scene is framed as a dream, its critique of corruption and social inequality is rendered ineffective. Modernity and its definition was highly contested at this time in Latin America, but this film seems confident in its naive answer. Assimilation is the key and revolution will have to come another day, if at all.