Ela Bittencourt's column explores South America’s key festivals and notable screenings of Latin films in North America and Europe.
In The Heart of the World
“Our cinema is maximalist,” Gabriel Martins and Maurílio Martins told me at the 48th edition of the International Film Festival of Rotterdam (IFFR). The two (unrelated) Martins hail from the periphery of Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, which these days boasts a booming film industry. In addition to the two, André Novais de Oliveira, also present at the festival with a short, Quintal (2015), and a new feature, Temporada (2018), and in the past, filmmakers such as Affonso Uchoa of Araby (2017) and Juliana Antunes of Baronesa (2018), all have come from Minas. In the case of Gabriel and Maurílio, their intense cinefilia, which encompasses the love for fluid camerawork of James Gray, for Sergio Leone’s westerns, for comedy and the 1970s and ‘80s American movies, plus a passionate knowledge of Brazilian cinema, quickly led them to trying their own hands at directing.
Their debut feature, In the Heart of the World (2019), which premiered in Rotterdam in the main Tiger Competition, is an amalgam of cinematic genres. What opens as a romantic comedy, with indigo blue, nearly purple skies and magical lights—a setting that immediately subverts the usual presentation of the Brazilian periphery as drab and forbidding—quickly changes tone, to incorporate elements of a crime genre. The film is set in Laguna, a neighborhood from which the film’s female protagonists wish to get away. Selma (Grace Passô) starts her own portrait studio, bringing her services to the local schools. Ana (Kelly Crifer), takes care of her elderly father, but is fed up with the daily humiliations as a bus ticket controller. The two women’s paths converge when Selma plans a heist. Ana enters the scheme via her clumsily nefarious yet oddly likable boyfriend, Marcos, brilliantly played by Leo Pyrata. Pyrata’s character is multi-dimensional—from wannabe Sopranos-style Mafioso to no-good son and a dallying bum. In turns violent and upstanding, he is a young man at a standstill, grasping for shreds of power, and of self-esteem.
The Martins depict the locales, faces, and the rhythms of the daily life in a neighborhood with uncanny gusto, and with a kaleidoscope of memorable secondary characters—a hapless punk criminal, Beto (Renato Novais), an amorous, enterprising beauty salon owner cum Über driver (Barbara Colen), and an elderly mother whose grief ends in a memorable dramatic twist, among them. In the spirit of the Coen brothers and of Tarantino, they restage the western as pastiche. The dialogues crackle with linguistic jibes, and with references to other movies. In one scene, during a key crime setup, a large pink sign in the shape of a cowboy hat comically hangs over the protagonists—as if to signal that we are never to take their lives entirely seriously. And yet, in another sequence, a rap song’s lyrics, “Laguna é Texas. BH [Belo Horizonte] é Texas,” remind us that this world has its own implacable laws. By the time we see Grace covered in mud at a key turning point, struggling to lift herself up, literally from the muck, we cannot help but empathize with her plight.
Albertina Carri’s Hijas del Fuego (The Daughters of Fire), which played in the Signatures section, was another memorable maximalist Latin American film. Similarly to the Brazilian directors, Carri’s fluid, sometimes languid, camera captures the grandiosity of Argentine landscapes and the lushness of her protagonists’ flesh. In the film, two lovers (Disturbia Rocío and Mijal Katzowicz) reunite and immediately set off on a trip to visit a childhood home. They are soon joined by a third woman (Violeta Valiente), a skilled martial arts fighter, who rescues them from a nasty bar brawl. The three set out in a stolen truck, picking up sensually inclined strangers and friends.
Carri’s film is sexy in the fullest sense of the word. In fact, sensuality is its thesis. Early on, the narrator asks in the voiceover, “What is porn?” Later she muses, “The problem is never the representation of the bodies, the problem is how those bodies become territory and landscape.” It is a lovely phrase. In fact, the strength of Carri’s film lies in her taking it literally, and seriously. We could say that what is she enacts is a total landscape of the body, as her roving camera explores skin, faces, and body parts, without particular fixation on the sexual organs, though with a playful, lavish attention to dildos.
Carri embraces the idea that although the essence of pleasure is inexpressible, one must nevertheless capture its manifestations. Half of her film is thus composed of glorious mountain shots, the other half of sex scenes. Bodies embrace, explore, copulate. They come in all shapes and sizes. The sex, enacted in couplets, triplets, finally mounts to a bacchanalian orgy, wonderfully staged in one of the women’s family home. Communal sex, sex as a community. In this sense, Carri’s utopic ethos also has a political dimension—in the voiceover, she reminds us that, unlike these very real, pliable bodies, the country’s political landscape has changed little since the 1960s, at least for the LGBTQ folk and women. In Latin America, as Carri frames it, the military and the Church still hold way too much sway.
Men of Hard Skin
On another, minimalist, end of the spectrum was José Celestino Campusano’s Men of Hard Skin (2018), also in Rotterdam's Signatures section. One can see why Campusano’s style has been described as “brutalist.” His way with the Latin machismo is uncompromising. In the story, a young homosexual boy, Ariel (Wall Javier), struggles to find his first true love. A farm owner’s son, living among macho farmhands, under the gaze of a virulently homophobic father, he first falls madly in love with a local priest, Omar. When Omar proves fickle, trying to shield his status and job, Ariel must seek love elsewhere.
To be sure, the film bears some marks of Campusano’s brutalism. The father is oppressive and violent. Campusano is also unsparing in portraying the clergy’s hypocrisy: Omar’s older friend, also a priest, who in the past had sex with an underage boy, sees himself exclusively as a victim, though he lives out his days on a comfy retreat. Omar himself is a vile figure: calculating, hypocritical, cold, made only slightly more digestible because of Ariel’s inner resilience. And yet, Eric Elizondo’s soft, dreamy cinematography also suggests Campusano’s gentler side. It brings out the beauty of the countryside, without the forced Victorianism of another recent gay romance, Call Me By Your Name. In the end, gentleness wins.
Equally minimalist in places is Clarissa Campolina and Luiz Pretti’s While We Are Here, which showed in the Bright Future section. The Brazilian filmmakers were partly inspired by their personal experiences—in the press materials, Campolina mentions the two living in Berlin, and observing their small son taking in a new world, shy but curious, but also feeling that certain images from New York could serve as a back story. The fiction the two crafted—an impossible romance, stretched across New York and then Brazil and Germany—is simple: two immigrants meet in New York, one of most iconic immigrant cities, and then, when one must return home, they part.
Out of this sweeping material, Campolina and Pretti shape a film that revels in lapidary yet fleeting details. The approach is Proustian, for it is said of Proust that he not so much recalled the past, but rather found the sensation and texture of the past, in the present. So it happens with these two. The film takes us back to when Lampis (Mary Ghattas, who in real life is a Syrian living in Brazil) first comes to New York. Typical touristic still images and shaken camera offer quick snapshots of the city, to convey the first rush of exhilaration. But if the images are somewhat ingénue, and have the raw, immediate textures of a documentary, the voiceover is another matter: Here Campolina and Pretti exercise rigorous control. We first hear Lampis’s voice in letters she writes home, then via an omniscient female narrator (Grace Passô). Same happens with Wilson (Marcelo Souza), whose recollections splinter in two, some told by the narrator.
The overall effect is of always being immersed in reality, and yet apart from it. In the end, because we never see Lamis or Wilson’s face, While We Are Here is not so much a love or an immigrant story, as it is one about how time secretly robs us, and how, sometimes, the only thing that remains is our desire to resist it. An idea encapsulated in moments when the narrator speaks with carefully measured pauses, her phrases short, synaptic, slowly coming to stillness, while the image on the screen whirls in unstoppable motion. A tension between sound and image that captures the mind's inner friction. Or, as the narrator puts it: “We don’t know the exact duration of this moment. The duration is uncertain.” Image as duration is, after all, the most minimalist gesture cinema can make.