For Paulo Rocha

The 2nd Harvard-Gulbenkian program brings together Paulo Rocha with three directors inspired to renew the promise of "popular cinema."
Cinema Dialogues: Harvard at the Gulbenkian

2. For Paulo Rocha Weekend 2 - Day 1 - December 13th, 2013

The second Harvard-Gulbenkian program centers around a vitally important yet still under appreciated figure of the post-WW2 Portuguese cinema, the late Paulo Rocha whose influential masterpiece of poetic neo-realism, Mudar de vida (1966) is offered both in tribute to his recent passing and as an occasion to reconsider Rocha's cinema and legacy.  Looking beyond the historic "Cinema Novo" movement with which this film and Rocha himself are most closely associated, Mudar de vida is placed here within a broader, alternate context: in dialogue with the films and presence of Víctor Gaviria and Billy Woodberry, two directors inspired, like Rocha, to renew the promise of a truly "popular cinema" intimate with the stories, experiences and landscapes of the people depicted and ultimately empowered by their films. Unseen in Portugal, the films of Gaviria and Woodberry offer revelational compliments to Rocha's lyrical realism, each inventing a tender yet sharp-edged poetry from the everyday lives and experiences of the hardscrabble worlds evoked so vividly in their films. Also present in spirit in this program is the father of Brazilian Cinema Novo, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, whose haunting cri de coeur, Vidas secas brings a rich expressive and literary dimension to this weekend long session of screenings and dialogues exploring the possibilities and limits of a "New Cinema". 

Above: Mudar de vida

Rocha's Mudar de vida crystallizes a major theme anchoring this encounter staged between Portuguese cinema and the cinema of the world: the all too often unrealized potential of cinema to critique and, moreover, to reinvent the image and imagination of a nation. As a vital expression of a subtly outspoken "New Cinema" resistant to easy co-option by an official image regime, Mudar de vida  offers a ideal vantage point to explore the distinct "New Cinemas" defined by Gaviria, Pereira dos Santos and Woodberry. A work of political and stylistic daring, Mudar de vida carefully defied the repressive Salazar censorship regime by refusing to follow the sanctioned tropes of an expected national cinema. Especially daring was Rocha's immersion in the folkloric world and rhythms of the Douro fishing village which inspires so much of the film's most arresting imagery. Anticipating the work of António Reis—who, by no coincidence wrote the film's poetically charged dialogue—Mudar de vida reaches far back to the deep past of lingering traditions and mythologies while simultaneously embracing and advancing a new expressive formal language.

Above: Vidas secas

A similar critical eye, formal sophistication and courageous ambition has continued to fuel the incredibly prolific and ongoing career of the legendary Nelson Pereira dos Santos whose films so profoundly reshaped the very landscape of modern Brazilian cinema. For almost half a century dos Santos has steadfastly dedicated himself to a mode of politically engaged, formally daring, yet at its core fundamentally populist, cinema embodied in his stark neo-realist classic Vidas secas. Showcasing the brilliant stylistic innovation that remains one of Santos' lasting signatures this truly landmark film offers an unusually frank address of once taboo socio-political issues: class inequity, poverty, racism—using real non-studio locations in remote and barren Northeast region in order to present an unvarnished and critically engaged vision of Brazil from different, unexpected perspectives. Vidas secas also reveals Pereira dos Santos' consummate and transformative skill adapting great literature for the screen and his ambition to invent a new critical mode of national cinema able to offer alternate, interrogatory images of Brazil as a nation overripe with contradictions and written heavily upon by the scars of history. 

Above: La vendadora de rosas

An urgent idea of popular cinema also drives the films of Colombian poet and director Víctor Gaviria who pioneered a bold interweaving of rough hewn poetic realism and expressive modes of literary and cinematic narrative in his celebrated features Rodrigo D. and La vendadora de rosas. Especially important to Gaviria's diptych is his casting of youth from the streets of Medellin into vivid dramas of their own lives and his sensitive reshaping of the stories to take the mythic form of popular cinematic and literary narrative. In Gaviria's cinema, the notion of a populist cinema of and for the people takes on a new and lasting resonance. Fiercely political, yet deeply humanist, Gaviria turned to cinema as a means to give image and voice to the marginalized and undertrodden, the criminalized and foresaken youth who tragically emblematized the unprecedented forces of change tearing apart his native Medellin which blazed for decades in the raging flames of the perpetual drug wars ruled of Pablo Escobar. The tragically premature death by street violence of many youth who appear in Gaviria's films only underscores both the urgency and fragility of the intervention made by his interactive hyper-realism whose refusal to sentimentalize is balanced by the haunting, almost uncanny, beauty of his often painterly imagery. 

Above: Bless Their Little Hearts

In his breakthrough feature debut, Bless Their Little Hearts, Billy Woodberry boldly embraced the spirit and challenge of the L.A. Rebellion movement to forge an independent, artisanal mode of filmmaking in the shadow of the Hollywood studios and subtly oppositional to the hegemonic ideology and formal language of the dominant commercial cinema. Working closely with Charles Burnettt, who provided Bless Their Little Hearts' original script and inventive 16mm camerawork, Woodberry embraced a more lyrical mode of realist cinema in order to intertwine his sensitive portraits of a tender marriage strained by the pressures of underemployment and of a marginalized people fighting a quiet, daily battle for its dignity and place in society. Filmed on location in South Central Los Angeles, Woodberry's film gently reveals an America overlooked and all too rarely seen on screen, a wholly authentic vision of the African-American experience that makes clear the stubborn rigidity of racial and class hierarchies in the United States. 

Underscoring and expanding the general challenge to traditional notions of national cinema at the heart of the transnational and constellational approach of the Harvard-Gulbenkian program, this encounter between Víctor Gaviria, Billy Woodberry and the works of Paulo Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos offers a unique dialogue between distinct yet kindred modes of "New Cinemas" whose legacies continue to resonant in contemporary cinema. Joining the conversation are renowned experts on Paulo Rocha, the influential Portuguese critic Augusto M. Seabra, Russian film critic Boris Nelepo, and the celebrated actress and star of Mudar de vida, Maria Barroso.

—Haden Guest

Part of an ongoing series of screenings and public discussions

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Harvard at the GulbenkianVíctor GaviriaBilly WoodberryNelson Pereira dos SantosspotlightPaulo Rocha
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