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Invoking Ghosts and Devils in the Land of the Sun

With his new film "Memory House" entering the world, a historical stroll through the films & influence of Brazil's João Paulo Miranda Maria.
Natalia Barrenha
In the first days of June 2020, the Brazilian feature Memory House (Casa de antiguidades), by João Paulo Miranda Maria, was announced as the only Latin American film selected by the Cannes Film Festival—a kind of “symbolic” selection, as the festival would not take place this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The films received a “Cannes label” and have premièred at other renowned events as restrictions have slowly been lifted.
Brazil was the epicenter of the pandemic at that moment, in addition to being dragged down by a political and economic crisis, with all the public funds assigned to the cinema industry frozen, and on the verge of losing its Cinemateca (the biggest film archive in Latin America) in a dubious process of government intervention. Then an astonishment and a question hovered in the minds of many who follow and love cinema in the country: who is João Paulo Miranda Maria?
Memory House is Miranda Maria’s first feature, but the 38-year-old filmmaker has built a consistent career through his short films, also recognized by Cannes and Venice—although with a nearly null echo in the Brazilian film circuit. For Memory House, Miranda Maria secured international funds (mostly from France, and to a lesser extent the Netherlands) before obtaining Brazilian funds. Ant Killers (Meninas formicida, 2017) was his first film with a budget and production company support (also from France), and his previous shorts were financed through raffles, personal savings, the in-kind support of local businesses and the collaborative labour of a semi-professional team working for free.
Miranda Maria is a kind of outsider in the landscape of contemporary Brazilian cinema—in a way, just like his characters, who in every film are displaced figures seeking to find themselves in a world that keeps pushing them out. Miranda Maria calls the universe he has been developing cinema caipira, which could be translated as yokel or hick cinema. But in contrast to the most famous caipira character in Brazilian cinema—Jeca Tatu, created by the actor and filmmaker Amácio Mazzaropi (1912-1981), who directed dozens of films from the 1950s to the late-1970s exploring the comic and naïve idiosyncrasy of this national type—Miranda Maria seeks to reframe both the derogatory weight of the term and its centrality in rural settings. To the filmmaker, cinema caipira implies exploring marginalized characters in a broad spectrum of meanings: the people from disregarded contexts that are trying to belong, trying to fit in, even if it never fully works. In turn, they need to radically break with their current lives to be able to continue with their search. In the director’s words, they are like “rough gems” in their very personal and unconventional polishing journeys.
This can be seen in his first short Circus Love (Amor de picadeiro, 2013), about the rebellion of the bearded woman in the pursuit of her beloved—whom she finds in a different place than she expected. Devil’s Route (Ida do diabo, 2014), inspired by a Mikhail Bulgakov novel, is more experimental, grounded in the symbolic, in bodily performance, and depicts the meeting between a strange man and two artists that discuss Jesus’s existence on a bohemian Moscow night. Command Action (idem, 2015), screened at the Critics’ Week in Cannes, was Miranda Maria’s calling card to the world, and a paramount step in the maturation and unfolding of his cosmogony.
The plot by Fernanda Tosini (also the writer of Circus Love, and producer of all Miranda Maria’s shorts) follows an 11 year old boy that is sent by his mom to buy food at the feira, a popular kind of street market in Brazil. There, in a chaotic universe of colors, smells and noise—a screaming mouth with freshly touched-up lipstick, raw fish, vegetables repeatedly being touched, fried pasties, sugarcane juice, chickens ready to be slaughtered, mirrored sunglasses, a crying baby, country music blasting from the immense speakers—his attention is captured by a flashy luminous robot. He wears a shabby t-shirt on which we can read Hollywood, and in smaller letters, Dream Cars Gramado, referencing both the big industry of cinematic fantasies and the glamorous, long-established and old-fashioned film festival that takes place in the Brazilian town of Gramado.
The camera wanders around the market with him, penetrating that space, capturing both documentary and staged situations, while we hear a myriad of dialogues that range from an exchange of recipes to some drunken moans, discussions of football to filthy whispers between horny couples, and rumors about a pregnant teenager as well as young boys that have been killed or arrested. There is a latent violence expressed through this soundscape populated by stories of dysfunctional families and helpless youth surrounded by poverty and brutality. Unexpectedly, this violence is materialized through a Youtube video of carbonized bodies in a morgue. For a few seconds, this footage condenses and opens up a general unease that has been slowly and subtly building. The boy’s desperate gesture to remain a child, seen through the toy robot, instead of taking on responsibility doesn’t relieve the tension: the armed robot and the recordings it repeats inevitably refer to the situation from which the protagonist intends to escape.
The Girl Who Danced With the Devil (A moça que dançou com o diabo, 2016), which obtained a Jury Special Mention at Cannes Official Competition, and the already mentioned Ant Killers, released at Venice as part of the Orizzonti section, also portray characters that are on the edge of a rupture; in both cases religion, along with a conservative and sexist society, play an important role in the oppression and repression of individuals and their aspirations and desires. The former is based on an old tale from the countryside in which a girl disobeys her parents and goes to a dance on Good Friday, the Christian holiday. The film updates the legend with a new backdrop, the spectacular recent rise of the more reactionary, misogynistic, homophobic and intolerant branch of the neo-Pentecostal movement in Brazil. The young woman that leads the story is restrained by loud and fevered religious discourses coming from both her father and the television, while a dark shadow insists on besieging her.
The protagonist of the latter is also a teenager harassed by scary shadows, inflamed religious speech, and heart-breaking carelessness, as well as by a man without a face. The film makes a careful but bold approach to subjects like abortion and sexual violence. The girl earns money by spreading insecticide on anthills in eucalyptus plantations, dealing with an extremely toxic material without any protection. Loggers prefer to hire young girls because of their thin fingers for applying the poison and their physical disposition to cover large areas. The director found out about this unusual and precarious job, carried out especially by poor teenagers, through a local newspaper story.
Miranda Maria is from Rio Claro, a small town where “old habits die hard” (the flag reads, in Latin: Quieta Non MovereDo not move settled things) in the countryside of São Paulo state, the economically richest region in Brazil. All his films were born from an attentive look at Rio Claro’s parochial way of life. Another important aspect of cinema caipira is the observation of what surrounds us, the everyday life, and the pursuit of the extraordinary in the ordinary, contaminating the real with fabrication. He studied cinema in Rio de Janeiro but with no money or opportunities to settle in that city after graduation, he returned to Rio Claro in 2006, working in the family restaurant and filming weddings, while running, on a volunteer basis, a film club at a community cultural center.
Following the weekly screenings, Miranda Maria stimulated debates, and when cell phones with cameras became popular, he started filming with the attendees doing two or three minute exercises that they called film essays. At the same time, he developed a master’s thesis on the work of the Dziga Vertov Group, a Maoist-oriented film collective created by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin in the 1960s. The immersion in the oeuvre of the French artists and the passion for the Russian filmmaker pushed Miranda Maria to nurture the experimental and political features of the discussions and the film essays, in addition to inspiring the name of the collective of the film club: the Kino-Eye Group (Grupo Kino-Olho).
In 2009, the Group won The Mobile Phone Movie Competition promoted by CNN’s program The Screening Room. The film essay A Girl and a Gun—made with a cell phone with a two megapixel camera borrowed from Miranda Maria’s father—was broadcast on the American channel and conveyed the first turning point in the filmmaker’s career. After that, the local council began to support (slightly) the activities of the Group, and along with the film club they carried out a broad project of cinema dissemination that included workshops in public schools; the Cinema Caipira printed and online magazine, which had more than 60 issues published; and the Kino-Eye Independent Film Festival, which took place for seven years.
The relationship with the authorities was always problematic, especially because of incomprehension of cultural management and a lack of understanding of what artistic freedom means (for example, the Secretary of Culture tried to dissuade the Group from shooting the street market because he believed they should film the “much more beautiful” town bandstand). But it was useful for giving the Group a little financial stability and generating a buzz that attracted a new audience, including people that would become key-members of the Group and Miranda Maria’s long-term creative partners, such as Tosini, Cláudia do Canto (producer), Léo Bortolin (sound), Tiago Ribeiro Pereira (DoP), Marina Palmera Butolo (art) and Rogério Borges (assistant director). In 2011, with Brás Cubas, a film essay written by Isadora Torres (one of the many young people that received training from Kino-Eye and now works in the film industry), the Group was awarded a camera and an editing bay, and began planning Circus Love, a project that proposed to evolve narrative aspect of production, progressing from the two-minute film essays to a 14-minute storyline-based film.
Since then, we can see Miranda Maria’s obsessions repeat, becoming more sophisticated, and in Memory House he goes even further. Cristovam (played by Antônio Pitanga, a living legend of Brazilian cinema who has starred in more than a hundred films, having been directed by Glauber Rocha and Cacá Diegues) is an elderly black man who has worked for a dairy company for over 30 years. When the factory plant is bought by an international conglomerate and moves from Goiás (in the predominantly agrarian Brazilian Midwest) to an indeterminate village (established by Austrian immigrants and today inhabited by their descendants) in the southern mountains, Cristovam joins his employer. We accompany the character in his new and hostile environment: he is mocked and isolated by his neighbors and colleagues, menaced by armed boys, his property is invaded and ransacked, and he has to deal with non-negotiable wage cuts.
The film approaches a series of historically relevant topics that are necessary to revisit during this time of tremendous backlash, with the emergence of hate speech, violent attacks against minorities, and the resumption of a destructive neo-neoliberal agenda. Brazil’s social and racial tensions are complex and wide-ranging, and as the last Western country to abolish slavery (just 130 years ago), the discrimination and violence towards black and indigenous citizens are a living legacy. President Bolsonaro’s election in 2018 was only the most recent event in this long timeline, and Rio Claro’s conservative ambiance again appears as fertile creative ground to Miranda Maria. In the present, the far-right president won 80% of the votes there in the second round. In the past, with a large community of descendants of poor Italians constituting its population, the town strongly adhered to the Integralist Movement, a kind of Brazilian fascism fueled (among other things) by the interest in the Italian political scene under Mussolini. Integralism also took over some localities in Southern Brazil, a region that received a lot of German, Austrian, Polish and Italian immigrants from the late-19th century to the end of the World War II, in a process driven by the Brazilian government to both provide cheap labor (to substitute the previously enslaved) and “whiten” the population.
As in his previous films, Miranda Maria uses a lot of visual symbols to address the issues that he is interested in, and allegory is a recurrent ally. It begins with the contrast between the Kubrickian-futuristic, creepily white, ultra technological dairy factory and the humble village with wood houses nestled among dense vegetation where the workers live. Although it is not anchored to a specific date and relies on an anachronistic atmosphere, pale photography and production design suggest the 1970s, the height of the last Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985). The corporate-speak delivered by the new European dairy owner points to whitewashing colonialist methods. The massive milking of cows functions as an emblem of exploitative capitalism. The gun culture and the separatist project of the Brazilian southern states are not so allegorical, but emphasize the current polarization in the country.
Memory House also replicates and deepens aesthetic procedures that Miranda Maria has been developing in the shorts, such as suffocating and disorienting takes, the (conscious) plot gaps, the almost absence of reverse shots, the dolly in from wide shot to extreme close-up, or the characters who face the camera and break the fourth wall, involving the viewers in the conflict and drawing their responsibility into it. But the most remarkable achievement lies in the sound design, fashioned by Miranda Maria’s usual collaborators Bortolin and Torres: a profusion of noises that don’t seem to belong to the scene, freakish symphonies that overwhelm the senses and play with our perception, thickening the atmospheres and increasing discomfort, mismatch, embarrassment, which sneakily flow from the characters to the audience.
In the many interviews he has given since the Cannes announcement, Miranda Maria has often paraphrased a quote by Robert Bresson that works as a mantra for him: “The filmmaker is the one who brings the invisible to the visible.” In the universe of Memory House that insists on archaic practices, Cristovam will fight back, giving way to the magical powers of his ancestry, the mysterious connection he has with the animals and the forest, and to the anger of generations repressed inside him. In a society that doesn’t like to face its ghosts and demons and prefers to keep them invisible, Miranda Maria once again invokes them, bringing to light a reflection on the social restlessness of his homeland.

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