Why you should care
The “real” Brazil doesn’t look anything like City of God.
It’s Wednesday night in Recife, and among a certain circle of people, it’s a night to celebrate. Tonight marks the debut of director Camilo Cavalcante’s first feature-length film, The History of Eternity. Shot in a tiny community in the vast hinterlands of Pernambuco state in Northeast Brazil, the poorest region of the country, the film depicts brown on brown: worn faces in grim places, eking out pleasure where they can. As the lights come up at Cinemark Recife, so does the applause. “Hooray, Camilo!” they shout. The film has already won recognition on the international film festival circuit, and now it has returned home for its mass debut.
As the audience shifts to a party in the downtown of the region’s capital, faces in the crowd start to look familiar: They’re the actors in the film. The misery-laced widow is now clinking Heinekens and laughing with the ferocious patriarch. Irandhir Santos, the film’s star — who’s like a local Adrien Brody — plays chase with Cavalcante’s daughter. The room fills with long, meaningful embraces of old friends, as is Northeastern custom. On the one hand, it’s a local celebration for a local scene, but on the other, it’s a triumph of Pernambucan cinema, today’s booming pocket of Brazilian film.
Pernambucan cinema is in the midst of a resurgence, stoked by a group of young actors and directors like Cavalcante. The outcome is a local industry buzzing with excitement and churning out creative work at an unprecedented rate. In Brazilian film — a nearly $1 billion industry — Pernambuco is the place to watch, and big films are expected out of the region over the next decade.
While today’s Pernambucan film scene is certainly lit up, this isn’t the first time the area has caught the country’s attention. “Recife has a long film history thanks to the fact that before the sound era, most film production was going on there,” says Jack Draper, an associate professor of Portuguese at the University of Missouri. That period in Brazilian film — the 1920s — is now referred to as the Recife Cycle and marks the preeminence of the region in the industry. Yet it lasted only a decade before, Draper says, “they fell off the map.”
Attention shifted to Rio de Janeiro, where Brazil’s version of Hollywood began to grow — it still thrives there today, borne out by major films like Oscar-nominated City of God. Although the country’s directors remained intrigued by the tangled culture and spartan lifestyle of the Northeast, Draper points out that in a recent list of the top films there, few are directed by Northeastern directors. The absence of local voices was driven in no small part by a lack of resources: During the 1990s, the government-run cinema program that sponsored the production of films across Brazil shut down, effectively shutting down Northeastern film production as well. Instead, down in Rio, deep-pocketed production companies dug in, creating what Cavalcante calls “an industrial form of film driven by a TV — telenovela — aesthetic, where everyone is beautiful.”
It broke the rules and lent a rebellious air to what would soon become a Northeastern film movement.
But then, after years of silence from the Northeast, came the film that would spawn a resurgence. According to Cavalcante, 1996’s Perfumed Ball, directed by then-32-year-old Lírio Ferreira, was like “a scream in the night. It woke everyone up.” Centered around the local historical legend of Lampião, the hinterland Robin Hood, the film anachronistically steeped the old local legend in the Pernambucan cultural marinade of the late ’90s: a musical movement called mangue beat, whose reggae-influenced electric guitars rip across the film, both completely out of place and a perfect fit. It broke the rules and lent a rebellious air to what would soon become a Northeastern film movement.
For Cavalcante and a crop of 20-somethings who had been fiddling with video gear, suddenly it was showtime. Simultaneously, the government brought back financing, and soon a river of Northeastern film cut through the industry drought, starting with shorts and, increasingly these days, graduating to feature-lengths. While the average cost of a Brazilian film at the time was $1 million, Cláudio Assis, who co-produced Perfumed Ball, released Mango Yellow in 2002 with just $170,000, followed by Rat Fever in 2011. Both surprised audiences at international film festivals and snatched up loads of awards. Kleber Mendonça Filho also won international praise for his flick Neighboring Sounds, which The New York Times ranked as one of the 10 best films in 2012. Ferreira kept up pace last year, releasing Blue Blood, which won both best film and best director at the Rio Film Festival.
Indeed, success is begetting success here, and the revival of Pernambucan cinema today is in full swing. Today, Cavalcante joins those ranks thanks to his new film, which is about to hit local theaters. But at a crab restaurant on the south side of Recife, Cavalcante seems a bit thrown, and for good reason. Even though his film is now finally complete, his work has just begun. Despite their successes, the greatest challenge for Pernambucan filmmakers is getting their films into theaters — the nearly $1 billion that makes up the domestic film market is due largely to foreign flicks. Moments before we meet, Cavalcante gets a bad call: One of the local Recife theaters has suddenly backed out. Instead of screening The History of Eternity, it’ll show Tinkerbell, an American straight-to-DVD flick. “Sabotage,” he groans, tapping out a cigarette.
Subtly, Cavalcante’s own film, in fact, captures the struggle of the Pernambucan filmmaker today. In it, Santos’ character — a lush artist in the harsh hinterlands — returns from the local fair, where he’d gone to try to earn money performing his art. As he unloads from the back of a pickup in a cloud of dust, his niece greets him, the hot wind whipping her black hair.
“Uncle! How was the fair?”
“Ah, it was that way. These days, no one wants to know about art. But we keep going forward … with patience, with persistence.”