by Allan Fish
(Brazil 1931 113m) not on DVD
The unknown masterpiece
d/w Mario Peixoto ph Edgar Brasil ed Mario Peixoto m Sergei Prokofiev, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, etc.
Taciani Rei, Paul Schnoor, Olga Breno, Brutus Pedreira, Iolanda Bernardes, Carmen Santos, Mario Peixoto,
It isn’t often a film connoisseur can count himself privileged to have seen a film, but Mario Peixoto’s seminal avant garde silent classic is one such occasion. It was none other than Georges Sadoul who famously called it “the unknown masterpiece“, and added in a footnote that he travelled to Brazil to see the film, only to get nowhere, told that Peixoto had retired to a desert island and was hiding it. Filmed in 1930, it remained largely unseen after its premiere on May 17th 1931, and didn’t start turning up again until championed by the likes of compatriot Glauber Rocha and shown publicly in the 1970s. It topped two polls from Brazilian film bodies, the last in 1995, as the best Brazilian film ever made. What is most incredible of all is that, firstly, the film was made by a 21 year old, and, secondly, it was his only film. Like Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique and Clive Brook’s On Approval, one of only four films in this list whose directors only directed that single movie.
Where to begin to describe it? It is avant garde, yet unlike most avant garde works is not only feature length but nearly two hours long. It is accompanied by classical music, but unlike, say, Buñuel’s classic Un Chien Andalou, there is meaning behind it, and the film’s rhythms, courtesy of its often inspirational editing, are perfectly in tune with the accompanying work. It begins with a series of close-ups of a woman’s face, including an iconic shot of her seemingly manacled inside a form of hand-cuffs. She is then seen as one of three people on a rowing boat seemingly stranded at sea. What follows could be interpreted as in her own mind, visions, daydreams, hallucinations, call it what you will. Its technical mastery is all the more impressive for its director’s lack of formal training, including 360 degree camera rotations atop a cliff, and the ultimate in worm’s eye view shots, either of telegraph poles or people in conversation. Rock faces, birds, billowing wheat and boats are continuous motifs, but none more so than water. Indeed, the final reel contains several minutes set to Prokofiev of nothing but the sea splashing, cascading and tossing, the camera conveying an almost discomforting sense of nausea. The film comes full circle in that, at the end, the woman we first saw is now hanging desperately to a plank of wood after the sinking of her boat, and images of herself in manacles again present themselves to her. It gives the film not only a dizzying sense of symmetry, but emphasises man’s inability to change the fates. Man is often seen from a distance, or else dwarfed by his surroundings and by nature, whether against the endless seas, walking up a dusty road or even coming face to face with his own mortality in a graveyard.
The images that most recall themselves to memory are those of the tide lapping against the beach, and of the footsteps of the protagonists as they walk along the sands. The tide comes in and wipes them away, which is not only symbolic of the way the film itself was seemingly washed away for decades, but of man’s short stay in this world, everything reduced to a single image of transience. It’s a motif that would be recognised not only by the Parisian avant garde set but by Sergei Eisenstein, who himself used montage as a way of almost making cinema, to quote Abel Gance, “the music of light.” Even Chaplin gets a nod, with clips from The Adventurer – the sequence of Charlie burying himself in the sand, not coincidentally. It could also be seen as virtually pure cinema, in that there are only a select few inter-titles in the film. Its almost proto-Godardian elusiveness is summed up when one reads “you came from the house of a woman, who is not yours, supposing she is mine, just like this one here was yours. And if I told you she was leprous.” And that was spoken in a graveyard! Limite is one for connoisseurs of the strange, and an unquestioned step on the road to the Weirdsville, USA, of David Lynch.