Saturday, August 15, 2009



The Brazilian Film Festival (officially named "VII Cine Fest Petrobras Brasil-NY") presented a balanced picture of an eclectic film industry in a huge country with political stability and somewhat more economic stability – and growth – than most of the world. It was very enjoyable.

Aside from well known, beautiful and talented superstars (eg Sonia Braga, Alice Braga, Giselle Bundchen) of Brazilian origin, Brazil has a reservoir of great talent... less well known outside of Brazil. And there was a lot of talent on display in the films in the festival.

There is a charming feeling of relaxed sexuality, and adult behavior in the films (and the performance of Silvia Machete at the opening night party). Indeed, one feature of the films was they were mostly about adults. (As one member of the organizing committee told me, we don’t need to make films for or about kids and teens; the Americans take care of that.) The center of gravity for the fictional characters was about 40 years old and moderately prosperous. Many of the documentaries were about even older musicians.

The strongest of the films I saw (I saw many, but not all the films) were Romance, an original, bright romantic comedy, and Veronica, a well-written action/chase movie. Overall, the greatest strength in the films was the acting; good writing, and a very personal dedication was also evident in the great labor it took to make the films, especially the documentaries.

The weakness of the films that I saw included a tendency to be safe in their overall stories, an almost complete lack of expensive effects – for example, low light graininess seemed more like cheap filmmaking than sophisticated style. And some really terrible subtitles (sometimes invisible white words on white backgrounds, sometimes ungrammatical, incomprehensible or even nonsensical translations – it seems like many people in Brazil speak good English – except for the translators who work on subtitles). The movies, while very good, seemed in some cases to not quite fully achieve the scope and edge in story and technique of great feature films.

I’m just guessing here, but the causes of these limitations could be: a home market that can not support very expensive films; a funding system that does not facilitate independent, well-budgeted, cutting edge films (which, of course, is true everywhere); and inexperience with all the possibilities of feature films as a medium different from TV.

The films shown include glimpses of a stable, prosperous country, the Brazilian musical scene, some corruption, and a lot of sexually charged relationships. Yet, the stories could have even greater scope and more edge, the moment-to-moment activity could be more complex and subtle, the visual canvas can be much broader, including more spectacular and diverse locations; and there is still room for more passion to underlie the films about what is really exciting about Brazil.

Also, getting someone who speaks native English to produce the final subtitles would be an instant boost to the films in the American market.

Young Brazilian pop singing superstar
Sandy Lima
on the Red Carpet for Wandering Heart
Photo by Eric Roffman for QPORIT

The opening of Wandering Heart, about the highly respected musician, Caetano Veloso, was the occasion for the Red Carpet event, though it could have been more exciting, with some prominent celebrities being no-shows. Indeed, more actors and actresses could have come for the screenings and all the parties to promote their films, the festival, and above all, themselves.

As a note to the organizers of all festival parties for filmmakers and journalists, I would like to make a suggestion for the name badges (brilliantly implemented by Esther Dyson at her tech events, by the way): Name tags should be huge, and the name and the person’s reason for attendance (eg the film’s name, and the person’s role – actor, director, producer…) should be able to be easily read by anybody nearby. It makes the people you want to meet so much easier to find, and conversations so much easier to start.

For all that, the festival itself was fun, with good screenings, parties, and a nighttime disco.

The Brazil on display is a Brazil I have always wanted to visit.

With a large TV industry to provide a reservoir of technical and – especially – great acting talent, and a huge, diverse, and untapped environment, Brazil provides a unique prospect as a site for movie makers to set their movies.

Here are some reviews of specific films and the opening event:


With a sly, engaging personality and a performance that is both retro and avant garde, Silvia Machete gave a real boost to the festival on opening night.

Performing at the Central Park SummerStage, in the open air in beautiful weather, after a day of horrible rain, she thanked the organizers for inviting her, mentioning that she lived in New York for a while -- giving street performances in Central Park, and suspected this might be the first time the police would ever let her finish her performance.

She has a nice voice, a pleasant jazzy style in both English and Portuguese, and fine back-up musicians. She performed her distinctive set-piece: hand rolling and lighting a “cigarette,” whose ingredients are stashed in various parts of her anatomy and clothing, while twirling a hula hoop. She also was taken up on her offer to give a free disc to some young man in the audience who would come up on stage and suck her toe (sic… yup… he did that… she did that).

Gloria Pires and Tony Ramos
If I Were You 2


If I Were You 2 was shown on the open air screen at Central Park on opening night.

This is a pleasant, enjoyable, amusing comedy. The acting and directing are very good in this role-reversal film, and the visual style is pleasant. The projection in Central Park, even before it was fully dark was excellent.

It is said to be the most successful domestic Brazilian film of the year (maybe ever). I was told that it grossed about 1.5 million dollars, which does set a limit on Brazilian domestic box office, and indicates why it may be difficult to provide large budgets for any films not likely to be a big success domestically and internationally.

The film conveys a feeling of a prosperous and stable society, which may be just the image the festival had in mind for its opening night. The film is kind of old fashioned both in style and content. In truth, the film could have been made in the US 50 to 75 years ago
(if they had color then).

The couple’s young daughter, whose boyfriend has gotten her pregnant, is played by
Isabelle Drummond, (actually, Isabelle Christine Lourenço Gomes Drummond), an impressive young actress. I was a bit confused by the dialog which refers to her boyfriend as a pedophile and exploiter of young girls, because she looks well over the age of consent and sophisticated and beautiful enough to be experienced. According to IMDB, however, she was actually only about 14 when she made this film, which explains a lot. Brazilians may be used to such young beauties, but for the external market, it would have been helpful to place her in a classroom with some young friends to set more context. Americans are used to seeing 25 year old actors play 16 year old high school students. Understanding that an actress who looks, perhaps, 18-19, is actually only 14, and supposed to be playing 15-16, is not intuitive for an American audience.

I enjoyed this film. It was a good start for the festival.

Andrea Beltrao with Matheus de Sá


This rather gritty chase film / thriller begins with excellent dialog and a setup that could come from Hitchcock: A burnt-out, everywoman teacher helps a child who is not picked up after school, and finds herself protecting the boy from drug dealers and corrupt, drug-dealing cops who want to kill him, like they killed his parents, to recover the recording his father, an informer, made of their drug transactions (a recording which the father, rather dangerously, gave the kid to take to school in the morning as kind of a necklace).

The acting is excellent.
Andrea Beltrao – who plays the teacher here, (and a very different character in Romance) throws herself into the role, and Matheus de Sá playing the boy is pitch perfect. The style is grainy and realistic (though it seems sometimes to be more ugly-ish and grainy because of the budget than because it’s the best choice for the film).

I found myself just a little put off by the way the script portrays the teacher as a 20 year veteran teacher and “one of the best teachers in the school” since she seems totally confused at first about what to do with a student who is not picked up; and completely unfamiliar with the neighborhood. (In 20 years there must have been students not picked up on time; and you’d think she’d know the neighborhood better.) It might have been just a bit more credible for me if she was, at least, new to that particular school.

The way it ends is interesting. Not to give too much away, the ending is neither too pat, nor too easy and over-optimistic.

Letícia Sabatella and Wagner Moura


This very nice romantic comedy deals with many issues that arise in theater, TV, and films:

1 -- A director and an actress love each other. But he is jealous, she is beautiful, and there are so many handsome actors, talented directors, and rich producers around...

2 – Theater can be awfully stagy.

3 – There’s much more money in TV than in theater.

4 – Theatuh is about the wuhrk, people should come for the ahht, not to see a famous actress.

5a – Happy endings can be unrealistic. Depressing endings are bad for box office.

5b – Classic theater pieces (especially Tristan and Iseult, Romeo and Juliet, etc) have classically tragic endings. TV and films usually have happy endings. When a classic tragedy is adapted for popular TV, should it end as happy/TV or classic/tragedy?

5c – For that matter, how should the movie itself end? It starts with classic theatrical tragedy and ends in the theater, but it’s a film with popular aspirations.

The acting is excellent again here,
Letitia Sabatella, as the actress, is beautiful and sympathetic. Letitia is also active in issues involving native Brazilians, and is the co-director of Hotxua. Andrea Beltrao, who is very good as the lead in Veronica, plays a very different sort of character here. These are two terrific actresses. Wagner Moura, who plays the director, is also very good.

This film is interesting, romantic, amusing and interesting. It begins with kind of an arty, arch, theatrical start (… well, after all, it begins by portraying an arty, arch, theatrical production, so I guess that style is appropriate). But the film becomes warmer and more and more naturalistic as it develops, -- and better and better -- finishing with a warm, comic flair.

Of course, half the final joke is that the warm comic flair of the finale is exactly what the character of the Director objected to in his TV film. The other half of the joke is that at the end of the film, now that he's got his girl, he's delighted to have a happy ending. (Note: It is hardly a "spoiler" to reveal that a romantic comedy called "Romance" has a comedic, romantic ending.)

Arnaldo Baptista

Loki -- Arnaldo Baptista is an old fashioned, threadbare documentary and a very interesting film about a very interesting subject -- Arnaldo Baptista, a musician who was instrumental in developing the evolution of Brazilian music. It is a portrait of a unique personality. It is also a story of love lost. In an interview, Sean Lennon says of Arnaldo, he has "the soul of a child." That could have been the title of this film.

The director/producers went to extraordinary lengths to obtain fascinating archival footage. This film, directed by Paulo Henrique Fontenelle, won the Festival's Crystal Lens Award for Best Feature Film, by the vote of the audience.

In contrast to the older music of Loki, the documentary Favella On Blast concentrates on the baile funk, music with its roots in one of the most violent and poor places, the shanty towns in Rio de Janeiro.

Fernando Grostein Andrade
Director of Wandering Heart
Photo by Eric Roffman for QPORIT

I did not have the chance to see Wandering Heart, but I did have a chance to chat with the director, who strikes me as extraordinarily skilled. He has accomplished a lot while very young, and he’s also charming. He is a good bet to become an important filmmaker.

The presence of three documentaries about music (and one fictionalized film version of a true story -- see below) testifies to the importance of musical traditions in the Brazilian culture.

Selton Mello and Alessandra Negrini
The Herb Of The Rat


This bizarre film (co-directed, and written by Júlio Bressane -- based on some famous stories) is sensuous, sexual, visually interesting, and logically completely incoherent. It has some of the worst subtitles ever; but I suspect that even in its native language it is better with the sound track off.

The cinematography and, especially, the actors, however, are very good. Selton Mello is a distinguished actor in Brazil, with many awards. The actress, Alessandra Negrini, of whom we see a lot in this film (and even more is available online), is a fine actress and very attractive. Her Cleopatra, from 2007, also directed by Júlio Bressane, won numerous awards in Brazil, including best actress for Alessandra.

The film has three distinct sections: the beginning could be a satire of an art film; the middle section is sexual and, except for the dialog, engrossing; toward the end it’s just gross… and also ridiculous: sort-of a bloodless, tensionless, pointless, horrorless, would-be horror film. I don't particularly like the title, which seems like a bad translation for the name of a poison. The film might perhaps better be called The Rat & The Pussy.

Watch the middle.


This fictional recreation of a real story, for most of the movie, presents the universal epic of a fledgling arts organization trying to organize in the face of financial and political obstacles. The insanely rapid progress the students make in their musical abilities, without obvious instruction, is a bit fake, but it’s fun. The young performers in the films are terrific, both in music and acting; and the young girl singer has an especially beautiful voice.

The first hour could (and should) be shown to every young orchestra and every municipal council anywhere in the world. But then for a short while, this story gets really ugly: a child kidnapped, beaten and abused physically, then abused some more -- psychologically -- by corrupt investigators; the maestro falsely accused of sexual abusing his students; suicide, blood, would-be murder. This awful stuff is over quickly, but it makes the film unsuitable for most audiences that would most appreciate it.

It’s also over too quickly to be a really adequate dramatization of the exceptional corruption and venality that made this story famous, or the exceptional way that media coverage, community support, and judicial review resolved the problems. (The story could have been a two-part movie or TV mini-series, with the “ugly” part given 90 minutes all its own.)

Happily the end credits suggest that the orchestra and teaching institution are flourishing and the children involved have gone on to successful lives, mostly with professional careers in music.

Adriana Dutra
Smoking I Wait

Smoking I Wait is an earnest film that presents a compelling description of many aspects of the tobacco problem: the difficulty of quitting (the director uses herself as the guinea pig); the addiction and marketing of cigarettes, the history of tobacco, and more. The attractive and affable Adriana L. Dutra is the director, the face of the story and, as it happens, also one of the organizers of the film festival.


Looking back over all the films in the festival and the whole experience, I am pleasantly impressed. There’s room for improvement in the quality of the films, yet the handmade feeling also provides a warm, personal feeling that gives the viewer the feeling of being really there, close to the action and the filmmaker, and not removed by a degree or two – the way films that are too sophisticated exist at a remove from the viewer.

The acting was exceptional.

There is enormous opportunity, I think, for filmmakers to tap into the Brazilian world, and Brazilian talent. And when major financiers put more financial support into the technical quality of the films, it will be easy for homemade Brazilian films to expand aggressively into the world market.

This festival travels around the world. It's worth visiting whenever it comes to your city.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s Brazilian Film Festival.

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