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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Arthouse Redux: The Fine Art of Balancing Politics and Filmmaking

Since I brought up Walter Salles‘ and Daniela ThomasLinha de Passe in last week’s Arthouse Redux column, I thought this would be a good opportunity to discuss that film in greater depth while also revisiting their earlier film, Foreign Land. Salles is perhaps better known to American audiences for his solo directorial efforts with Central Station (nominated for two Academy Awards), and Motorcycle Diaries (Oscar-nommed twice, won for Best Song). But while Foreign Land and Linha de Passe might take you a little more effort to track down, they are tremendously rewarding viewing experiences for the arthouse movie geek.

I enjoy and appreciate Salles as a solo director, but although they have a very different feel, I find the grittier, looser films he’s made with Thomas equally compelling and engaging. There’s something about working with Thomas that seems to open Salles up as a director and allow him to engage in a more intimate exploration of characters and situations. Although both Foreign Land and Linha de Passe are very specifically examinations (one might even say critiques) of Brazilian politics and society, their storylines and character arcs are broadly universal enough to feel familiar to viewers from any culture.

The two films, shot a dozen years apart, are explorations of the impact of political and social change in Brazil on the working poor, and are part of a planned series of films which will continue to examine the cultural impact of change on Brazilian youth roughly every twelve years. Foreign Land and Linha de Passe, though stylistically very different, are tied together by this common theme and are intended to ultimately be patches of a much larger tapestry that captures the historical impact of the politics and mores of a culture on its young people, and tracks the impact of abstract political policies against their very real present and future impact on average, working class young people.

Foreign Land, shot in stark black and white, is set in 1990, just after the controversial election of Fernando Collor in the first democratic presidential election in Brazil in 29 years. The film starts off following two disparate storylines: Paco (Fernando Alves Pinto), a young man living with his mother in São Paulo, finds himself traumatically untethered when his mother dies unexpectedly of shock upon hearing that Collor, on his first day in office, has implemented the Plano Collor, his attempt to get inflation in Brazil in hand by taking control of private bank savings accounts and converting them to uncashable goverment bonds.

Paco, lost in grief, winds up in the hands of the buoyantly friendly and seemingly innocuous Igor (Luís Melo), who offers to help Paco fulfill his dream of journeying to San Sebastian, Spain, his mother’s birthplace, by giving him a job delivering a violin to a contact in Lisbon. Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Miguel (Alexandre Borges), a drug-addicted trumpeter, his stunningly lovely waitress girlfriend Alex (Fernanda Torres) and their mutual friend Pedro (João Lagarto), who owns a little shop selling sheet music. The paths of all these players collide in Lisbon around the delivery of the violin — which of course is not just a violin — some stolen uncut diamonds, and the people who want both the violin and the diamonds back.

After taking the first half or so of the film to languidly set up the stories of everyone involved (pacing that may feel, especially to American audiences, to be very slow-paced), Salles and Thomas suddenly take a sharp turn into noir, setting up the innocent, wide-eyed Paco to be caught up in a world of crime which he has no idea how to deal with. (Apparently Paco has not watched a lot of noir. Rule Number One: Never agree to transport a violin — or anything else for that matter — for an overly friendly and familiar guy named Igor who buys you lots of whiskey upon your first encounter.)

By the bye, in certain respects Foreign Land reminds me a lot upon a more recent viewing of Gela Babluani‘s excellent 2005 noir 13 (Tzameti), in that both are beautifully shot black and white films that deal with lost young men getting caught up in a plot of criminal activity and having to find a way out of what they’ve gotten into. If you’re a fan of Babluani’s film but unfamiliar with Foreign Land, you’ll probably find much to like there. Of the two films, though, I find Foreign Land to be more intricately structured, in spite of a few somewhat clumsy giveaways that clue the viewer into what’s really happening sooner than perhaps they should. I won’t give away the closing scene of Foreign Land, but I will tell you that it’s one of my favorite closers of any movie, ever — perfectly and ironically commenting on everything that came before it without a single line of dialogue. Just brilliant.

Linha de Passe, which reunited Salles and Thomas as directors 12 years after Foreign Land, has a completely different feel, for all that it deals with similar themes around Brazilian culture and politics. The title, as Thomas explained to a group of journalists interviewing the directors at Cannes when the film premiered there in 2008, refers to a children’s game similar to hacky-sack, in which the goal is to pass a small ball among four people without the ball hitting the ground; it also evokes the film’s central thematic element, which revolves around four brothers of a stalwart working class mother, unmarried and pregnant with her fifth child. All of the characters in Linha de Passe are struggling, each in their own way, to keep their own balls of survival in the air.

In both Foreign Land and Linha de Passe, the characters are unsettled, moving, constantly in flux. In Foreign Land, Paco tries to work through his grief by getting to San Sebastian, finds himself stranded in Lisbon, and then must stay on the run with Alex to stay a step ahead of the bad guys so he can find the missing goods before the bad guys catch up with him. In Linha de Passe each of the four brothers, struggling to survive in Brazil’s unstable economy, is also in motion: Denis, the oldest brother (João Baldasserini) works as a bike courier, navigating São Paulo’s dangerously crowded streets; Dario (Vínicius de Oliveria, the only professional actor in the cast, having previously starred in Central Station) has just turned 18 and now, being too old to continue playing in the ultra-competitive junior soccer leagues, must find a way to get onto a pro team or give up the one path out of economic hardship available to him; Dinho (José Geraldo Rodrigues) seeks his own path to economic freedom via an evangelical church; and youngest brother Reginaldo (Kaique de Jesus Santos) endlessly rides the buses of his city in search of the father he’s never known.

Both films also deal with issues of race, racism, and what it feels like not to fit in. In Foreign Land, Alex and Paco face the discrimination of being Brazilians in Portugal; there is a good deal of dialogue sprinkled throughout the film about Brazil’s history of being colonized by Portugese in search of a better life, with Salles and Thomas seeming to raise an ironic eyebrow at Brazilians returning to the homeland of their forefathers being treated as second-class citizens. The Lisbon hotel Paco stays in is occupied on the third floor by black immigrants from Angola, and the hotel manager makes a point of reassuring Paco that the blacks have “nothing to do” with his hotel; later in the film, when Paco befriends Loli (Zeka Laplaine), one of the Angolan immigrants, Loli’s friends deride him for getting involved with Paco’s problems, telling him “blacks should stay with blacks, and whites with whites” and asking him what he’s doing bring that “honky” into their domain.

n Linha de Passe, race is dealt with primarily through Reginaldo, the youngest brother and the only sibling with dark skin and a black father. Because of his mixed race and dark skin, Reginaldo feels isolated and insecure, an outsider both in society at large and within his own family. He returns, again and again, to a single photograph he has of the father he’s never known, seeking comfort in a face as dark as his own. He loves his mother and his brothers, but he restlessly searches for the man he doesn’t know and yet identifies most strongly with.

In both films Salles and Thomas also address as a sideline issue the number of fatherless families in Brazil; there’s never a mention in Foreign Land of where or who Paco’s father is, and in Linha de Passe the family of boys is headed up by tough-but-loving, working-class single mom Cleuza (Sandra Corveloni, who won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance).

Stylistically, both Foreign Land and Linha de Passe feel rougher, grittier, than Salles’ solo directorial efforts, although they also feel very different from each other. Foreign Land, with its starkly beautiful, moody, black and white cinematography (by Walter Carvalho, who was also the DP for both Salles’ Central Station and Golden-Globe nominated Behind the Sun), has an artsier feel to it that veers almost without warning into a tense, sinister tone in the film’s second half. Linha de Passe feels more free and spontaneous, with a verite sense that we are flies on the wall watching the events that unfold in the brothers’ lives. We are frequently put right in the center of the action — Salles and Thomas shot many of Linha de Passe‘s scenes “off the radar” with cameras attached to bicycles or motorcycles, following the characters around — but the close proximity of camera to actors and scenes and the use of ambient noise never seems overbearing or takes us out of the story.

Generally, I don’t think Linha de Passe is quite as methodically and artistically shot and framed as Foreign Land, but it’s still fine work. Linha de Passe also has an interesting blend of the meticulously planned with the spontaneous — de Oliveria, for instance, trained for his role as the soccer-playing Dario by actually playing in Brazil’s junior leagues for four years, and before and during filming the entire cast lived together to build a sense of family — but a good deal of the acting once filming started was improvisational.

Both films are well worth a visit (or a revisit, if you’ve already seen them), whether you’re already a fan of Salles as a director or completely unfamiliar with his work. If you enjoy a good noir, Foreign Land is about as thrilling, solid and engaging as noir gets (just stay with it through the long set-up), and I found Linha de Passe‘s rough, somewhat rough-and-tumble verite style to still have infinitely more polish than, say, Brillante Mendoza‘s Serbis, which I covered in last week’s column.

If you’re a fan of Salles but unfamiliar with his work with Thomas, both films are worth watching just to appreciate the difference that it makes to have this brilliant director working with another filmmaker on these projects; working with Thomas puts Salles in a different kind of filmmaking zone entirely, and it’s pretty fascinating to examine the end results.

Beyond all that, though, both Foreign Land and Linha de Passe are must-sees for anyone into arthouse cinema if for no other reason than the sheer scope and ambition of a pair of directors aiming to make a total of six films revisiting a common culture and theme at 12 year intervals; that’s 72 years of staying devoted to one project — an ambitious filmmaking undertaking if ever there was one.

Note: Linha de Passe, so far as I know, never had a US release date and is only available on Region 2 DVD. It can be very hard to find — Green Cine carries Foreign Land and most of Salles’ other work, but doesn’t list Linha de Passe; Netflix lists it as “unavailable on DVD,” probably because it’s not available in Region 1. I managed to unearth a Region 2 copy at Seattle’s amazing Scarecrow Video, though, and if you live in a city with a fantastic DVD store you might get lucky and be able to track it down. If you can find it, it’s worth the effort.

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One Response to “Arthouse Redux: The Fine Art of Balancing Politics and Filmmaking”

  1. Anjelica says:

    Why people don't stop to criticize Fernando Torres ?! It's boring & disrespectful.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon