Brazil

FilmWatch Weekly: Brazil nuts rejoice

A pair of distinctive Brazilian efforts, "Araby" and "Good Manners" play at the Northwest Film Center

The Northwest Film Center has just wrapped up its epic, weeks-long centenary tribute to Ingmar Bergman. I was going to write “iconic Swedish director Ingmar Bergman” or “canonical philosopher of cinema Ingmar Bergman” but, you know, if you’re reading this column and need to have Ingmar Bergman identified for you, you might be in the wrong place.

Anyway, having concluded this remarkable service on behalf of Portland’s cinephiles, the Film Center is returning to its (ir)regular programming. Up this weekend, by chance or design, are a pair of Brazilian films with distinctly different vibes but some interesting commonalities.

“Araby” (no apparent relationship to the James Joyce story in “Dubliners”) is an intimate, class-conscious story about a working-class stiff for whom very little goes right, at least for very long. Co-directors Joao Dumans and Affonso Uchoa have constructed a two-tiered, bifurcated narrative, the first act of which focuses on teenaged Andre (Murilo Caliari). Under the opening credits, Andre steadily bicycles up a steep mountain road towards the ramshackle dwelling he shares with his younger brother and his aunt. As he does, the haunting lyrics of Jackson T. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” play behind him: “Wherever I’ve gone, the blues are all the same…”

That sentiment dominates the film. Andre, a few scenes later, happens upon the victim of an unspecified accident at a nearby factory. Told to fetch the man’s handwritten journal, Andre ends up sitting down to read it. And, twenty minutes in, we’re presented a title card for “Araby” as its main story begins. The journal’s author, Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), talks us in flashback through his journey across southern Brazil, working (mostly as a fruit picker), loving, singing, and frequently suffering. It’s never clear whether what we are seeing is a “real” flashback or simply Andre’s imagination, prompted by the increasingly lyrical diary entries he reads.

Continues…

“Aquarius” provides a career peak for iconic Brazilian star Sonia Braga

Forty-plus years into her career, Braga exudes dignity, panache, and sensuality as much as ever

Forty years ago, Sonia Braga starred in “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.” The Brazilian movie, a soft-focus but smarty skewed sex comedy, became an international hit and launched Braga’s career. (She was nominated for a BAFTA as Best Leading Newcomer.) Nearly a decade later, she became a familiar figure to American art house audiences in a double role opposite Oscar-winning William Hurt in “Kiss of the Spider-Woman.” In both roles, Braga exhibited an unapologetic, earthy sensuality and a self-conscious dignity, traits that don’t often easily mix.

Now, however, the 66-year-old Braga embodies them once again in “Aquarius,” a textured, impressive drama that provides the iconic star with her best role in decades, and puts the lie once again to the fact that great (or at least near-great) movies can’t be centered on performances from mature female actors.

Sonia Braga in “Aquarius”

Braga plays Dona Clara, a widowed, retired music critic living in a fantastic apartment across the street from the beach in the coastal city of Recife. Her apartment is, and has been for some time, the last remaining occupied unit in the building, but Clara refuses to sell to the development company intent on tearing it down and replacing it. This makes “Aquarius” sound like a straightforward social-issue drama, but it’s just as much a character study, as Clara reflects on her life while interacting with her adult children, her nephew, her friends, and her trusty housekeeper Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto, very endearing).

There’s a bittersweet nostalgia to much of “Aquarius,” but moments of sharp humor as well. When the developers decide to hold a blaring rave/porn shoot in the apartment above Clara’s to intimidate her, she fires up her phonograph and blasts them back with Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls.” Clara, and Braga, both boldly embrace things that others might think them too old for, like relaxing at the end of the day with a joint or hiring a well-endowed male prostitute to ease a lonely night.

I’ve seen recent performances from Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”), Isabelle Huppert (“Elle,” “Things to Come”), and Braga that put Hollywood’s treatment of mature women to shame. At the same time, these films prove that the roles are out there, if you know where to look.

“Aquarius” was directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, whose work I hadn’t been familiar with (this is only his second feature). But he does more than just allow Braga to work her magic. He handles several group dialogue scene with clarity, conjures memorable supporting characters without taking up too much screen time, and imbues the locale–especially the all-important location of Clara’s apartment–with personality and depth.

The movie gained some notoriety when members of its cast and crew held up signs at May’s Cannes Film Festival protesting the then-suspension of Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff. Following Rousseff’s impeachment, “Aquarius” was initially slapped with the equivalent of an NC-17 rating, and was passed over by the country’s selection committee as its submission for the Best Foreign Language FIlm Oscar. (In an odd bit of irony, the committee was chaired by veteran filmmaker Bruno Barretto, who directed Braga way back when in “Dona Flor.”)

Perhaps inspired by their protagonist’s perseverance, the makers of “Aquarius” didn’t back down, and the ensuing controversy, as it so often does, has only helped the film’s domestic box office, turning it into a symbol of art’s willingness to stand up against political oppression. (Are you listening, Hollywood?) While it may not be eligible for the Foreign Language prize, there are whispers that Braga could be a dark horse candidate for Best Actress. That seems unlikely, especially considering the strong field this year, but should a nomination come to pass, it would be an honor thoroughly deserved for a performer of stamina and panache.

(“Aquarius” opens Friday, Dec. 9, at Cinema 21)

142 minutes, not rated, in Portuguese with English subtitles. GRADE: B+

 

In the studio: Blaine Fontana

From his riverside workplace in a North Portland art hub, the muralist and public artist fans out around the globe

The winding sidewalk to North Coast Seed Building Studios is caught in a vice-grip between the hurried freight cars of the Union Pacific rail line and their fellow travelers, the cargo ships along the Willamette River below. Both sides are neatly ordered, and the hustle and bustle of behind-the-scenes raw materials and merchandise on the move make this industrial area between the Fremont and Broadway bridges in North Portland seem plucked from another time. Tall, bushy, and abundant dill plants spring from the space between the macadam and the gutter, fighting for space with monumental rosemary bushes. Maybe accidental escapees from the former seed storehouse, the out-of-place plants are a nice reminder of how tenacious life can be. There’s little pause between the trains as they create a small wind chamber; their weathered exteriors carry both loaded social commentary and amateur graffiti messages.

Blaine Fontana: the artist amid his art.

Blaine Fontana: the artist amid his art.

For the last seven years the artist Blaine Fontana has worked here. Inside, his studio looks like many in and around this sprawling artistic compound: projects stacked by studio doors; found pieces that look their age, but have enough of the right lines and material to deserve an eyeful. Near its high rafter ceilings Fontana’s studio has windows that face west and fill the room with an almost unfiltered light. The space is divided into sections, giving the unmistakable impression of a creative warehouse. With its stacked materials and framing of wooden beams, it’s playful, too. The smells of fresh lumber and 1950s filing-cabinet steel fill the air. Fontana is of a similar nature. He’s focused, grounded, driven, always on the hunt for something new to appreciate. He’s a tall man, with black swept hair and some well-placed tattoos. Around the edges of his thoughtful composure lurks a little of the bad boy.

Continues…