The five features and nine shorts made by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade constitute one of the major oeuvres of Brazil’s Cinema Novo. Their poetics are a shock to the system: playful, lewd, spontaneous, courting controversy, juggling contradictions, panegyrical even in their condemnations, and entirely political.
Brazilian cinema today looks provincial and pallid compared with the exuberance and overabundance of Cinema Novo, which aligned itself with the late-Sixties cultural ferment known as Tropicalism.
Mixing indigenous customs and forms with whatever was fresh from here, there, and everywhere, Tropicalism was a sensual pop-art movement in which polymorphous perversion and social subversion ran wild. Its roots lay in the modernist Anthropophagy movement of the Twenties, which sought to define Brazilian culture in terms of eclecticism, experimentation, mutation, and heterogeneous collectivity, while refuting Western classicism, linear development, and realism—in other words, presenting reality as one long movable feast.
De Andrade is mainly known for his savage, deliciously funny picaresque Macunaíma (69), a modern-day adaptation of Mario de Andrade’s 1928 novel, which is one of Anthropophagy’s ur-texts. The film recounts the misadventures of the eponymous aboriginal jungle dweller, who is capable of sorcery and accepts miracles whenever they occur, as he takes a disillusioning tour through modernity in the form of the Big City, revolutionary politics, and progress without development. Macunaíma remains one of the key works of Tropicalism, so much so, in fact, that it overshadows de Andrade’s other films. Culture devoureth as it giveth and so the national epic status of this magnum opus swallowed up the director, just as the world that gives birth to the film’s protagonist ends up absorbing him. But while de Andrade’s artistic output reveals no clean line of progression or development, only interconnections, every film has the finesse, grace, and singularity of Macunaíma, and all are very consciously products of their times.
Like a true Tropicalist, de Andrade was prone to experiment, trying something different with each film, whether it be fiction or documentary: an allegorical portrait of an unlikely Brazilian soccer icon with Garrincha, Joy of the People (62), a dark pastoral narrative with The Priest and the Girl (65), a historical-political reconstruction with The Conspirators (72), a transcendental erotic-pulp pastiche of petit bourgeois fear and loathing with Conjugal Warfare (75), and a biopic as cultural essay with The Brazilwood Man (82), to mention just the features, never mind his TV work. The impure eclecticism of de Andrade’s creative approach is omnidirectional and constantly reinvents itself. How could it be any other way for an artist who takes his national culture as his subject, as de Andrade did, declaring, “I can only make films in Brazil and about Brazil. Only Brazil interests me.”
That credo isn’t surprising considering the filmmaker’s background. His father was the founder of Rio de Janeiro’s Institute for National Artistic and Historical Heritage; some of Brazil’s greatest 20th-century artists were family friends. De Andrade dropped out of university, where he was studying physics, to embark on a film career, but first his father sent him to the southeastern province of Minas Gerais to work for a year on the restoration of the Passos da Paixão cathedral, an 18th-¬century masterpiece of Brazilian baroque featuring statuary by the master sculptor and architect Antonio Francisco Lisboa, aka Aleijadinho—about whom De Andrade would make a documentary in 1978.
In 1959 de Andrade completed his first short, which he later divided in two: The Master of Apipucos and The Poet of Castelo. Both are portraits of writers who were family friends—Gilberto Freyre, who leads a finely balanced if slightly solipsistic life of quiet ease in a mansion by the ocean with his wife and servants; and poet Manoel Bandeira, a searcher and dreamer who dwells alone in a modern high-rise in downtown Rio and wanders the streets. It’s telling that these two films were originally conceived as a diptych—the writers’ lives couldn’t be more contrasting, yet both are essentially, existentially Brazilian expressions of a culture thriving on contradictions.
De Andrade’s feature debut, Garrincha, Joy of the People, is a documentary portrait of a celebrated soccer player who owes his wondrous abilities to his peculiar physiology—one of his legs is bent inward and the other curves outward. Moving in strange ways, with broken rhythms, the film is divided into roughly three sections: a celebration of soccer itself, weaving moving images and stills into a stream of impressions that at times verges on abstraction; a direct-cinema style look at Garrincha’s daily life and his celebrity (in one scene, he walks unnoticed along a bustling Rio boulevard, despite his unmistakable gait and nationally famous face); and a study of the player’s performance in Brazil’s back-to-back World Cup final wins, with Garrincha upstaged by star striker Pelé in ’58 and stricken with fever and blending in with his teammates in ’62—another hero swallowed up. In an allegorical coda, de Andrade suggests that the Brazilian people are prisoners of their own joy, content to be spectators as their lives unfold in front of them. A samba celebrating the nation’s wealth and greatness bookends one of the greatest films ever made about soccer.
With his next project, The Priest and the Girl, de Andrade segued from the black and white stripes of Garrincha’s home team uniform to the black frock of a gaunt priest and the white wedding gown of a demure girl—a fanciful connection perhaps, except that such associative zigzags are ubiquitous in the director’s work. The Priest and the Girl is the story of a new priest who arrives in a moribund mining town in the Minas Gerais hinterlands, a place rife with regret and sorrow, where he falls for the only young woman living there. It is de Andrade’s first take on sex and longing and their power to tear society apart. It’s familiar material with no surprises amidst the prevailing doom and despair, but like his debut, it’s a pitch-perfect exercise in filmmaking shot in black and white, based more on montage than mise en scène, and it’s certainly his most classically lyrical work and most controlled narrative.
From Macunaíma onward, montage took a back seat to mise en scène as de Andrade’s film language loosened up, imbued with a deft documentary sense of the here and now, and open to wild tonal and stylistic shifts. As a result, 10 years after The Priest and the Girl, he could come up with something like the gloriously garish Conjugal Warfare, a panorama consisting of four interlocking tales dealing with sexual inadequacy, festering hatred, and exhausting disillusion. Here, as in the short Tropical Lane (77), another casually neorealistic tale of perversion and deliverance through transgression, the idea of going home—normally not an option in de Andrade’s films—actually seems possible.
In November 1965, during the final stages of work on The Priest and the Girl, de Andrade and seven other filmmakers and artists, including Glauber Rocha, were jailed after organizing a protest against the military regime that had seized power the previous year. That experience doubtless informed The Conspirators, de Andrade’s ambitious bid to set certain colonial records straight. In 1789 a group of ¬liberal-minded poets, judges, soldiers, and priests in Minas Gerais staged an unsuccessful coup d’état that resulted in the execution of a lieutenant by the name of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier. Popularly known as Tiradentes, he was the only conspirator who refused to throw himself on the mercy of the Portuguese crown, and because of his supreme sacrifice he became a national hero. A tract constructed from discussions, confessions, and several accidental poems, it’s shot in long, often wide-angle takes, with shimmering light and subdued color. Aside from a few Brechtian interludes, it’s dourly realistic for the most part—an Anthropophagic Tropicalist’s idea of an actuality drama, the B-side of the samba that plays at the end of Garrincha, Joy of the People.
De Andrade’s final feature was arguably his greatest. The Brazilwood Man is a bemused, sexy, and positively ecstatic take on the life, work, and ideas of Oswald de Andrade, author of two cornerstones of Brazilian modernism, the 1924 “Manifesto of Brazilwood Poetry” and the 1928 “Anthropophagic Manifesto” or “Cannibalist Manifesto” (did somebody say Breton?). In a sense, this is de Andrade’s second homage to his namesake: the protagonist of Macunaíma, in contrast to that of the original novel, was partly modeled on Oswald. Echoing the dual nature of that character, who is born as a fully grown adult and is transformed from black to white, The Brazilwood Man gives us a double Oswald: a man and a cross-dressed woman appear together on screen, simultaneously playing the writer. In the end, the female Oswald, inspired by the manifesto’s call for a revolutionary cannibalistic matriarchy, eats her male counterpart—just as Macunaíma, back in the jungle after his loss-filled journey, is devoured by a pond nymph. The wilderness claims everything alien to it, and by the time he returns, Macunaíma has become an Other.
Lucid, sensual, and gloriously schizophrenic, The Brazilwood Man has the lilt of a musical, and sparkles like an elegant comedy of manners, bursting with ideas and innuendos. The film’s reception by the critics and public was a harsh one, whereas Macunaíma was greeted ecstatically. Maybe Macunamía’s quiet jungle death—a splash and then blood spreading on the surface of a pond—was easier to stomach than a vision of change.
Born in 1932, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade died in 1988 in Rio de Janeiro, his hometown and birthplace. Writing about the Cinema Novo generation, French critic Sylvie Pierre was quite possibly right when she called him “the greatest of them all.”