Doclisboa 2022: Pleasure and Prohibition
This article appeared in the October 20, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Extremos do prazer (Carlos Reichenbach, 1984)
Screening at the Cinemateca Portuguesa (about as dreamy a place to imbibe cinema as one can hope for), Doclisboa’s renowned retrospectives are often dedicated to important auteurs who are little known outside their own countries. Recent editions cast a deserved spotlight on the likes of Colombia’s Luis Ospina and Italy’s Cecilia Mangini, and this year the festival presented the subversive oeuvre of the Brazilian Carlos Reichenbach. In its commitment to social critique, his filmography offers a miniature history of the country’s shifting social and political terrain across five decades, which accounts for the retrospective’s inclusion in a documentary festival even though it almost exclusively comprised works of fiction.
The director’s early films belong to Cinema Marginal, or udigrudi cinema (a parodic mishearing of the English “underground”). This loose movement, which emerged in the late 1960s during the darkest years of Brazil’s military dictatorship, was made up of filmmakers who pursued a more populist form of political cinema than that of Cinema Novo, which had come to be perceived as elitist and paternalistic. Reichenbach was a central figure of the São Paulo faction, Cinema da Boca do Lixo, named after a seedy area of the city commonly called “mouth of garbage.” During this period he favored picaresque narratives, sending his protagonists on carnivalesque adventures that doubled as satirical portraits of society. Disappointed with the reception to Lilian M: Confidential Report (1975), about a farmer’s wife who leaves her family behind and decamps to the city on a quest for sexual liberation, he turned to pornochanchadas. Producers eagerly bankrolled these cheap and lucrative films, erotic revisions of the chanchada musical comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, interfering little with their content as long as they delivered the requisite titillation and clichés.
Films such as The Island of Prohibited Pleasures (1978) and The Empire of Desire (1980), both allegorical tales about the repression of the counterculture, took advantage of the pornochanchada format to sneak radical politics into popular cinema. It might have been a pretext, but Reichenbach has great fun with the steamy material, which he at once elevates and keeps gleefully trashy. In The Island of Prohibited Pleasures, during an extended sex sequence, the camera slowly tracks in on two lovers writhing against the grill of a Volkswagen, flanked by the car’s glowing headlights. It’s a much more exquisite composition than one would expect from an exploitation flick about an agent of the military regime who infiltrates an island commune and gives herself over to free love before going on a killing rampage. But Reichenbach, who shot the film himself, crafts many such moments. That the scene is scored to a piece from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach makes it even more absurd, especially if the choice is read as a nod to Straub-Huillet (whose Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach marked the pair’s feature debut a decade earlier). Reichenbach’s exceptional erudition is only obliquely expressed in the early films—in deference to Cinema Marginal’s wish to not alienate the audience—but becomes more overt later in his career.
In The Empire of Desire, the first Brazilian film to earn the official classification of “pornographic spectacle” from the country’s military censors, the dialogue includes uncredited quotes from the likes of Fernando Pessoa and William Blake, along with a scene of a Chinese woman boiling her lover alive while reciting slogans from Mao Tse-tung and the Vietcong. This homage to Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) is elaborated in Buccaneer Soul (1993), when a beatnik living with a Maoist cell can’t get any sleep because his roommates won’t stop reading aloud from the Little Red Book. The film belongs to Reichenbach’s post-udigrudi career; by the mid-1980s, with the dictatorship on the way out, he started working with state funds and larger budgets. Although his cinema didn’t grow any less accessible—he remained a populist filmmaker to the last—Reichenbach no longer had any compunction about citing his influences, and Buccaneer Soul name-checks an encyclopedia’s worth: Fuller, Lang, Imamura, Mizoguchi, Cocteau, Vigo, Marx, Lenin, Kropotkin, Wilhelm Reich, Henri Michaux, Ezra Pound, Louis Ferdinand Céline, Jimi Hendrix, and John Cage, among many others.
A tender epic that harks back to Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976) and anticipates Roberto Bolaño’s 1998 novel The Savage Detectives in its subject matter and melancholy retrospection, Buccaneer Soul is inspired by the experiences of the director and his friends, described in the opening voiceover as “a generation driven by faith in utopia.” The narrative is made up of flashbacks that encompass three decades, back to the late 1950s. Aside from offering a sweeping chronicle of the era by charting the lives of two young poets—one working-class, one bourgeois—the structure allows Reichenbach to dabble in an array of genres and tones. The Maoist cell episode is pure farce, while the poets’ youthful romantic dalliances are portrayed with a wistfulness that recalls I vitelloni (1953), and a later relationship with a sex worker is conveyed as high melodrama. Every time the film jumps back to the present, where the poets are holding a book launch in a bakery, the party has become rowdier and weirder. In the central set piece, a man who is not introduced, nor ever seen again, suddenly walks into the bakery and sits down at a grand piano that wasn’t there before but now takes up most of the floor. While his incongruous performance of Debussy’s “Clair de lune” holds everyone in thrall and triggers various individual reveries, illustrated in cutaway vignettes, an oiled-up bodybuilder flexes his muscles, bathed in the red glow of the shop’s neon sign.
This voracious style of filmmaking defines Reichenbach’s output. The terrific, giallo-inflected Filme Demência (1986) reimagines Goethe’s Faust as a withering critique of Brazil’s economic policies, following a bankrupt businessman—how can a capitalist sell his soul when he doesn’t have one?—on a nocturnal odyssey through São Paulo’s ravishingly lit downtown. As treacly as its title suggests, Two Streams: Truths Submerged in Time (1999) would be a straight-up telenovela if it weren’t for the sporadic extravagances of the mise en scène. After a woman frees herself of her abusive and sexually incompetent soldier boyfriend, her first kiss with the film’s revolutionary hero and her first, long-awaited orgasm are depicted in two superimposed shots—one rotating horizontally, the other vertically—combining the split temporality of the sex scene from Don’t Look Now (1973) and the explosive climax from Deep Throat (1972) into one glorious composition. In what could be considered a trilogy of feminist suburban films—Suburban Angels (1987), Garotas do ABC (2003), and Fake Blonde (2007)—Reichenbach offsets hopelessly grim and patriarchal pictures of life in São Paulo’s outer districts with celebrations of working-class sisterhood akin to those of Pedro Almodóvar.
Doclisboa wasn’t able to show his full filmography as intended; some screenings had to be canceled because the prints, borrowed from the Cinemateca Brasileira, were too damaged to be safely projected. The only way I have found of watching Love, Prostitute Word (1982), Reichenbach’s last pornochanchada and a groundbreaking film in its candid treatment of abortion, is on a bootlegged file of lamentable quality without subtitles—a far cry from the screening conditions at Doclisboa that made the retrospective such a revelation. The fact that the damaged print is the Brazilian cinematheque’s sole copy, and that it might never be restored, once again brings home the tragedy of the institution’s continued political and financial troubles, underlining the struggle inherent in keeping film history—especially that of “marginal” cinema—alive.
Reichenbach, who died in 2012, remains an important figure among Brazilian cinephiles. Although his later films appeared at international festivals including Rotterdam and Locarno, outside his home country he’s remembered primarily, if at all, as an exploitation director. As Doclisboa’s retrospective demonstrated, his intellectually sophisticated but resolutely anti-highbrow films, genre versatility, and political commitment warrant his recognition as a fierce, independent auteur who understood cinema as an instrument of both protest and pleasure.
Giovanni Marchini Camia is the co-founder of Fireflies Press and a programmer for the Locarno Film Festival.