Interview: Fellipe Barbosa
As one of my professors in college was fond of saying, postmodernism isn’t really that modern: the Caribbean began experiencing it in 1492 in the form of syncretism (or, as a more user-friendly definition might go, “religious and racial mash-ups”). Yet due to the Eurocentric ideals of the landowners and ruling classes (who were descended from Europeans), acknowledgment of the importance and value of this (re)mixing was a very long time in coming. One landmark was Gilberto Freyre’s 1933 anthropological study Casa-Grande e Senzala, which argued that Brazil’s society was structured around the dynamics of the plantation: a rich white man living in the big house (casa grande), and the black or indigenous staff in the slave and servant quarters (senzala). Fellipe Barbosa’s Casa Grande, set in modern-day Rio de Janeiro, outlines the precipitous financial decline of the white family living in the big house. As Jean (Thales Cavalcanti) prepares for his college exams, his father Hugo (Marcello Novaes) attempts to hide his bankruptcy from his family, slowly jettisoning little bits of luxury—a car or two, air conditioning at night, the gardener, the chauffeur, and then both maids.
Along the way, the film plays with popularly held opinions about race and class among the wealthy: Hugo tells his son’s friends that appreciating black beauty is a taste one acquires with age; Jean’s first attempts at sex are with one of the maids and with Luiza, his half-Brazilian, half-Japanese girlfriend; family friends disparage the recently imposed college quota system over dinner. An incisive character study that’s never malicious, Casa Grande screens again tonight as part of Latinbeat at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. FILM COMMENT sat down with Barbosa after Friday’s U.S. premiere to discuss the new film, the ongoing changes in Brazilian society, and acting.
The title of your film refers to Casa-Grande e Senzala, and it deals with the same themes that book did. By making this connection, it’s saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same, but a lot of the characters’ discussions in the film suggests that Brazilian society may be less stratified in the future. How do you envision that?
You said it so beautifully, so I’m going to borrow it from now on—“the more things change, the more they stay the same.” My idea was to talk about how the “big house” in Brazil has changed, but has held onto so many dynamics from the past. What’s really changed in Brazilian society through Lula and now Dilma is that the middle class has grown so much, and there’s a lot less poverty. The people who used to consider themselves poor don’t anymore because they can buy the stuff they want. There’s very low unemployment in Brazil—I don’t know the exact number, but it’s less than six percent. Also, in 2012, there was a new law passed that protects the rights of maids, so they’re not nearly as dependent on these jobs as they used to be, and they can leave if they want. That economic freedom is represented in the scene with Noêmia near the end, where she’s trying to leave, but at the same time she can’t—she’s very emotionally attached to the house.
I haven’t been able to finish the book to this day—it’s a difficult book. [Laughs] Well, not difficult… It’s kind of dense and repetitive, and I prefer to read stories rather than sociological treatises. But the beautiful coincidence is that he started writing that thesis as a student at Columbia, which is where I went to film school. The other coincidence is that Joaquim Pedro de Andrade tried to make an adaptation of Casa-Grande e Senzala, and his last partner was my girlfriend’s mother. I have the script at my place—it’s very Macunaíma, a lot more style and allegory than this. And when I premiered the film at Rotterdam, I found out that the last thing that he did with the project before he passed away was to go to Cinemart.
This story is also autobiographical, and you dedicated the film to your family in the end credits. How did you transform your experiences to a fiction film?
I was at Columbia when my father went bankrupt, and that was the time I needed him the most financially. My father hid it from us as long as he could, and I was the last one to know. When I did find out, it was too late, and I had already spent way too much on his credit card. So I had to borrow like everyone else, and I felt like I grew closer with my classmates. When I was Jean’s age, I was a bit embarrassed to be rich.
I really resent not being in Brazil with my family during that time, because ultimately it brought everyone together, and it turned out to be a very positive thing. So the film is sort of a fantasy of what it would’ve been like if I was there at his age. I was also interested in showing how a crisis can transform into opportunity for this young man, and to explore dramatic ironies that can arise from it. The father wants his son to study what he does [law and economics], which is what has led him to bankruptcy, whereas the son just wants to be free and explore the world, and the bankruptcy allows him to do so.
There’s definitely a sense of freedom with the final shot, even though Jean’s essentially repeated the thesis of the book. Can you talk a little bit about how you thought out the difference between interior and exterior spaces, and how the framing reflects the family’s deepening crisis? For example, when you first see the house from the street, it looks huge, and you see Noêmia and Severino standing outside the gate waiting to be let inside. Later on, when the shot is repeated, the house is just as imposing, but only Noemi is waiting there, like chess pieces being taken away.
This film is so different than everything I’ve done in terms of style, because I usually shoot very close to the characters and handheld. So I wanted to try something new, which is a more classical approach, and make the architecture evident. It’s my parents’ house, which they’re still trying to sell 10 years later—like the character, my father is very proud, and nobody is willing to pay what he’s asking for it—but I wanted to treat it like a set, a two-dimensional object, instead of a real place. I also wanted to play with soap opera aesthetics: starting with only one angle for a particular room, and then slowly revealing the counter-shots, or combining them into one with pans. I also wanted to open up clichés, and then put those clichés inside the minds of the characters, or into the audience’s.
It’s a deconstruction in a way. The story is structured around the three servants getting laid off, so how can I show this in an economical way? It’s like you say with the chess pieces, it’s a little game. When the story loses control—after the father falls from the tree (which was a real accident), when there’s a fight—we go handheld. Whenever we’re in the house, we can see everything, because it’s the house’s point of view. Only Natalie has a POV shot, because she’s also seen everything. If we’re outside of the house, we have to be with Jean.
It’s funny that you mention the final scene, because I had another one after it that I cut out, which really gave the film a lot more closure. It was that exact same shot of the house, but with different information. It didn’t give me the same sense of freedom. It was actually my good friend Kleber [Mendonça Filho] who did Neighboring Sounds—we share a lot of the same crew members, we read each other scripts and everything—and when he watched the first cut of the film he said: “Listen, the film has to end the scene before the last one. I’m not going to convince you now, but you’ll figure it out sooner or later.” I also thought of what Lucrecia Martel said: “When you know what the next scene is going to be, that’s when you cut the film.” And in a way I think you could imagine what Jean’s going to do next. So one day I tried to watch the film without the last scene, and I felt so free, like I could finally breathe. All my previous shorts and documentaries had really dark endings, and so I had to deal with audiences feeling really traumatized or really down, and this is the first time I had people leave smiling, and I realized that’s what I want.
Do you see this film being in conversation with Neighboring Sounds, even though you started working on this script many, many years before? Is it touching on something that’s in the air?
I really hope so, because I adore that film. But they’re very different, because mine is more character-driven and Neighboring Sounds is way more conceptual, cerebral. It’s a long conversation we’ve had—I’ve known Kleber for maybe 10 years now—why aren’t we putting ourselves in our films? Why are filmmakers always talking about the poor the victimized? Not that it’s not important to do that; it’s incredibly noble. But it’s not all of society, and most filmmakers are coming from middle- to upper-class backgrounds. Personally, I wanted to confront wealth: not to treat it as something that’s desirable or as a goal for one of the characters, and especially not as a background for comedy, which is common in Brazil. I wanted to ask the question: why do we want so much when others have so little? What’s the advantage of living like that? You become a victim of this bubble it creates. I’m going to show the film in Brazil at the end of July, and I’m very excited to see how audiences react, and if they connect the dots.
Why did you choose not to have a score, and instead have only diegetic music?
When I was shooting the film, I wasn’t thinking about it too much. I knew that I wanted to play with having music that seemed non-diegetic but was actually in the ambience. And I was always open to the idea of having a score, and then I realized I didn’t need it. I thought the music could be a nice way to mark each environment. I’m really concerned about how to distinguish characters when writing. Something that annoys me a lot about contemporary cinema is that they’re so often the same. I like to leave the theater knowing who each character is.
The casting also defines it too, because Jean and Natalie are nonprofessionals, and some of the older actors are soap opera stars. How did you approach working with these two very different styles of acting?
That was probably the greatest challenge. Finding the actors is the most difficult and important thing for me, and I spent the most time doing that. Marcello [Novaes] is a huge soap opera star, but he’s totally discredited among the filmmaking community. He’s never had a chance to play a character like this, but he’s not used to long takes, so it was a huge challenge for him to do a three- or four-minute dinner scene without cutting. Like I said before, I wanted to explore the theatricality and mise en scène, so it wasn’t something I didn’t want to let go of. But for the kids, it was super-easy—they’d never acted before, so they didn’t know anything else. Eventually Marcello got there, and it was beautiful to see him become a cinema actor. He was so happy to do this film, and I’m dying for him to see it.
I had one obstacle in regards to casting: in order to convince the monks to [let us] shoot at Saint Benedict, the lead had to be a student at that school. I went to that school my whole life, so I know what it’s like, what they would or wouldn’t accept. It was risky, because we only had a pool of 60 kids per year, and we went there four years in a row because we weren’t certain when we were going to get funding. During the first three years, there was no Jean there. And then this past year, I had four potential candidates for Jean. Many of them were musicians, which was helpful—Victor wrote the tune he plays on the piano. For many months, I thought it was going to be Victor, and then I switched to Thales [Cavalcanti] maybe three weeks before shooting began. Thales kind of conquered us all. At first we rejected him because we thought he was a little weird, but eventually we were enchanted by him, and I thought that maybe this could be a good arc for the audience in relationship to this character. But I didn’t make this decision alone—I always invited the key crew members over to my place to watch the screen tests, and feel their reaction. It was almost like a voting thing.
I really didn’t know who Jean was, to be honest, because he was kind of like me, but he also could’ve been many things. So I had to isolate the essential qualities of Jean, and I knew that would come through, whoever I casted. Ultimately, what really attracted me to him is his extreme sincerity that’s almost naïve, and his desperation to be with women, which is really clear on his face—I can really relate to that. [Laughs]