With Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s body of work deeply rooted in an aesthetic as well as political and social consciousness, it is not surprising that Darlene J. Sadlier analyzes the trajectory of dos Santos’s cinema through a similar paradigmatic approach of integrating film form with historical context. Brought up in a middle-class, cinephile household in a rapidly modernizing (and consequently, culturally vibrant) postwar São Paolo, dos Santos’s involvement with the left movement in the 1940s was incited more by humanism – particularly, with respect to the socioeconomic disparity and underdevelopment of the sertão (northeast) region – than opposition to the authoritarian government of Getúlio Vargas. Despite working towards a law degree, dos Santos had spent his academic career pursuing filmmaking, traveling to Paris to embark on a makeshift film studies crash course (after a failed attempt to enroll at the renowned IDHEC [Institut des hautes études cinématographiques]), and taking on documentary projects commissioned by the Communist party. It was during these lean years working in cash-strapped productions that dos Santos, now living with his young family in a Rio suburb near the city’s largest favela, conceived the idea for Rio, 100 Degrees – a film that confronted the unvarnished reality of life in the slums that, until then, had remained below the periphery of social discourse on everyday life in the city (even as the favela maintained a visible presence atop a hill):
In contrast to the aerial shots of the tourist sites, the camera takes a position low to the ground to photograph the favela from the base of the hill to the top. This angle enables dos Santos to give audiences a better sense of the size and steepness of the hill as well as the closeness and poverty of the wooden shacks, which lack even running water. We see a boy walking up the hill with a can of water on his head and several others making their way down narrow paths and onto the paved streets filled with marketplaces, cafés, and palm trees. These few shots make clear that the favela is quite close to the city; but life in the metropole is so much richer that it seems like another planet.
In the essay, Rio, Zona Norte, Mandacaru Vermelho, Boca de Ouro, and the beginning of the Cinema Novo Movement, Sadlier examines dos Santos’s early, transitional films that, while entirely different in their scope (and levels of critical and commercial success), reveal recurring themes and methodologies that would resurface throughout his body of work: race and indigenous identity versus assimilated Western culture (Rio, Zona Norte), landlessness and migrant workers (Mandacaru Vermelho), and a translational approach to literary adaptation (Boca de Ouro). Also, by locating these films within the chronology of Cinema Novo, Sadlier makes a salient point on dos Santos’s precedence with respect to the birth of the movement, correcting the common misconception that aligns his cinema squarely with the emergence of Glauber Rocha, Leon Hirszman, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Carlos Diegues, and Arnold Jabor under the rubric of Cinema Novo.
Sadlier expounds on Dos Santos’s translational approach to adapting literature in her detailed analysis of Vidas secas. Based on the novel by Brazilian author Graciliano Ramos (whose autobiographical novel, Memories of Prison, would later be adapted by dos Santos in 1984), dos Santos not only took advantage of the novel’s cyclical structure to rearrange the self-contained stories for dramatic effect, but also dispensed with much of the characters’ philosophical inner monologues in order to retain a more visceral connection with the nature of poverty.
Between and within sections, characters’ thoughts and moods often undergo swift, radical changes, revealing their curiosity about language and undermining certain stereotypical notions about “primitives” derived from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature. In fact, Ramos’s novel is as much or more concerned with the “human and contradictory” language and consciousness of the retirante (peasant migrant) as it is with the brutal landowning system of the Northeast.
…Dos Santos’s film dramatizes this scene in its entirety [an episode in which the oldest son struggles with his mother’s explanation of the concept of inferno], but it somewhat downplays the boy’s curiosity about the words and his desire to understand what he does not know, giving greater emphasis to the ironic relationship between the word ‘hell’ and the boy’s immediate surroundings.
In Culture and Cannibalism: Como era gostoso o meu francês, Sadlier frames How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman within the context of cultural extermination as a result of the military government’s attempts to bring “civilization” to the indigenous people as part of its national development campaign. By drawing on colonial history, the cannibalism serves as an allegory for the consumption of one culture by another – a phenomenon that speaks directly to Brazilian society’s continued emulation of European culture long after the country’s independence. (Note: The equation of cannibalism with cultural consumption also appears in Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Macunaíma).
Sadlier further proposes an intriguing corollary that by filming from the perspective of the indigenous tribe, dos Santos is recreating a historical record that had been erased from “official” history through a process of what critic Raymond Williams describes as “selective tradition” in which culture is redefined by the prevailing attitudes of contemporary society (and that, by nature, reinforces these biases and aspirations).
Viewed in these terms, dos Santos’s film is less interested in distorting a canonical text than in revealing what that text omits. Its documentary-like or “anthropological” style directly participates in an effort of reinterpretation by providing the viewer with a simulation of what has been lost, not just in time but also through the selective cultural process. Dos Santos’s solidarity with the Tupinambá can therefore be described as an ideological position in powerful contrast with the interests and values of the dominant class in Brazil, which has always identified with Europeans, especially the French.
The collapse of populism in the 1960s also coincided with dos Santos’s divergence from a purely leftist agenda towards a more humanist cinema, a transition that is reflected in the fabular dimension to Ogum’s Amulet:
Although dos Santos had long been aware of religious practices in the favela, his approach in his earliest films was strictly Marxist, focusing on social class and race while implicitly dismissing religion as an opiate of the masses. O amuleto de Ogum makes clear not only the centrality of religion in the lives of the poor but also the ways in which umbanda reinforces class solidarity and gives a kind of power to individuals who are caught in a violent and corrupt world.
Stadlier also illustrates this ideological shift in her analysis of Memories of Prison and Cinema of Tears. In Memories of Prison, dos Santos creates early ambiguity on the identity of the author and main character, Graciliano Ramos, by placing him in the milieu of the general prison population, in essence, democratizing the attribution of “hero” to all the prisoners. In Cinema of Tears, dos Santos’s Latin American contribution to the BFI’s Century of Cinema project (on filmmaker searching for a lost film that connects him to a tragic episode from his past), he embraces the escapism of popular studio-produced films and their ability to connect with the audience.
The actor’s search through the archive is also, of course, a fictional device that allows dos Santos to show brief clips, most of them in pristine condition, of wonderfully evocative black-and-white films of the studio era. By this means he pays tribute to a generation of directors, cinematographers, and stars who became internationally famous largely because of their work in melodramas. Although the content of these films had little to do with the social reality of the moviegoing public, the Mexican melodramas were among the highest-quality films made in Latin America. In effect, dos Santos who began his career as a neorealist and a symbol of the Latin American New Wave, takes a revisionary approach to a genre that, like the chanchada [musical comedies], was often criticized by the Left because of its association with Hollywood.
Acquarello, 2010 [reprinted]