cinema of tears



Considerations on the film by Nelson Pereira dos Santos

In 1995, Nelson Pereira dos Santos launched cinema of tears, a feature film that was warmly received by critics. When the director was chosen by the British Film Institute as one of the filmmakers who would tell the history of cinema, on the occasion of its centenary, expectations were high. Probably, a kind of balance sheet was expected from him of that cinematographic current that he had helped to consecrate: Cinema Novo.

Nelson Pereira dos Santos, however, went against the grain, approaching Latin American melodrama between the 1930s and 1950s, just as he had gone against the current in the previous film, The Third Bank of the River (1994). In this one, in the middle of the Collor era, when everyone seemed taken by the frenzy of belonging to the First World, the director, from the heart of Brazil, threw the country's underdevelopment in the face of all of us, presenting the pockets of misery that surround the federal capital.

cinema of tears, we said, was not well received because, in addition to presenting some problems that jeopardized its final result, it was not a modern work; but it was a thought-provoking film. Let's quickly remember its plot.

After the failure of the assembly of his last piece (Care), Rodrigo, an actor and theater producer, tormented by a recurring memory – the night his mother committed suicide – decides to look for the tape she must have watched before committing such a gesture. In this search, in which he is helped by a young researcher named Yves, he starts to watch, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a series of Argentine and, mainly, Mexican melodramas, made between 1931 and 1953.

The film itself will provide us with a series of clues as to why the protagonist's mother and aunts take refuge in the enchanted universe of cinema: women had few options outside the sphere of the home, they were practically forbidden to go out alone, unless to go to certain places, including the cinema (“sessão das Mulheres”), where melodramas offered models of behavior and functioned as sentimental consulting rooms.

While Rodrigo goes on his personal search, echoes and images from another cinema are insinuated in the film: they are posters of the New Cine Latinoamericano or Cinema Novo (and its heirs), which the camera will reveal and passant, walking through the halls of UNAM and the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro; are excerpts from the class that we captured, coming from the classrooms of the university in Mexico.

In these classes, we talk about how auteur cinema was opposed to Hollywood and how, in turn, due to political contradictions, its directors were being overcome by a new generation willing to erase the personalist issues contained in this type of cinematography. . There is also talk of the new ethical posture of filmmakers in relation to society, which led them to become aware of social injustices. Namely mentioned are Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (who, in his films, already pointed to these rapid changes in society) and Glauber Rocha – with his camera in his hand and an idea in his head.

Once the tape was located, thanks to the researcher, Rodrigo, watching it, understood the mother's gesture, who committed suicide out of fear that her four-year-old son would kill himself when he found out about her love life, just as the young character in black ermine (1953), by Carlos Hugo Christensen.

Along cinema of tears, the idealized image of the woman – or rather, the woman par excellence, the mother (mythical figure who, in her resignation and suffering, equals the Virgin Mary) – has been slowly deconstructed, to give way to a more carnal woman, more human, but more dangerous because it can threaten the affective structure of man. She is the prostitute, she is the bad woman, but she is also simply the woman who tries to free herself from the shackles of the patriarchy that has confined her to the private, emotional sphere, leaving the public field of reason to men.

Purified by the cathartic tears that bathe his face when he understands his mother's gesture, Rodrigo too, like any protagonist in a melodrama, will seek the space of redemption, reintegrating himself into his corpus social, that is, to the group to which he should belong because he is an intellectual.

After finishing watching the latest Latin American melodrama, Rodrigo, still troubled, walks down the corridor of MAM's cinematheque. The camera, following him, slides across a series of posters of Brazilian films and, although at this moment our protagonist is still not fully aware of the change that is taking place within him, we can already begin to read this passage in a symbolic way: Rodrigo can also be seen as one of the actors in the Brazilian cultural process, committed to asserting his own identity through dialogue with others.

Following a young man who, seen from behind, looks like Yves, Rodrigo enters the room where the final part of God and the devil in the land of the sun (1964), by Glauber Rocha, and, finally freed from the images of his past, he surrenders to the images of the present: he moves from the old to the new, from the familiar to the collective, from the violation of moral norms to the transgression of norms social and aesthetic, moves away from melodrama to Cinema Novo.

cinema of tears was presented a little before the release of José Carlos Avellar's book, the clandestine bridge, a work that, when dealing with the new Latin American cinema, seemed to resume the discourse exactly where Nelson Pereira dos Santos' film would leave it in suspense. To present the great mosaic of Latin American cinema, fragmented in its particularities, but recomposed to form a unit, the carioca critic adopts, in the first place, bilingualism (simultaneous use of Portuguese and Spanish), as a linguistic-cultural ballast of peoples of the same Iberian origin, who, in this way, can dialogue directly with each other, without any intermediary.

Secondly, it uses the juxtaposition of several fragments of speeches by different directors (Fernando Birri, Glauber Rocha, Fernando Solanas, Julio García Espinosa, Jorge Sanjinés, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea) to constitute a larger discourse, quite theoretical, but not at all dry, on the contrary, quite captivating, in which one idea leads to another(s) as in an echo box: “each of our theoretical texts was caught by the next as an impulse to continue thinking. To return to an old idea, or less than that, a diffuse impression forgotten in an interview or debate, kept in a corner of the head. The idea of ​​a cinema next to the Pueblo is not born of imperfect cinema, the aesthetics of hunger is not born of the very brief theory of Birri, the cinema imperfecto not born of third cinema, the dialectic of the spectator does not come from the aesthetics of the dream. Neither is a continuation, contestation or expansion of the other. All overlap. They discuss particular experiences, but close, neighboring, simultaneous, in facing a common problem: underdevelopment, neocolonialism, sub-reality” (p. 236).

In short, we can say that the characteristics of this new Latin American cinema are: the acceptance of underdevelopment as a peculiar trait and the intention to portray reality as it is, to oppose it to an “ironed” and starched reality, like that of the Mexican and Argentinian melodramas of Hollywood origin pursued by the protagonist of cinema of tears. A refined technique is preferred to a problematizing content, to a “meaningless perfection”, an “imperfect sense” is preferred, in the words of Fernando Birri. In Nelson Pereira dos Santos' own film, on a poster for New Cine Latinoamericano exhibited at UNAM, you can read the words imperfect e political.

In an operation very similar to Avellar's, Nelson Pereira dos Santos also ended up mapping the Latin American reality of the period that those works portrayed by presenting several melodramatic excerpts. It is a whole game of references between past and present, between one film and another, between images that follow each other without a precise chronology, as if they were determined by the flow of a memory in which various alterities confront and complement each other to constitute an identity.

There is a similarity between the various films that is structured by (momentarily) setting aside the differences. This allows each segment of the film to be the unfolding of another, as if there were an infinite repetition, as if we were facing a dynamic replication in which each film adds yet another nuance to the global meaning of cinema of tears.

The various melodramas end up functioning as centripetal forces, as all these fragments of the past converge to build the present. All the other films come together to build the film we are watching. The various “territories” converge to build a single Latin American territory, thus reversing the process of deterritorialization to which we have been subjected south of Rio Grande.

Although foreign in origin, these films also portrayed our reality, if not seen only through a political-ideological bias, as independent or cinemanovist filmmakers (such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos at the time) did. If we read them between the lines, we can understand the reasons that had allowed the public to identify with these films and love them, as they reflected a series of social, cultural and moral conditions, within which this public had been educated.

By focusing on the issue of love, the melodramas conveyed a universal value within the Western culture of Judeo-Christian matrix, for which those who love are worth more. Passion would help make sense of the mediocrity of everyday life; passion would (apparently) subvert the social order by allowing class barriers to be broken and making the poor rich. This passion, accepted by Western culture as long as in the end it generates unhappiness and leads to separation, is often opposed by marriage or sacrificial love, especially on the part of women, as it leads to renunciation and, consequently, to redemption and to conquer heaven.

Seen from this angle, the melodramas will also result in a cultural identity that is based (as the new cinemas will later do) in that mental territory that is that of Latin American cinematography. Therefore, these films become an indispensable element to understand the new Latin American cinema, since both are the result of the same patriarchal society.

A society in which violence manifests itself both in the family and in the public sphere, through the figure of the patriarch, lord of all destinies, of all bodies. Bodies as a sexual drive (feminine sphere) or as a workforce (masculine sphere), but bodies also as territories.

In the family sphere (female scope), conflicts will be generated between people united by blood ties or by affection. In the public sphere (male scope), confrontations will take place between people of the same class or different social classes, but will always be the reproduction of resistance to oppression.

In the passage from melodrama to the new cinema, personal (female) dilemmas will be transformed into social (male) dilemmas. An old order that women (of melodrama) broke is replaced by a new order that men (of new cinema) want to create. Sentimental passion is replaced by revolutionary passion. Revolt in the private sphere gives way to revolution in the social sphere.

if, in cinema of tears, the figure of the mother belongs to the sphere of the private, of affections, so she is the melodrama and, in contrast, the father will belong to the sphere of the public, of reason, thus being the new cinema. In one of the first films that Rodrigo watches at UNAM – distinct dawn (1943), by Julio Brach –, the male character says the following sentence: “Los hombres no hacemos otra cosa que persear a través de todas las mujeres a la primera mujer que deseamos y no tuvimos".

We see, then, that only when the mother's absence is fulfilled, or rather, only after accepting that the mother's presence becomes absence, will the father's absence (remarkable throughout Nelson Pereira dos Santos' film) be felt and transformed into a presence to be rescued, in a kind of distorted Oedipus complex. Therefore, once the mystery of his mother's death is solved and the trauma of the incest is overcome, Rodrigo will be able to leave the individual scope and participate in a collective framework, discovering a new meaning/direction for his life.

By understanding his mother's transgression, Rodrigo also understands that it is necessary to transform the death impulse into a life impulse, to channel this transgression to a new order, that is, to the "revolutionary" project of the following decade, that of Cinema Novo, in the which Nelson Pereira dos Santos believed and continued to believe.

*Mariarosaria Fabris is a retired professor at the Department of Modern Letters at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Nelson Pereira dos Santos: a neorealist look? (Edusp).

Originally published in Film Studies 2000 – Socine (Sulina, 2001).



AMADO, Anne. “Voces de entrecasa: bodies, generations, family and resistance in the Latin American neo-melodrama of the 90s”. In: Epilogues and prologues for a fin de siglo. Buenos Aires: CAIA, 1999, p. 405-415.

AVELLAR, Jose Carlos. The Clandestine Bridge: Birri, Glauber, Solanas, García Espinosa, Sanjinés, Alea – Film Theories in Latin America. Rio de Janeiro/Sao Paulo, Editora 34/Edusp, 1995.

FABRIS, Mariarosaria. “Praise of Imperfection”. Journal of Reviews. Sao Paulo, 4 Dec. 1995, p. 12.

OROZ, Silvia. Melodrama: Latin America's cinema of tears. Rio de Janeiro: Funarte, 1999.

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