Cinema and politics in Leon Hirszman

Vasco Prado, Liberdade n° 1, duco-painted cast aluminum, 60.50 cm x 33.50 cm, 1972. Photographic Reproduction Romulo Fialdini


Preface to the recently released book “For a Popular Cinema: Leon Hirszman, Politics and Resistance”, by Reinaldo Cardenuto

The book For a Popular Cinema: Leon Hirszman, Politics and Resistance, by Reinaldo Cardenuto, is a fundamental contribution to the examination of the relationship between cinema and politics during the Brazilian civil-military regime. From Hirszman's work, both his films and lesser-known works, the author explores the key questions to understand the aesthetic projects linked to resistance to the dictatorship in the period.

Before commenting on some of the many aspects that I consider important in the book, I would like to recover a little of the author's trajectory in order to show the reader the coherence of his trajectory and the place he occupies in it. For a Popular Cinema, point of arrival of extensive previous production.

In his master's thesis, entitled Intervention Discourses: The Cinema of Ideological Propaganda for the cpc and ipês on the eve of the 1964 coup, Cardenuto opposed Five Times Favela (1962), a production by the Centro Popular de Cultura (CPC) of the National Union of Students (UNE) to the documentaries by Jean Manzon financed by the Institute of Research and Social Studies (Ipês), an institute that, as is known, with the resources of entrepreneurs Brazilians and American support, was clearly acting in the sense of fomenting the ongoing coup against the government of João Goulart.

The counterpoint proposed by the author valued the discursive dimension of the films, while mobilizing the ideological and political issues set in motion by each side. In this work defended in 2008 at the University of São Paulo, Cardenuto carries out solid theoretical research on the national and the popular, one of the central axes of the debate on Brazilian culture that, elaborated in the early 1960s, would persist in the decade following to organize the agenda of many social actors, as is the case of Hirszman, an exponential figure of Cinema Novo.

the director of St. Diogo Quarry, one of the episodes of Five Times Favela, was, due to the role he played in this CPC production and in other projects of the entity, an important figure in the reconstitution of historical and cultural processes promoted by Cardenuto in this research. In parallel and together with the completion of his master's degree, the author dealt with Hirszman and the period through numerous initiatives.

Among them, I can mention his participation in the materials produced for the DVD releases of his work by Video Filmes.[I] and at the “Leon Hirszman” show, which took place in September 2005 in the city of São Paulo.[ii] It is also worth remembering the curatorship of another exhibition, “Coup de 64: Amarga Memória”, held in 2004 when Cardenuto was part of the Cinema and Video Center of the Centro Cultural São Paulo, an activity that attests to his extensive knowledge of filmography on the subject and, in a way, it consolidates the necessary formative path for a historian who deals with the period.[iii]

The twenty pages of his doctoral project on Hirszman and his work in the 1970s and 1980s already indicated, therefore, an auspicious doctorate, research that I welcomed with pleasure during the years that separated his entry into our postgraduate program. graduation in 2010 and the defense, which took place in 2014. The excellence of the judging committee of his thesis, composed of Ismail Xavier, Marcos Napolitano, João Roberto Faria and Mônica Kornis, pointed to the importance of his contribution and the diversity of paths that radiated from their reading, who follow the history of cinema without forgetting that of the theater, who value the exercise of film analysis while at the same time delving into the dilemmas of frenzy in the 1970s, as so well expressed by his examination of They Don't Wear Black Tie (1981)

Areas of knowledge such as theatrical dramaturgy, cinema studies, social sciences and political history of Brazil are thus articulated, all fields covered almost exhaustively, as the explanatory notes denote. This excellence was later confirmed by the awards received: Honorable Mention of the Compós de Teses Eduardo Peñuela Award from the National Association of Graduate Programs in Communication (Compós) in 2015; Honorable Mention of the Capes Thesis Award 2015 in the field of Applied Social Sciences; and, finally, Honorable Mention of the USP Thesis Highlight Award in 2016. The publication in a book, with the support of FAPESP, seems to sound like a natural consequence of previous recognition.[iv]

For a Popular Cinema: Leon Hirszman, Politics and Resistance is dedicated to the main films and projects of Leon Hirszman between the years 1976 to 1981: What country is this? (1976-1977), television program produced by Italian Radio Television (RAI) and produced in partnership with the journalist Zuenir Ventura, a virtually unknown work by the filmmaker; strike abc (1979-1990), a documentary that records the 1979 workers' strikes in the ABC region (Santo André, São Bernardo do Campo and São Caetano), produced in 1980, but released in 1991, four years after the director's death; It is They Don't Wear Black Tie, his highest-grossing film, adaptation of the homonymous play written by Gianfrancesco Guarnieri in 1956.

In the book, as well as in the thesis, the eight chapters, annexes and its more than four hundred pages are structured with subtitles and internal divisions arranged in order to facilitate the reader's access to its content. Without giving up erudition and complexity, Cardenuto consciously assumed the idea that the book could be appreciated from two distinct movements: one that was “from end to end”, given the linking of themes, historical agents and issues, and another in which the chapters could be read independently, without losing the general arguments developed, as, in general, occurs in works that seek, like his, to account for different artistic, cultural and political phenomena. With this perspective on the horizon, he organized the writing in such a way as to reiterate, in each chapter, central ideas around Hirszman's cinematography and other political, social and cultural issues related to Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s.

It should also be highlighted the extensive historical research carried out by the author. The archives of the Cinemateca Brasileira, the Museu da Imagem e do Som de São Paulo and the Edgard Leuenroth Archive of Unicamp, among others, were searched in order to recover textual and oral documents that could reconstitute the ideological projects that are at the origin of the films that constitute the corpus examined by the book. As Cardenuto says, Hirszman was “practically an agrapher, someone who made very rare written notes”. For this reason, the recorded records of their testimonies or their participation in debates were essential to recover elements concerning “their creative process or [their] ideological preferences”.

With regard to sources, I highlight, among countless examples that I could bring, the examination of the recordings of the director's conversations with Guarnieri regarding the adaptation of They Don't Wear Black Tie and the transcription of the soundtrack of the film, now lost, What country is this?. It should be noted that rescuing these testimonies of the filmmaker in collections did not result in the complacency of the critic who accommodates his readings to those of the director, as we see in many works. Cardenuto approached these speeches as a point of view, privileged, of course, to be compared both with the films and with other documents, without a necessary subordination of what we see and hear in the articulations of the images and sounds of the analyzed works to the sources. Finally, the interviews, such as the one with Zuenir Ventura, the extensive bibliography, whose list occupies more than ten pages, and the annexes, in particular the so-called “literary script” by What country is this?, an exquisite work of reconstitution made by the author from different sources.[v]

For a Popular Cinema begins with a general approach to Hirszman's work, from the sixties to the eighties, centered on the discussion of what Cardenuto calls popular cinema, with the formulation of a realistic poetics that would reach the widest possible audience. It maps his engagement with the PCB, his involvement with Cinema Novo, the impact of the military coup in the cinematographic and theatrical field, with emphasis on the performance of Teatro de Arena, the dilemmas arising from the modernization of the cultural industry in Brazil, in particular television , and the perspectives that emerged focused on the possibilities of an art that reconciled the national and the popular. The attention given to Teatro de Arena is due to the director’s approach to artists such as Paulo Pontes, Vianinha and Gianfrancesco Guarnieri and to the formulation of what the author calls “evaluation dramaturgy”,[vi] which takes up and revises the aesthetic propositions of the national and popular to create dramaturgical forms that allow “a more effective critical approach with the spectators”.

For Cardenuto, the three axes of this dramaturgy are present in Hirszman's analyzed films, forms of expression of this re-elaboration of the engaged aesthetics of the 1960s, in which he participated via CPC, and of its updating in a communist perspective that faced new challenges. They are: “the return to politicized representations of the people, the insistence on the leftist militant as an interlocutor of the engagement and the praise of the realistic dramatic form, especially in the emotion-awareness key”. To reach this conclusion, the author breaks down the debate present in the theatrical field, revisiting plays such as tear heart, by Vianinha, and drop of water, by Chico Buarque and Paulo Pontes, among others that could be mentioned here.

Given the general picture, Cardenuto examines his corpus. One of the book's greatest contributions to the understanding of Hirszman's work is the historical recovery of What country is this? which, as the title indicates, was an “attempted diagnosis” of the situation experienced by the country, as Zuenir Ventura tells us. In the chapter dedicated to the documentary, the author deepens the discussion of frenzy and its filmic representation, comparison and analysis that is not restricted to films, but also to the pieces that approached and incorporated the theme.[vii]

In all chapters, the historical context is summoned to examine the issues raised by the works, always in a dialectical relationship, without teleological perspectives and with the appreciation of what in the course presents itself as indecision or reassessment, a principle of method that goes back to the works by Paulo Emilio and Ismail Xavier. We have the emergence of new unionism in the ABC region of São Paulo, the questioning of union unity defended by the PCB, the cinematography dedicated to recording the strikes of the late 1970s, marked by directors such as Renato Tapajós, Roberto Gervitz and Sérgio Toledo Segall, issues that are mobilized to situate the specificities of strike abc e They Don't Wear Black Tie. In the case of the documentary, for example, the author demonstrates how Hirszman’s film makes explicit the dissonances and “the discontent of those who were against the agreement” at the same time that it “records the voice of metallurgists who were in favor of the agreement signed by Lula”. In this way, he offers a testimony of History “without hiding the difficulties faced by the new unionism during the 1979 strikes”.

Another important feature of For a Popular Cinema it is the rigor with which the author diligently studies the projects found at the origins of the films. In this sense, the seventh chapter is exemplary, dedicated to the examination of Monday, General Strike, the first argument that emerged from the conversations between Hirszman and Guarnieri before black tie, and to reflect on the possible adjustments to be made in the cinematographic adaptation, bearing in mind that the answers to be given in the early 1980s were different from those imagined by Guarnieri's play staged in the 1950s. recovery of the debates on the evaluation dramaturgy to, in updating the piece proposed by the film, show “the existing fractures in the labor movement of the new historical context, [and how Hirszman and Guarnieri] would renounce the exemplary heroicity associated with the communist assumption prior to 1964 and would install death as a sensitive data for the reading of a Brazil in dictatorial times”.

At a time when the use of the term “new”, both with regard to political and historiographical projects, loses the effective meaning of a real rupture with past practices, the book brings, for the reasons explained above, a real boost. In his body and soul dive into the history of Brazilian cinema, Cardenuto proposes to the reader other possible routes for us to reach the surface and glimpse space in its general cartography, so that we can, finally, rethink this historical period, understand its movements and apprehend its configuration so that we have a horizon.

In times as dystopian as the current ones, in the midst of the pandemic caused by COVID 19 and the attempt to destroy democracy by those who are momentarily in charge of the destinies of our country, it is not without nostalgia that I travel through the pages that recover the struggle of an artist of the magnitude of Hirszman. Nostalgia, I explain, because the answers given by the S. Bernardo in the artistic field, even with all the difficulties faced, such as censorship, the truculence of the dictatorship, and the political clash, had as a legacy masterpieces that, with their welcoming aesthetics, created ties between the public and the films with the aim of to foster in the interlocutors the perception that the real enemy was in the military regime. In hazy times, clear, assertive and directive answers.

For a Popular Cinema: Leon Hirszman, Politics and Resistance, among its numerous contributions, will raise the concern of those who lived through the leaden years and who sought to resist authoritarianism, with the aim of advancing towards democratic normality. We are debtors, because we benefit from this fight. As the author said at the end of his book, “black tie there was a feeling that another Brazil could appear on the horizon”. Today, despite the historical possibility that we had to materialize this sensation, the question asked by Hirszman in his documentary from the 1970s is still current: what country is this? The current nightmare seems endless, but reading provokes reflection: what can we do to get out of the place where we find ourselves?

* Eduardo Morettin is a professor of audiovisual history at the School of Communications and Arts at USP. Author, among other books, of Humberto Mauro, cinema, history (Avenue).


Reinaldo Cardenuto. For a Popular Cinema: Leon Hirszman, Politics and Resistance. Cotia (SP), Ateliê Editorial, 2020, 490 pages.


[I] I am referring particularly to the texts that accompany volumes 1 to 4 of this collection, released between 2007 and 2009, organized by Cardenuto and Carlos Augusto Calil, and the research advisory for the film let me speak (2007), by Eduardo Escorel, which is available in the same collection.

[ii] Cardenuto, who at the time worked as an advisor to the São Paulo Municipal Secretariat of Culture, was responsible for production and research, with Calil responsible for coordinating the project. The catalog features a series of interviews given by Hirszman, in addition to his complete filmography.

[iii] The homonymous catalog presents Cardenuto and texts by experts, such as Marcelo Ridenti, Carlos Fico, Inimá Simões and Rubens Machado Jr., among others, in addition to an extensive filmography on the subject.

[iv] I would also like to highlight that Cardenuto launched in 2016 Between Images (Intervals), co-directed with Andre Fratti Costa, a short film that deals with the trajectory of Antonio Benetazzo, plastic artist and militant murdered by the military dictatorship. In addition to this work, he was the curator of the exhibition “Antonio Benetazzo, permanencies of the sensitive”, which also resulted in the publication of the homonymous book.

[v] With regard to this reconstitution work carried out with What country is this?, Cardenuto is in line with the tradition, consolidated in our country due to the absence of a solid audiovisual preservation policy, of recovering the historicity and aesthetic regimes of a work from the cinematographic archives, their funds and collections. Among the researchers to whom I affiliate the author of For a Popular Cinema is Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes and his analysis of In the Spring of Life (1926), by Humberto Mauro, study present in the luminous Humberto Mauro, Cataguases, Cinearte, São Paulo, Perspective, 1974.

[vi] As the author himself informs, the concept was first elaborated in the article written by him for the magazine Advanced Studies, with the title “Assessment Dramaturgy: The Political Theater of the 1970s”, vol. 26, no. 76, Nov.-Dec. 2012, pp. 311-332. Cardenuto also discussed the subject in “The Survival of Communist Dramaturgy on Television in the 1970s: The Path of a Critical Realism in Negotiation”, published in the book Brazilian Communists: Political Culture and Cultural Production, Belo Horizonte, Editora UFMG, 2013, pp. 85-106, organized by Marcos Napolitano, Rodrigo Czajka and Rodrigo Patto Sá Motta.

[vii] This discussion broadens and deepens the analysis of the pioneering work of Marcos Napolitano, Civil Heart: Brazilian Cultural Life under the Military Regime (1964-1985), São Paulo, Intermeios, 2017, and dialogues with the book by Margarida Maria Adamatti, Film Criticism and Repression: Aesthetics and Politics in Jornal Alternativo Opinion, Sao Paulo, Alameda, 2019.


See this link for all articles