Cinema in quarantine: Rubem Fonseca and Sérgio Sant'anna

Alberto Martins (Reviews Journal)
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By JOSÉ GERALDO COUTO*

Reviews for all films based on the works of the two writers

In less than a month, Brazil lost two of its greatest writers, Rubem Fonseca and Sérgio Sant'anna. Both maintained an intense and fruitful two-way relationship with cinema. Whether as the author of an adapted literary work or as a screenwriter – often as both – Rubem Fonseca is present in at least seventeen films (feature and short films) and television series. Sérgio Sant'anna's literature, in turn, has so far generated four feature films.

Paradoxically, despite the greater presence on screens, the author of Happy New Year has had less luck so far in this passage from writing to audiovisual. No film managed to dialogue on an equal basis with the strength and vivacity of its literature. It's hard to explain why, but we can venture some hypotheses by examining a handful of cases.

Ruben Fonseca

Rubem Fonseca's trajectory in cinema is curious. Despite having become better known as the author of violent stories, which travel between corrupted high society and the most sordid underworld, the first feature films inspired by his work – Lucia McCartney (David Neves, 1971) and Report of a Married Man (Flávio Tambellini, 1974) – explored another aspect of the author's literature: the moral chronicle of customs.

Lucia McCartney joins two stories without intertwining them: the homonymous story and “O caso de FA”. Both deal with the relationship of call girls or prostitutes with their clients and/or lovers. The first, from the woman's point of view (Adriana Prieto); the second, of the man (Nelson Dantas) and the friend (Paulo Vilaça) who help him rescue a young prostitute. In this, the character of the lawyer-investigator Mandrake appears for the first time on the screens, a constant presence in Fonseca's bibliography – and which would give rise to a TV series in 2005, directed, among others, by José Henrique Fonseca, the writer's son.

They are like two independent short films, and bring, on the one hand, the freshness and freedom characteristic of David Neves (for example, when he reproduces in black and white, with subtitles, the scenes that occur in Lucia McCartney's imagination) and, on the other hand, a certain sloppiness in filming which, added to the precariousness of the production, leaves a feeling of amateurism. The absence of direct sound – that is, the actors dubbed their dialogues – is fatal to one of the qualities of the author's literature, which is the porosity for the breath of the streets and for colloquial speech.

The sound problem gets worse in Report of a Married Man (based on the short story “Relatório de Carlos”), in which the main actor (Nery Victor) is voiced by Paulo Cesar Pereio, intensifying the artificiality. For those who are interested, the entire film is on YouTube, in a precarious copy recorded on Canal Brasil:

In any case, they are two very interesting films, which show Rubem Fonseca as a kind of bastard heir to Nelson Rodrigues – as if the decadent and corrupt families of the playwright had generated the characters in crisis, adrift, of the author of A great art.

A great art (1991), by Walter Salles, sheds light on another type of problem in Rubem Fonseca's transition to cinema. The filmmaker's first fiction feature film was an ambitious international production, spoken in English and starring Peter Coyote. For this, the character of the lawyer-detective Mandrake was converted into the American photographer Peter Mandrake, passing through Rio to make picturesque images for a Japanese art book. Visual sophistication (photography, montage, art direction) was imposed on the story, and the vital energy of the characters and their environment was diluted. The director himself would later recognize that his film did not do justice to the book.

A similar problem – this uprooting of Rubem Fonseca's fiction from its habitat, the chaotic and shifting Rio de Janeiro – affects even more clearly the international co-production the collector (2006), directed by Mexican Paul Leduc. Starring Brazilian Lázaro Ramos, American Peter Fonda and Argentinean Antonella Costa, set in New York, Miami, Rio, Buenos Aires and the Amazon, the film confusingly intertwines four short stories: “The collector”, “Passeio Nocturne”, “City of God” and “Placebo”. It is difficult to detect the literature of Rubem Fonseca in the midst of all this. The full film, in a reasonable copy, is on Youtube:

In this context of frustrations, a more satisfactory result may be that of the most modest Bufo & Spallanzani (2001), by Flavio Tambellini (curiously, son and namesake of the director of Report of a Married Man), which strips the original novel down to its essentials to build a kind of film Black authentically carioca, in which corrupt policemen, femme fatales, criminal tycoons and criminals of all kinds mix. The rhythm and visual composition occasionally refer to a miniseries aesthetic (an impression reinforced by the presence in the cast of actors such as Tony Ramos, José Mayer, Maitê Proença and Gracindo Júnior), but the narrative is consistent in its comings and goings and in the manipulation of events. viewpoints.

Sergio Sant'anna

With “only” four feature films inspired by his literature, Sérgio Sant'anna has been better represented on screen. With the exception of bossa nova (Bruno Barreto, 2000), a lame and conventional adaptation of the short story “Senhorita Simpson” that did not please the writer, the other three feature films are more than worthy attempts to dialogue with his universe full of existential concerns and language.

Em delicate crime (2005), transposition of the telenovela “Um crime delicate”, director Beto Brant radicalized the daring of the original, not only in relation to the characters (the protagonist, who was only lame, becomes an amputee, experienced with extreme courage by Lilian Taublib), but also to the explicit erotic charge and narrative language, interweaving theater, literature, dance and visual arts in a stimulating way. Sérgio Sant'anna himself, who did not participate in the script or filming, was surprised and even rejected, at first, the result. Only later, according to him, did he review the film and better understand its proposal.

A generation novel (David França Mendes, 2008), inspired by the homonymous book, is an even more curious case. The book was already a mixture of genres: theater play, diary, novel, criticism – and the film enhances this metalinguistic transgression by staging the discussion and preparation of a play and the film itself with the presence, among others, of the actor himself. writer Sérgio Sant'anna. It is “abyss construction” taken to the extreme.

Lastly, the gorilla (José Eduardo Belmonte, 2012), based on the homonymous short story, intertwines a detective story of mystery with the inventory of loneliness in the original text. The film, based on a novel published in the book the early morning flight (2003), deals with central issues of our time: the invasion of privacy, virtual pornography, the tenuous border between reality and its representation. The protagonist is a voice actor for a TV series (Otávio Muller, excellent), a forty-year-old loner who harasses unknown women (and a man) with obscene phone calls, in which he identifies himself as “the Gorilla”, even imitating the sounds of the animal.

He goes into a paranoid crisis when he sees himself identified by one of his victims (Mariana Ximenes) and judges himself responsible for the suicide of another. As a synopsis, that's enough. It should be added, perhaps, that the Gorilla is tormented by memories of his relationship with his mother (Maria Manoella) and by a serious problem with his teeth. But, just like in Sérgio Sant'anna's text, in the film the plot is just one of the elements that count. As important as the story is the way in which layers of suggestions and meanings are shuffled and superimposed.

At the beginning of the narrative, everything is in its place – the phone calls, the memories, the dubbing work – and the Gorilla safely steps onto his feet. He has control, so to speak, of the production of the imaginary. On the phone, his voice creates erotic scenes and atmospheres; into the studio microphone, he brings the character of McCoy to life. The mother appears to him with the burst of light and the saturated colors characteristic of oneiric flashbacks. Things get complicated – and become more interesting, from a cinematographic point of view – when these various planes begin to interpenetrate, in such a way that there is no longer a difference in thickness between imagination and fact, between reality and fiction. The mother, McCoy, the harassed women, the past and the present, everything starts to live together in the same delirious, vertiginous, shifting space.

By voicing the character of McCoy, the lone voice actor, to some extent, becomes to be McCoy himself; by inventing the Gorilla freak, he becomes him. It is this appropriation of reality by fiction that is at the core of Sérgio Sant'anna's art – and, occasionally, that of José Eduardo Belmonte.

One last comment about Sérgio Sant'anna. It cannot be by chance that his short stories and novels are among the most adapted by contemporary Brazilian cinema. In bossa nova a delicate crime, through A generation novel e the gorilla, the results are uneven, but in all of them there is the pursuit of a cinematographic vocation already contained in the original. In other words: Sant'anna's literature is virtually multimedia, not only because it feeds on references to cinema, visual arts, theater and music, but also because it always plays with themes and forms of representation, as if today the “real” itself were already irremediably contaminated by its refraction in the imaginary, by the innumerable films, songs, pictures and plays that make up our affective memory.

*Jose Geraldo Couto is a film critic. Author, among other books, of André Breton (Brasiliense).

Originally published on CINEMA BLOG

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