When filming, forget the book

Fritz Wotruba, Vrouwelijke rots, 1947-1948.


Comment on the film “A hora da Estrela”, directed by Suzana Amaral.

The film star hour by Suzana Amaral has, for several reasons, a unique position within Brazilian cinematography. It was filmed in 1985, adapting a 1977 novel by Clarice Lispector. The film was screened at many festivals – among others at the 1986 Berlin festival, where it was awarded the Silver Bear for portraying Marcélia Cartaxo. It was also screened in several cinemas in Germany, within Brazilian film festivals, and on television. It was very well received by critics and audiences alike.

My intention in this presentation is to show why this film, within the history of literary adaptations in Brazilian cinema, can be considered a key moment. I will try to analyze what paths he provided for the future development of Brazilian cinema. For that, I will briefly introduce the novel star hour by Clarice Lispector, as well as director Suzana Amaral's motivation to shoot the film. I also intend to give a brief overview of the history of literature in Brazilian cinema. And at the end, highlight aspects of the most recent cinematographic development.

In a chronicle written by Clarice Lispector on November 2, 1968 – and which you can read in the book the discovery of the world – she says she always wanted to take a stand alongside the weakest in Brazilian society. In that same comment, she questions herself, wonders what happened to her. And she replies to herself that she needed to write what she feels. She rates this as very little. In this chronicle, the author's commitment to the side of the weakest in Brazilian society can be observed. She writes this at a time when the opposition of Brazilian intellectuals to the military regime was very intense. Shortly afterwards, this resistance was violently repressed by AI-5, in December 1968.

in the novel star hour, Clarice Lispector resumes – nine years later – the intention formulated in her November 1968 chronicle to tell the story of Macabea, who arrives in Rio de Janeiro. On Rua do Acre, she shares a room at a pension with five other girls, works as a secretary for a small company, and earns less than the minimum wage. Her food is bad and consists of hot dogs with Coca-Cola. Contacts with other people are limited to Glória, the co-worker who teaches Macabea how to live in the big city, and her boyfriend Olímpico. This one has big projects: he wants to become a deputy so he can buy decent gold teeth. Olímpico falls in love with Glória and separates from Macabea – “You are a hair in my soup”. She decides to look for a fortune teller to find out about her future.

With a lot of effort, the protagonist-writer Rodrigo SM is able to write the story of Macabea, whose sad and lost look deeply moved him on the street one day. As Macabea is a totally different being from him, Rodrigo has to undergo hitherto unknown rituals in order to be able to write about her: he doesn't shave for days, he eats only fruit and white wine, he doesn't read the newspaper, he doesn't leave the house anymore. . He feels compelled to tell Macabea's story – “She accuses me and the only way to defend myself is to write about her”.

The craft of writing is also very important in this text and can be considered as the second strand of the narrative. A third narrative thread addresses the analysis of the writing process that takes place in the tension between life and death. Writing in the awareness that death is very close is an intention of the writer who, with star hour provides us with his literary testament.

Within the Brazilian literature of the 1970s, the novel plays an important role, as the author analyzes the so-called “brutalist fiction” discourse,[I] with the numerous “anti-heroes of the economic miracle” who appear dynamic and agile in the work of Rubem Fonseca, Ignácio de Loyola Brandão and José Louzeiro. Clarice is not connected to this speech, as she only shows an anti-heroine who does not know how to defend herself. In the background, she develops the figure of the protagonist-writer who knows that this anti-heroine can only react.

Thus, the author shows the growing fragmentation of all sectors of Brazilian society in the time of the economic miracle. Clarice Lispector's short stories and novels “cross the dictatorship, reaching the beginning of what is conventionally called the democratic opening”.[ii] Clarice realizes that she has experienced the feeling of the intellectuals of that time, a feeling that Walnice Nogueira Galvão describes very clearly: “Utopia is gone. Faith in the ability to create the new and the dimension of the collective faded. In its place, there is a richer country, with wild and modernized capitalism, culture collected in its few strongholds and television for all in a society with fetishized consumption and maximized inequality”.[iii]

Clarice Lispector also analyzes the artist and shows that he can only play the role of observer of his own environment. The artist has no possibilities to interfere in the course of things. There is no connection between the world of writer Rodrigo SM and that of Macabea. We highlight here that Clarice Lispector discusses, in the midst of literature, the starting point of Cinema Novo directors who wanted to contribute to the formation of an awareness of the problems in Brazil, in order to be able to solve them. Clarice seeks to show that in literature the possible influence of the artist on Brazilian reality is almost zero. At the center of the approach we find the reduced and limited universe of this girl who survives on Coca-Cola and hot dogs. In addition, she offends all the feminine attributes: she is ugly, awkward, dirty, does not correspond to any standard of beauty.

When Clarice Lispector died, on December 9, 1977, Suzana Amaral was living in New York, where she was studying cinema. She was very sad to learn of Clarice's death and looked for her book in the college library. It found star hour. In 1985 she shot her first fiction film with a budget of 150.000 dollars, which at the time was not much – compared to the international market. Embrafilme paid seventy percent of the production cost. Suzana Amaral sees Macabea as the prototype of the Brazilian: “When I lived outside Brazil, I discovered that Brazilians are anti-heroes. In the sense that heroes make history and Brazilians don't make history. Brazilians suffer history. The Brazilian does not act, he reacts. That interested me and I talk about it in my film”.[iv]

For Suzana Amaral, Macabea really exists, she could be a housemaid, a typist, a saleswoman. These women are forced to react, they suffer from various mechanisms of repression.

The literary text also addresses the problem of writing and the motivation to write, but the protagonist of the book – the writer – in the film is completely absent. Suzana Amaral never asks if Macabea can be shown or not. Macabea is in front of the camera lens and can be shown. As we can see in the film, this rupture with the literary original allows free access to the work. Literature influences cinema with certain elements, but not exactly with the text. To develop a filmic text, it is necessary to face other aspects. What is interesting is that the director approaches the novel's messages through a procedure of her own that I will present now.

The literary text contains many elements of a visual, musical and local nature that are transformed into cinema: Macabea represents the northeastern woman who comes to the metropolis but is unaware of the city's codes of behavior. Surviving in the city takes so much energy that she barely has time to get to know herself. The action of the literary text takes place in Rio. For the filming, Suzana Amaral chose São Paulo, because, according to the director, the important thing for the film's message is that Macabea lives on the margins of a metropolis – any city.

The places where the events take place are the subway stations, the room in the boarding house that Macabea shares with the girls who are all named Maria, the office of the company Pereira Ramalho & Companhia, alleys, viaducts, a zoo and a park, as well as of taverns and streets with second-rate shops. Places that exist anywhere in the world. Suzana Amaral explains: “Maca should always be seen through the industrial waste of the big city. It is an urban universe with no specific identification of a city. It's any city anywhere in the world.”[v]

The protagonist-writer of the novel draws his character “in harsh painting lines” and calls the text a photograph, a story of gray rain. In the dedication to the reader, Clarice Lispector calls the novel a story in technicolor, a photograph, a silence. Suzana Amaral takes advantage of these instructions and uses them in the film: The image does not contain loud colors. Everything that was filmed on the street, filmed outdoors, shows a cloudy sky, or with rain, or with a sun that shines poorly. The most common colors are blue, gray and brown. Macabea's face is always shown in close ups, her temperament is calm, she acts slow, takes a lot of time in whatever she is doing. The viewer is almost irritated by the slowness of her typing with two dirty, greasy fingers.

Clarice's dedication to the reader also contains two references to classical music: one of them is An der schoenen Donau (o Blue danube) by Johann Strauss, which repeats itself as a leitmotiv and is electronically deformed when referring to Macabea's world of imagination. Alone in the room, she listens to this song, dances, and looks at herself in the beveled mirror that reflects her image twice – a visual index for the two levels of consciousness: reality and the dream. She looks at herself in the mirror: “I'm a virgin, I type and I like Coca-Cola”. In the following sequence, we see her in front of a shop window with a mannequin wearing a wedding dress, an index to Macabea's most intimate desires. When she hears the aria a furtive tear by Donizetti, begins to cry, an indication of Macabea's sensitivity and the impossibility of having access to that world that impresses her so much. In this sense, the news from Rádio Relógio reinforces the alienated situation it is experiencing.

Suzana Amaral uses numerous visual signs – for example: the cat and the mouse, blind mirrors, window panes, the star on the Mercedes, faded facades, vast and deserted places under bridges, the dirt of the metropolis. All this forms a contrast with the red flower, the wedding dresses and the lipsticks that indicate Macabea's dreams. “Do we not only live within our dreams?” Clarice and Suzana ask the same question.

The film occupies an important position in Brazilian cinematographic history. With few resources, an international production that reached more than 24 countries became viable. With her reading of the novel, Suzana Amaral breaks with the original to be able to adapt, with humor, with details and without falling into the grotesque - Clarice Lispector's intention.

“It's creating a new language from another language. You see: literature, I work like this: I read, I reread, I see if I like it or not, I base myself on what I read, but I send the model home. I forget the book. I work as if it were cinema, I work respecting the medium movie theater. First we have to respect the spirit of cinema (...) then you don't have to respect the written facts, but it's important to respect the spirit. I don't see the need to respect facts, names, concrete details, but the soul of the book has to be respected”.[vi]

In order to see the film within the history of literary adaptations made previously, I would like to gather some data about Brazilian cinema: adaptations of classic authors of Brazilian literature have existed since the film was discovered in Brazil.

However, a programmatic discussion begins with Cinema Novo in the late 1950s. Shortly before the bankruptcy of Vera Cruz, in 1954, the First São Paulo Congress of Brazilian Cinema took place, where Nelson Pereira dos Santos presented a thesis on possible paths for Brazilian cinema: cheap productions, without big studios, without sophisticated technique: “I think that a country like Brazil should place more value on content than on making a film. As Brazilians are very fond of their own history, literature and folklore, cinema should adapt some works by classic authors of Brazilian literature or important historical events. Only a film capable of presenting its own culture in a fascinating way will be successful in the country of origin and consequently be able to interest international audiences”.[vii]

These ideas were realized by the Cinema Novo group. Jean-Claude Bernardet highlights three thematic phases of Cinema Novo. A first dealing with problems in the Northeast of Brazil, a second focusing on the big city and a third, called Tropicalismo, within which a cinema of metaphors with allusions to the military dictatorship is made.

Since the bankruptcy of Vera Cruz, filmmakers began to fight for the State to assume a commitment to cinematographic production. And in response to this struggle, among other reasons, the State created, in 1966, the National Institute of Cinema and, in 1969, Embrafilme, which initially operated only as a film distributor and later became associated with production. Cinema Novo directors, in the beginning, saw these institutions as a threat to cinematographic production, but later they used them for pragmatic reasons.

In the 1970s, there was a closer relationship between the State and the directors of Cinema Novo. The projects of these directors were often made possible by official institutions. And in the face of censorship pressures, a possibility of maintaining an auteur cinema came with literary adaptations, especially adaptations of literature from modernism. But the adaptations were also a natural encounter – the Cinema Novo films did, in their images, what Brazilians had done in literature since modernism. And the adapted books were like ideal scripts. Produced without a conventional industrial structure, the first Cinema Novo films were made even with minimal budgets, with an idea in mind and a camera in hand. There was no film production structure with rules. So the scripts were not used as an integral part of production, as rigid shooting-scripts. At the time of filming, improvisations and script modifications were possible and frequent.

Years later, Suzana Amaral's way of working better meets the characteristics of this means of communication that is so expensive to produce. She planned the project, wrote the script, followed the script during filming, took little out, added nothing. She shot the entire film in six weeks, according to the script. A very representative film in terms of efficient production.

Fernando Collor de Mello's coup against culture in general and the closure of Embrafilme in 1990 seriously affected film production. For this reason, on the centenary of cinema, Brazil was, in fact, restarting cinematographic production from scratch: it sought to establish a new economic structure and a new dramatic structure. An excellent example is see this song by Carlos Diegues, from 1994, four day-to-day episodes, each based on songs – by Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Jorge Benjor.

When new films from São Paulo were presented in Germany in January 1996, and last February, when eight new feature films were presented at the Berlin Festival, I was able to observe the following: The films that worked with situations of behind closed doors, such as Saturday by Ugo Georgetti (1995), a sky of stars by Tata Amaral (1996), How angels are born by Murilo Salles (1966) or even short films like One Day Riddle, by Joel Pizzini (1996), are good examples of a well-planned and inexpensive production. This is quite evident in the case of a sky of stars, by Tata Amaral – with a script by Jean Claude Bernardet, Tata and Roberto Moreira adapting the novel with the same title by Fernando Bonassi. The production was meticulously rehearsed and planned, reducing the story to its essentials, that is: showing the violence in human relationships at home, as a reflection of the outside world.

All these films have in common that they tell a well-crafted story and limit themselves to a production that is not very expensive, but quite elaborate and adequate. These directors managed to make films that will survive within Brazilian cinematography. With these films they easily convince the viewer, even those who come from abroad or who live in another country. This path allows, in my opinion, to predict that in the medium term a solid structure of production and dramaturgy will be established.

*Ute Hermanns is a translator and professor at the Free University of Berlin.

Author, among other books, of Schreiben als Ausweg, Filmen als Lösung?: Zur Problematik von Literatur im Film in Brasilien, 1973-1985 (Berliner Lateinamerika-Forschungen).

Originally published in the magazine cinemas no. 6, July/August 1997.


[I] Alfredo Bosi, A concise history of Brazilian literature, Sao Paulo, Cultrix, 1970.

[ii] Ligia Chiappini Leite, Women, chickens and beggars: Clarice Lispector, Tale in confrontation, São Paulo 1995.

[iii] Walnice Nogueira Galvao, The speeches, the silences, literature and mediations: 1964-1988, in Brazil: The transit of memory, organized by Saul Sosnowski and Jorge Schwartz, São Paulo, Edusp, 1994.

[iv] L. Damasceno: Women – Both sides of the camera, Talk for Princeton Women's Center, in Series, April 1988, page 4.

[v] Alfredo Oroz and Suzana Amaral: screenplay by star hour, 1984, page 5. Typewritten original, unpublished.

[vi] Suzana Amaral, testimony to the author in Ute Hermanns, Schreiben plus Ausweg, Filmen plus Loesung? Zur Problematik von Literatur im Film in Brasilien 1973-1985, Frankfurt am Main, Vervuert, 1993.

[vii] Nelson Pereira dos Santos, The Problem of Content in Brazilian Cinema, communication to the I Paulista Congress of Brazilian Cinema in Jean Claude Bernardet and Maria Rita Galvão in Cinema, repercussions on an ideological echo box, Sao Paulo, Brasiliense 1983.

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