narcissus on vacation

Elyeser Szturm, from the Heavens series


Commentary on the film of the same name, a memoir by Caetano Veloso about his days in prison during the military dictatorship

Crushed between the pandemic that undermines countless lives (and which is gradually being ignored) and the authoritarianism that corrodes democracy (always relativized by the mantra of “the good functioning of our institutions”) lies a Brazil that has violence, inequality, the absurd of politics, obscurantism and, why not, the use of the mask with the nose out as their true national symbols. In this state of abulia and lethargy in which we sink, any refuge that has survived and given way to criticism and thought becomes, invariably, a space of resistance to the barbarism that outside (and within us) continues to bury the possibilities of a country different from the one we witness.

In this tiny haven, narcissus on vacation (2020), a documentary that focuses on the arrest of singer Caetano Veloso during the period of the military dictatorship, occupies a prominent place. Over almost an hour and a half, the film points to another Brazil, based on the memory of a marginal hero who, in his well-known songs, was never satisfied with the divided reality he saw around him.

Mentioned by the singer a few times in his testimony, the verse “hope, you died too soon” is sung by Orlando Silva in Appeal, a song that was happily played by Caetano in his apartment in the days before his arrest and that of his friend, Gilberto Gil. Transplanted to those tragic moments in our history, the romantic lament of that “lyrical self” became a diagnosis of the failure of our national projects, repeatedly placed on the table to be hastily thrown in the trash. In those days, as now, the feeling is that our country had “gone wrong”.

Screened at the Venice Film Festival and available on Rede Globo's streaming platform (balloon play) since the beginning of September, the documentary puts Caetano in the role of witness to his own history, giving him the word that will reconstitute the months in which he was imprisoned between the end of 1968 and the beginning of 1969, shortly after the enactment of AI- 5 (Institutional Act No. 5), which curtailed artistic freedom, instituted prior censorship and started the most brutal phase of the military dictatorship.

The details of this tragic period in Caetano's life had already been made public in his book Tropical Truth (Companhia das Letras, 1997), but gain another dimension when told and remembered as a filmed testimony. His so famous instrument of work, the voice, weaves the memory of those days. Freed from the burden of writing, Caetano completes his account of a reality that, although it has already occurred, is violently thrown against our present and is reflected in it, infiltrates, frightens us.

Framed alone and at some distance from the camera, we see at first the figure of a man made smaller in front of a large gray wall of reinforced concrete that occupies the entire background of the image. From its gray and porous surface, it ends up reinforcing the very aridity and coldness of the narrated facts. Sitting in front of him, Caetano turns his back on him – the memory of prison makes the singer grow larger, his testimony breaks with the silence and with the echo in the form of denunciation and criticism. When he picks up the guitar and sings, the concrete crumbles and we only see the musician's hands and eyes investing in the chords of his music. There is no prison that makes that sound mute.

As he talks, remembers and gets emotional, Caetano reverses the logical priority of the narrated facts and puts himself in the foreground: from the first weeks in solitary confinement to the interrogation that would take months to happen, the center of gravity of his speech is not the empty materiality of the events , but the enfeebled and torn state of his senses. Throughout the report, there is no fact without the interpretation of the anguish, fear and uncertainty that the young singer experienced. Stuck without knowing why, disorientation orders his words, dries up his enjoyment and his crying, silences his voice and his guitar. Deprived of everyone and everything, Caetano rebuilds his memory from the anxiety of getting rid of it and understanding what was happening.

The reasons for his arrest were only revealed to him in the last days of his freedom being curtailed. According to the military, Caetano was being accused of having dishonored the national anthem during a show with Gil and the Mutantes that took place at the Sucata nightclub. According to them, the musicians had sung the national anthem in a parodic and jocular way. For the regime, Caetano practiced the “art of cultural terrorism”. According to the case file, read by the singer at a certain point in the film, his figure was considered one of the main responsible for the emergence of a protest song marked by a subversive and “devirilizing” character.

Even after so many years, the inventiveness of such accusations still shocks the singer – who proved to the military, through witnesses, that the anthem had not even been sung that day. When reading these passages, the anguish recalled by Caetano is transformed into laughter – that desperate laughter in the face of a bizarre interrogation that, depending on some current ministers, could once again become a State document.

As for its form, the documentary succeeds in not resorting to reconstitutions and re-enactments of the facts narrated by Caetano, a resource unfortunately so present in many films of the genre. In them, the tendency to transform the memory of survivors and witnesses into Hollywoodically reproducible and acceptable images always makes horror susceptible to disinterested aesthetic consumption, in a shameless flirtation with the police and sensationalist programs that fill the schedule of our open television. Torture, imprisonment and violence become, in these products of the cultural industry, sweetened images that deplete the very force of the story, in a neutralizing displacement of the denunciation contained in the words towards the cinematographic beauty of the images that show terror, but that do not they hatch.

It is clear that, depending on how the story is fictionalized and reconstituted, such trivialization of the fact can be avoided, giving rise to the deepening of the complaint through its dramatic representation. In this case, the reenactment can give embodiment to historical references by avoiding fitting the experience that is told in the molds of narrative clichés and aesthetically beautiful images.

This is what, for example, the documentary Maidens Tower (2018), which gives voice to women imprisoned and tortured during the military regime for their “subversive” political activities. Through an alternation between testimony and dramaturgy, there the story is completed. Going in the opposite direction – but just as powerful, narcissus on vacation makes explicit the power of the discourse. In it, the victim's words, gestures and eyes are enough as a message capable of reproducing and re-enacting everything that counts – in this case, the testimony reconstructs the fact and overcomes it as a reflection. There is no room for simulation or reconstitution. Caetano's account is, in this sense, self-sufficient.

As we listen to Caetano, we do not remain in the past of his story. His words, though always addressed to what has already happened, are invariably thrown directly at the present. The external reality of the work itself – the affinity between what is said about the past and what we see in our country today – imposes itself on its internal content, and obliges us to listen to its report as a warning directed at the present. As contemporaries of a politics of death, his words speak simultaneously of yesterday and today, of the military regime and the kakistocracy of our time.

His prison experience, in this sense, starts from the past to expose the contradictions of the present. The film reveals, as Caetano well underlined in Tropical Truth, as his passage through jail revealed countless “unconscious contents of the Brazilian imagination – and of the Zeitgeist".

Such associations between what is narrated by the film and what is printed on the front pages of today's newspapers are due to the immutability of the failure of our own situation. The Brazil that arrested Caetano, that tortured left-wing militants, that censored numerous cultural manifestations and that killed hundreds of opponents is the same Brazil of today, that tortures and kills young black people and peripherals in the putrid basements of jails or in the middle of the street in plain sight of all, which scraps culture and its institutions, which transforms the thousands of deaths from the virus into irrelevant and naturalized data – a state of affairs resulting from our abysmal inequality, the original source and founding matrix of our society. Unfortunately, the progressive and critical forces that formerly occupied jails or exile continue today to be bewildered by the incessant blows of Realpolitik. In this sense, the malaise in his account reflects and is reflected by our misunderstanding of the present.

Having highlighted its potency, it is also necessary to stick to the limits of memory as a refuge and space for criticism, that is, to think to what extent the account of Caetano and so many others about the atrocities of the military period help in understanding the country and its nature. – or, at the limit, how remembering barbarism is contributing to its non-repetition. In a way, the problem to be investigated is not in the strength of the testimony itself, but in considering it sufficient in itself, thus ignoring the form and intensity that will be received by an audience so accustomed to violence, horror and death. It is necessary to pay attention to who listens to him and how he listens.

Evidently, the formative and pedagogical role that memory and its preservation play in the reconstruction of the present is undeniable. See, for example, the entire post-war German effort in relation to the Nazi period. There, there was a coordinated effort by sectors of civil society to formulate State policies that not only focus on the preservation of memory until today, but make it legally and juridically difficult to flirt with that tragic past. However, we are not in Germany.

Our democratic history was born, shamefully, under the Amnesty law and its harmful effects on erasing the memory of that period. We left the military dictatorship marked by the forgiveness granted to unforgivable acts. Hitherto sheltered in barracks, today the generals occupy the palace in the Planalto, and it is no longer necessary to resort to a coup in order for them to assume power. In this crippled republic, generals are extolled as heroes and human rights defenders are considered accomplices in violence, culture is reduced to ashes and the past is painted in a yellow green that hides the red of the blood of its dead.

In the face of all this, it is not enough to listen, watch and be moved by such memories of the past. Solidarity with the suffering of others is just the first step – the prerequisite – for affection to be transformed into action. For memory to be realized as an effective critique and thus allow the construction of new political and social arrangements, it is necessary that it ceases to be just testimony and remembrance and becomes an action oriented to the present.

Faced with Caetano's frightening account, it is urgent to answer: What makes someone listen to such testimonials and insist on Bolsonarism? What explains the complete dissociation between the barbarism denounced on screen and the shattered perception of the present? As in the myth of Narcissus, we are already drowning in our reflection, in the ego of our enlightened and superior positions. It's time to go back to the margins – go beyond the image, touch the real and destroy what is destructive to man in it. To allow, in Caetano's own words, “the sweetness of existing”.

Post scriptum

Brazilian cinema has strongly resisted the authoritarian tide that threatens its existence. With the pandemic, we are delivered to a reduced and private cinematic experience, but none the less potent. In yet another effort to survive and in the wake of themes related to the memory and denunciation of the military dictatorship, the 25th International Documentary Film Festival “It's All True” will display, on dates and times that can be checked on the website ( the documentaries I owe you a letter about Brazil, on the tragic effects of the dictatorship on different generations of a family, and Libelu – Down with Dictatorship, which gives voice to members of the student movement Liberdade e Luta. The festival has numerous other titles that deserve our attention. Entirely online and free, it is yet another opportunity to look into Brazil that thinks of itself through a cinema that bravely insists on touching its deepest wounds – without anesthesia.

*Lucas Fiaschetti Estevez is a Master's student at the Graduate Program in Sociology at the University of São Paulo


narcissus on vacation
Brazil, 2020, documentary
Direction and script: Renato Terra and Ricardo Calil
Editing: Henrique Alqualo and Jordana Berg
Director of Photography: Fernando Young
Cast: Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil


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