What's the story?

Image: Antonio Lizarraga

What's the story?


Considerations about the historical film in Brazilian cinema

The historical film was a cinematographic star in the 1970s. I would like to make some reflections about, not the films, but a mechanism of ideological and aesthetic pressure. Much has been said about state intervention and cultural leadership in that decade, particularly in cinema. The case of the historical film not only does not summarize the forms of state intervention in cultural production, nor is it so characteristic of the work of the Ministry of Education and Culture in the artistic area, since only with regard to the adaptation of literary works and historical film to Embrafilme gave a thematic and aesthetic orientation to film production. They are, therefore, exceptions, but they do not harm the general system.

It remains that the bureaucratic machine, the financing and co-production system, the distribution mechanisms, etc., have more powers. However, a reflection on the system that involves the historical film can suggest how a pressure mechanism activated by the ruling class, or a segment of it, works in order to promote the production of works that directly serve their ideological and aesthetic interests.

The question of the historical film really arises in the 1970s, although the genre already existed much earlier in Brazilian cinema. The difference is that, until then, it had been sporadically and spontaneously practiced, while in that period it resulted from certain political and administrative pressures. Which, incidentally, does not necessarily change the ideology and aesthetics of the works.

It is known that in Brazil the historical genre is almost as old as fiction cinema itself. However, in those years that were conventionally called the “Beautiful Era of Brazilian Cinema”, the historical theme was exclusively Portuguese. Only after the São Paulo outbreak of the 1910s did historical films with Brazilian themes appear. None of these films, with the exception of The diamond hunter (Vittorio Capellaro, 1933), has come down to us.

But the headlines, advertisements and comments in the press are suggestive. we found The scream of Ipiranga or Independence or death (Lambertini, 1917), Brazilian Heroes in the Paraguayan War (Lambertini, 1917), Tiradentes or The Martyr of Liberty (Paulo Aliano, 1917), Anchieta between love and religion (Arturo Carrari, 1931), among others. Titles indicate a heroic vision of history, based on great deeds and great characters. As can be seen from the names of the directors, it was mainly Italian filmmakers who took responsibility for the genre. One can hypothesize that these immigrants, in an effort to acculturate, were turning to a national theme, assimilating and assuming the values ​​considered noble of the nationality and, thus, reproducing an image of history constructed by the dominant class.

Between the 1910s and 1970s, Brazilian cinema did not have another moment of intense production of historical films, although the genre manifested itself sporadically. And always within a restricted thematic range, always basing the story on “heroic” acts and figures, always presenting a history made by the ruling class, entering the people for ornamental purposes or to prove how the ruling class has always been kind and oriented to the popular interests. The themes of Inconfidência, Independence or abolitionism served for this. For example, Inconfidência Mineira, by Carmem Santos (1948), or Miss lady, da Vera Cruz (1953). Cinema Novo did not turn to the historical theme, but at least one film was made in the first phase, whose approach and aesthetics were opposed to what had been done until then: Ganga Zumba, by Carlos Diegues (1963). Diegues contrasts the history of the ruling class with a history of popular struggles.

From the Medici government, the production of historical films was no longer left to the spontaneity of filmmakers. It is true that this was not the first time that the government had expressed interest in the matter. In 1953, Getúlio Vargas requested a special exhibition, at the Palácio do Catete, of sis girl and, in several newspapers, a sentence attributed to Alzira Vargas appears: “Finally, now, you can watch national films” (according to Maria Rita Galvão's thesis on Vera Cruz). From 1970, things changed: the Minister of Education took the initiative and urged filmmakers to turn to historical film. This is a new fact, the government explicitly expresses its desire. And he goes further: the minister suggests topics that, according to the magazine Film Culture, from Embrafilme, are the following: FEB, CAN, Borba Gato, Anhanguera, Paes Leme, Oswaldo Cruz, Santos Dumont, Delmiro Gouveia, Duque de Caxias, Marechal Rondon.

The justification for this last item is worth mentioning: it would allow a historical parallel to be drawn with other nations that, unlike Brazil, decimated their Indians during the conquest campaign. Ministerial exhortations have no effect: historical films are expensive and have no assured market. It's hard for producers to throw themselves into big budgets just to please the minister. Furthermore, it seems that the minister is suspicious of any and all filmmakers, so that not even the contacts that Oswaldo Massaini, according to his statements, made at a high level had any effect: Independence or death received no help.

There, the film pleased and the advertising material contains the following telegram: “I have just seen the film Independence or death and I would like to record the excellent impression it made on me PT I congratulate the entire team director VG actors VG producers and technicians for the work done that shows how much Brazilian cinema can do inspired by the paths of our history PT This film opens a wide and clear horizon for the cinematographic treatment of themes that move and educate, move and inform our audiences PT Adequate in the interpretation VG careful in the technique VG serious in the language VG worthy in the intentions and above all very Brazilian Independence or death responds to our confidence in national cinema PT Emílio G. Médici President of the Republic”. The government embraces the film, taking an ideological and aesthetic position on the matter, helping to sell.

A second phase opens with the 1975 Embrafilme norms. A simple exhortation is not enough, the government enters the production. For historical films, and only for them, a special budget is created; Embrafilme, which, at 1975 values, participates in a co-production of up to Cr$ 270.000, can invest up to Cr$ 1.500.000 in a historical film, and its participation will be considered as only Cr$ 750.000, that is, the other Cr$750.000 is a subsidy. A ministerial-level commission is installed, whose task is to receive and evaluate scripts, and indicate them or not for production; the commission acts on two points: evaluating projects by first-time directors and historical films.

The institution of the commission and its composition leave no doubt that it is the cultural bureaucracy that selects and promotes what interests it, and rejects the rest. The commission met under the chairmanship of a representative of the Department of Cultural Affairs (DAC) of the MEC, with representatives of the Federal Council of Culture, the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute, Embrafilme, the National Union of the Cinematographic Industry and others.

The historical film becomes more and more a matter of State, but, once again, the results were not brilliant for the bureaucracy and the plan backfired. First, because the commission only received two projects (against more than twenty in the first-time director category — there are those who ask: where are the new directors of Brazilian cinema?), it approved one: Anchieta, José do Brasil, by Paulo César Saraceni. But, after a troubled production, the film did not please: neither public success, nor critical, nor institutional, nor the story as wanted: the bureaucracy has no way to manipulate this film.

The government does not give up: a third attempt will be made, better economic conditions will be given, and the new Minister of Education will state that we have a good model to follow, explicitly assuming an ideological and aesthetic position: Independence or death, in interview or press release, it is reaffirmed as convenient for the government. Once again the government asks for projects, but it does not ask for scripts, only arguments, and the chosen projects will have their scripts financed by Embrafilme (Cr$ 300.000 in 1977), after which Embrafilme will make a new choice for the co-production, whose final decision it will be up to the minister. This time, due to economic conditions, the response was much better: 74 arguments sent to Embrafilme. The first part of the mechanism was fulfilled, the second is on hold: change in the company's management, precarious financial situation, possible change in the ministry's ideological orientation.

The results of this machine so far are not brilliant. In the decade, only one film of indisputable civic repercussion, Independence or death, that does not result from government efforts. The film in which the government was most committed, Anchieta, José do Brasil, it is unusable for him. Another successful film, Xica da Silva, by Carlos Diegues (1977), owes nothing in particular to the government project.

Even if the desired films had appeared, the mechanism, however much it involves money and bureaucracy, does not have its victory assured. Most of the filmmakers who submitted historical projects did not necessarily do so out of sympathy for the government, nor because of ideological affinities, nor because they share a vision of history, although the mere fact of submitting a project indicates that there is no complete incompatibility. It is, for filmmakers, an opportunity to produce films — historical or not —, even more so being able to benefit from subsidies, in addition to co-production, and to have funding for scripts, which is exceptional in the history of Brazilian cinema. If the project launched by the government was about zoology or sports, most producers would also respond to the request. And not even the fact of launching the historic project, even with two sieves, in the argument and in the script, guarantees that the films will come out according to the government's expectations. Anchieta say it.

It must be said that the government does not take a radical attitude, which would consist of taking over production, something that Brazilian governments have never done, with the exception of short films by the Estado Novo Department of Press and Propaganda (DIP), Agência Nacional, ARP and sporadically one or another ministry. What differentiates this system from others, for example that of socialist governments, in which state cinematographic entities produced and determined the theme, style, focus of the story, etc. of historical films.

As much as ministers urged filmmakers to make historical films, as much as they suggested themes or cited models, the government never produced a definition of history or outlined a precise ideological perspective that films would have to obey. This officially. Because this situation is indeed pregnant with implications. Both the government knows that it is not asking for anything, as the filmmakers know that they will not have any project accepted. But it is not indifferent that the determinations are not made explicit, that many “transas” remain behind the scenes, and it may get to the point that MEC employees call producers questioning the historical veracity of this or that sequence.

But the fact that the government does not directly assume production nor make its expectations official gives the system a margin of elasticity in which both the government and the filmmakers defend their interests. This form of procedure is evidently not a great risk for the government. Elasticity has marked cards, since the dialogue does not happen as equals. The government knows that filmmakers need to make films and implicitly, on average, they ended up respecting the mandates. For any excess, the cinematographic mechanism has controls and the government has the means of repression. And also because, in terms of historical films, the government is not asking for too much.

Everything he asks for is already in the social body, and in particular in the cinematographic milieu. The heroic and pompous conception of history, the great figures, the peaceful history is what one finds in most Brazilian historical films, regardless of any government pressure. It is enough to remember that many of the themes treated in this decade had already been spontaneously approached by cinema; that all the themes of the pre-Cinema Novo films that I mentioned above returned in the 1970s, including the Paraguayan War, which was not the subject of films but of several proposals sent to Embrafilme. (Not only the themes, but also the historical and aesthetic approach).

Respecting the technical evolution and fashions, there is probably not much difference between The Martyr of Liberty, by Aliano (1917), and The Martyr of Independence, by Vietri (1977). “… a great luxury of staging… The author (of the film) did very well in not absolutely subordinate his elaboration to the historical fact. From this he took advantage of the markedly characteristic feature, interspersing it with romantic episodes... the oath of D. Pedro on the hill of Ipiranga. The spectator is happy to wander with his eyes over a familiar landscape: the cavalry on one side, sword raised, the rustic oxcart suspended before the unusual spectacle…” These phrases would not be out of place if applied to the Independence or death 1972, but refer to The Scream of the Ipiranga of 1917.

It cannot be said that the governments of the 1970s sought to innovate in the field, or create or impose something that was not already there. What they sought was to support, to provide better means of expression and dissemination to this vision of history that was already there, to encourage it, to favor it over others. By reinforcing the historical film, by reinforcing a certain approach to history, even if implicitly, the government, with moderate pressure, exerts an authentic cultural dirigisme, because it reinforces a trend and this reinforcement hinders other possibilities.

The formulation of aesthetics

The government does not formulate the vision of history and the aesthetics of the historical film, but a part of the social body takes charge of this task: it is criticism. If we examine most of the journalistic criticisms referring to historical films, we will verify that critics do not usually explicitly formulate their ideological and aesthetic positions, but these can be easily deduced from the texts, they come to the fore.

I will call “naturalism” the basic principle that runs through most criticism and supports judgments about films. Formulations such as: “The actors feel as comfortable in period clothes as a diver on the catwalk of the viaduct” — “It did not avoid what happens in almost every historical-legendary film: that the actors, influenced by the unusual costume … took intentionally solemn attitudes, which, in practice, bordered on ridicule, and were embarrassed by the requirement to pretend to belong to a different time” — “… things sound false. Everything is artificial” — “The film suffers from a chronic affliction… lack of credibility. Everything sounds false, it seems artificial…” — “… effort to compose an Iracema with a minimum of credibility… the displeasure of once again finding that the characterization of national actors and actresses, especially when they have to play Indian roles, is an aberration in falsehood” — “… an astonishing succession of mistakes without a single moment of verisimilitude” — “Striking flaws occur in the Portuguese adventurers’ diction and accent… “extras who now and then look away to the camera… Oil tanker in Anchieta’s time?… Something that really seems to be one of those big boats transporting fuel” — “the actors inside (the clothes) always have the air of wax dolls kept in a museum”.

What do these phrases disapprove of when commenting on costumes and actors, or an oil tanker that would be seen in the background of a long shot of a film set in the XNUMXth century? They complain that what is considered a defect reveals that it is a film, reveals that it is a composition, they complain that such “defects” do not allow the spectator to accept these images as if they were the story itself. The critic wants to be able to believe in the images, that they give him the impression that he is truly seeing a true moment in history. He wants to believe. He wants the film to allow him a relationship of familiarity with the story, even more so in films that want to create this familiarity. What disturbs this relationship — the story as if I were seeing it — is flaw.

But this relationship cannot be gratuitous, it has to be solidly rooted in something serious, otherwise it would be just a game, it wouldn't be a truth. What authenticates the impression of familiarity and truth can only be science. Therefore, the required naturalism is based on research. “A certain care in recreating indigenous uses and customs, largely referenced by Alencar himself, but also resulting from more recent research” — “The reconstitution of indigenous life is also excellent, carried out through careful research and consultation with anthropologists” — Research “with an investment even in Italian libraries” — “And the production researched so that the reconstructions were as close as possible to the spirit of the time” — “The most traditional families in the region are lending period furniture, antique objects, family jewels to reconstitute the environments of the XNUMXth century” — “Be careful when looking for places that would serve as an authentic backdrop. Even the screaming scene imitates Pedro Américo’s painting, and the same number of people — three hundred — were placed in one and the other” — “A series of researches so that the film had the desired authenticity” — “The Institute of Historical Heritage is remodeling Xica da Silva's house for filming”. Historical research makes reconstitution possible (a word that is overused in the critical vocabulary), and “authentic” reconstitution makes it possible to give the impression of naturalism.

About How delicious my French was, we read: “A meticulously careful production… that made the artists speak in Tupi, Portuguese and French”. Now, what is the critic's knowledge that allows him to assess the meticulous care regarding the languages ​​spoken in the film? Does he specialize in linguistics? Not likely. I found the French quite poorly spoken, probably incorrect for the XNUMXth century. Nelson Pereira dos Santos does not hide that the Tupi spoken in the film is highly problematic (the word “fajuto” was used by him in this regard), since the grammar was not entirely reconstituted.

So that it can be safely stated that the demand for research is not of a scientific nature, but is simply an ideological index. An impression of scientificity to legitimize naturalism. It is not by chance that this ideological principle is expressly formulated in Embrafilme's rules: “whose scripts are supported by carefully prepared research”.

This naturalism/research complex is often associated with the idea of ​​nobility. The story is noble, at least the themes and figures chosen for film subjects. “On his sesquicentennial of birth, José de Alencar did not deserve a film like this. It is not a tribute to the writer” — Anchieta “is presented much more as a naive missionary… than as a true apostle” — The position is opposite, but the concept is the same: “Ney (Latorraca) manages to lend Anchieta’s character a surprising dignity” — “He did not bother to show new aspects of this extraordinary figure, of this strong and striking personality that was certainly D. Pedro de Alcântara”. This nobility goes a long way: whoever sins, will not be worthy of the historical film, or at least of certain roles: history could be tainted. About Helena Ramos, an actress from São Paulo known for having worked in pornochanchadas, it is said: “HR is the flashy type. A 'good' woman, why not? Naturally a good girl. But… the actress is as if tainted by her appearance in so many pornochanchada” — Coimbra “is the only person to blame for giving a pornochanchada actress the role of a virgin” — “… ended up choosing a veteran of more than twenty Boca do Lixo films, HR, an actress who is even pretty (and with a nice body) but far from innocence…” — “the blatant inadequacy of HR (performer of at least a dozen pornochanchadas and pornoaventuras) for the title role”. All this on the pretext that the character played by Helena Ramos is a virgin. Medieval!

This nobility is related to the nobility of cinema itself, understood there as overproduction. Massaini performs Independence or death to celebrate a quarter of a century of film activities. And naturally, the great figures of history are linked to the great figures of the show. It's an old story, cinematic greatness was already combined with historical greatness in 1917. Tiradentes announces: “The national cinematographic tape industry has taken a great impulse lately… The company Aliano Filme has just appeared, with a historic work… artistic conception [meaning: great production]…” And, as cinematographic greatness is a commodity, it does not exist without money. “With great effort, he tried to reproduce (within the material resources available) the Brazil of the XNUMXth century… In terms of Brazilian cinema, we are facing an overproduction. In principle, due to the importance of the subject, it would even deserve a larger budget” — “rarely, within national cinema, have I found something so superfluous, a logical exception to the usual banalities of poor films. A work that received the seal of Embrafilme and even a large financing from the Bank of the State of São Paulo, such a roll of carelessness is not allowed…” These phrases are explicit enough.

Why this pursuit of naturalism? Coming to criticize itself for the failures of naturalism, reconstitution, reproduction, a film like Anchieta, José do Brasil, broken with naturalism and removed from any intention of reconstitution. Or praising that same film for the qualities of the reconstitution: “The reconstitution of indigenous life is also excellent, made through careful research”, when the indigenous life in the film has nothing to do with reconstitution, with Saraceni delivering roles of Indians to whites and blacks.

It's just that a complex issue is at stake. Naturalism - in the sense in which I am using the word - gives an impression of veracity, of authenticity, and eliminates, or must eliminate, the marks of work, the marks of failure. One must not realize that someone made the film, that the film is a work on history, that it is an interpretation, that there could be others. If there can be other interpretations, the one on the screen is not necessarily the true one, or the others may be just as true. It is necessary to eliminate this doubt so that the truth of the screen is not questioned. And this truth is indispensable to the dominant ideology, since, in order to dominate, it cannot present itself either as an ideology or as a vision of history among others.

The aesthetic struggle for naturalism is an ideological struggle; aesthetics cannot breach the dominant interpretation, under penalty of threatening it as truth. And it is only as long as it presents itself as the uncontested and flawless truth that it can be transmitted and accepted as the truth, as History. History is like that. The asset is not small. For ideological domination it is indispensable to dominate history, since history is always an interpretation of the present.

Imposing a vision of history is imposing a way for society to think about the present. That is why it is a field of intense ideological struggle. For this reason, the critical mechanism I outlined above closes with this other position: “a dignified, very beautiful film, in addition to informative” — Anchieta, José do Brasil, “so important, 'as a project', for the information of the public” — “And, if little is known about the priest (Anchieta), it remains knowing even less through the film” — “… go disclose our history…” — “well-kept and well-produced film, intended to penetrate in all layers popular” — “A fun and busy class of History of Brazil” — “It is made for the mass ignorant and it's a beautiful movie. Mistakes are not appreciable by the majority” — “Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ film is interesting only as a class illustrated story with slides” (emphasis mine).

Embrafilme is aware of this function of historical film: fun history class for the masses, and the first statement of the 1975 rules: “The co-production of historical films by Embrafilme aims to encourage the making of films that contribute to the wide dissemination of the themes of the History of Brazil.” By fighting fiercely for the naturalist affirmation, valuing or devaluing works based on their “truth” and “credibility”, this criticism is inserted in the system of confirmation and reproduction of the dominant ideology.

It is to be noted that Anchieta, José do Brasil provoked anger in critics, in an intensity that, in my view, goes beyond the “defects” pointed out; these same critics can point out “deficiencies” in Iracema, and reject the film, disappointed but not angry. is that, for them, Iracema is a bad film, but within the aesthetics they defend. Anchieta hurts this aesthetic. And again nothing new. The ruling class has always seen the work of historical fiction as a form of domination. In a study on the Brazilian novel, AF Dutra e Mello wrote: “And yet the historical novel may find vogue among us; there is one present that should not be despised... can become involved moralizing and poetic…” (1844 — cited by T. Pires Vara in The scar of origin)(emphasis added by the author).

Post scriptum

This text is unfair to the critics, as there is evidently a flattening of the individual positions, and because I worked with an average. A few, critics and people linked to other areas who write sporadically about cinema are aware of the manipulation of history, do not work with the concept of reconstitution, do not limit history to a matter of facts and costumes, do not take verisimilitude for truth, situate history and the aesthetic work done on it in an ideological struggle. But these works are rare in newspapers, they have an essayistic character. I worked on an average of everyday journalistic criticism, mainly produced in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. (This text received the collaboration of Martino Sbragia).

*Jean-Claude Bernardet is a retired professor of cinema at ECA-USP and the author, among other books, of Brazilian cinema: proposals for a history (Cia. das Letras, 2009)

Originally published on the portal ArtThought IMS

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