comprehensive systems

Image: Sérgio Romagnolo (Jornal de Resenhas)
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By JEAN CLAUDE BERNARDET*

Commentary on the use of metaphor and allegory in the film Alright, by Arnaldo Jabor, and Cinema Novo in general.

The house as a metaphor for a whole moment in Brazilian social history. There was Casa Grande and Senzala, after Townhouses and Mucambos. Now Apartment and Service Area.

Alright proposes a metaphor that synthesizes an entire Brazilian social moment. How did you arrive at this metaphor through the paths of Brazilian cinema in the 1960s and 1970s? Cinema Novo struggled to find a “comprehensive” dramaturgy, that is, dramatic forms that would allow it to encompass society as a whole (what the authors understand by this) as a system.

It was a total novelty in the context of Brazilian cinema. Each film becomes an overall view/analysis/critique of the system. Each film is an intentionally constructed microcosm. This process started with Rio Forty Degrees which presents itself as a chronicle of life in Rio, but whose intentions are to reveal and criticize the mechanisms, not of Rio society, but of class society in an underdeveloped country. Dried lives, ditto. The authors attribute to these films a character of global exemplarity.

Until now, the reasons given to explain the strong impulse that metaphorical or allegorical cinema had in Brazil after 1965 were, in a way, external to cinema: way to circumvent censorship, way to make more didactic films, to approach the public via show, etc. But it is worth asking whether there might not be an internal dynamic within Cinema Novo that, in a given historical situation, led it to metaphor and allegory. I think so, and one of those internal factors would be precisely the effort to build comprehensive systems.

The use of metaphor is obvious already before 1964. God and the Devil, for example. But it seems to me that he is present even in Dried lives. Its purified style has been approximated to a documentary style, but (it is likely) that this purification does not lead to documentary, but to metaphor. Not much is missing, a little more stylization so that Dried lives make the leap to a style where the metaphor is overtly presented.

The open metaphor and allegory, as used by this Brazilian cinema, of earth in trance a Alright, are dramatic resources that allow building comprehensive systems in a more economical (?), more didactic way, in which the scope becomes clearer and more obvious, not something to be deduced from the work, but something directly offered to the spectator.

There is a difference to be made between metaphor and allegory. In this cinema, I see metaphor as a process of prospecting, of questioning, which triggers ambiguous meanings on which the spectator has to work (basically Glauber Rocha, without excluding The Gods and the Dead and others). The allegory then remains as a coagulation of the metaphor: it serves to expose already established meanings, as a vehicle of communication and transmission of an already defined message (it would be the case of films like Satan's feats in Leva e Traz Village, Brazil Year 2000, Alright). This as a trend, because so much earth in trance partially resorts to allegories without being an allegory as a whole, as feats it offers levels of ambiguity, although it is on the whole an allegory.

And if you ask: why the scope (to continue with this word)? The allegorical scope allows the approached social set to be dominated/tamed by the work. This closed dramatic form, solidly constructed, with a unique point of view, attributes a certain meaning to the social group approached, which is passed on to the spectator. This form dominates the social whole by giving it a single meaning, by enclosing it within a unified dramatic system of determined meanings. This is not altered by the fact that the allegory exposes contradictions within the social set addressed, nor by the fact that it may eventually be considered difficult to decode. This unified point of view becomes even more sensitive when resorting to a single character or, as in Alright, to a unique place. The centralized and centralizing scope is clear.

The point I propose for discussion is: to what extent is this dramatic system related to a power project? This form with a single point of view, which bundles the social group addressed in a single meaning, can be interpreted as a form of domination precisely because it allows a single voice to pass through and leads to a single meaning. As much as it talks about contradictions, it is a form without contradictions. The allegory is a broken form, it is never a form in crisis (is it really?). I don't know very well how far these considerations would lead, but following this line is the process of the whole genre known as “portrait” or “theory” of Brazil.

*Jean-Claude Bernardet is a retired cinema professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Brazilian cinema: proposals for a history (Company of Letters).

Originally published in the magazine Cinema Olho, No. 5/6, June-August 1979.

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