A profile of Jean-Claude Bernardet



Considerations on the work and intellectual trajectory of the film critic.

Born in Belgium and raised in France until he was 13, when his family moved to Brazil, Jean-Claude Bernardet belongs to a constellation of European emigrants who came to make lasting contributions to the Brazilian intellectual environment. Despite differences in size, circumstances and area of ​​activity, his case is similar to that of the Hungarian Paulo Rónai, the German Anatol Rosenfeld, the Austrians Otto Maria Carpeaux and Roberto Schwarz, the Ukrainian Boris Schnaiderman, the French Roger Bastide and Gérard Lebrun, the Italians Ruggero Jacobi and Lina Bo Bardi, the Polish Yan Michalski and several others.

Arriving here at different times in their lives (some in childhood, others already graduated), all embraced Brazilian culture, to which they ended up integrating as essayists, teachers, translators or artists. His encounters with Brazil often involved the invention of high-quality essayistic prose in the adopted language. Writing about Anatol Rosenfeld, Roberto Schwarz has already pointed out in late texts by his friend the excellence of this prose which, like that of foreigners Paulo Rónai and Michel Debrun, would contain “inspirations for the Brazilian writer”[I]. Directly applicable to Schwarz's own prose, the observation is perhaps also valid for the one that Bernardet has been forging over the years, in his cinematographic criticism texts (little discussed from this angle) as well as in his fiction ones, the first of which, by the way, That boy (São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1990) was the subject of a fine analysis in a homonymous essay by Schwarz himself, included in his volume Brazilian sequences[ii].

In some cases, the integration of these intellectuals also involved their effort to systematize the data of our cultural experience, helping to consolidate the foundations of an intellectual tradition still incipient among us. Thus, Carpeaux gave us in 1949 a Small Critical Bibliography of Brazilian Literature (reissued four times in improved versions) and Yan Michalski worked, shortly before his death in 1990, on the elaboration of an “Encyclopedia of contemporary Brazilian theater”. In the same direction, Bernardet gave us in 1987 a fruitful Brazilian bibliography of Brazilian cinema (Rio: Embrafilme, 1987), ten years after raising the precious Filmography of Brazilian Cinema 1900-1935 (São Paulo: Secretariat of Culture, 1979).


Although the decisive importance of Bernardet for the Brazilian cinematographic debate in the last five decades is recognized, a careful examination of the set of his contributions in this field has not yet been carried out. Discussed in the press, in film magazines and at the university, the subject of tributes resulting in useful catalogs in 2007 and 2010[iii], his work continues to be one of the most challenging cases for the historian of our cinematographic thought, for at least a couple of reasons.

First, for its length. Very varied in facets and purposes, his written work (I will not be concerned with these brief notes on his work as a screenwriter, filmmaker, actor and teacher) comprises a very large mass of texts, which includes twenty books, solo or in collaboration, and over 700 articles[iv]. In addition to the 3 volumes of documentation[v] and the 4 others with properly literary initiatives (novel, epistolary novel, self-fiction)[vi], Bernardet published 3 books on the History of Brazilian Cinema[vii], 3 others on the history of cinematographic ideas in Brazil[viii], 2 didactic introductions about cinema[ix], 2 compilations of sparse articles[X] and 2 studies on private filmmakers, the first on Júlio Bressane and Rogério Sganzerla, the second on Abbas Kiarostami[xi]. Of the articles, the vast majority was never collected in volume, and remains dispersed in countless publications (newspapers, magazines, catalogues, pamphlets, collective books, prefaces, dictionary entries), which are often difficult to access.

Scattered throughout articles, fixed in books, Bernardet's contributions seem to me to be situated above all in the fields of criticism and history – both of cinema and of Brazilian cinematographic thought. These are, in my opinion, his two or three favorite places over the years. But how did they articulate in his itinerary? This question leads us to the second difficulty faced by the historian of our cinematographic thought in the face of Bernardet's work, a difficulty arising from a particularly disconcerting attitude that crosses it over the years.

In addition to being vast and varied, it is perhaps the one that most problematizes the idea of ​​an organic and cohesive critical itinerary, of authorship in the full sense of the term. In his statements and public positions, Bernardet has made explicit a permanent impetus for change, a firm willingness to transform his methods and even his activities over time: “I have a great distance in relation to what I do. I don't take myself too seriously. […] Don’t think today what you thought yesterday”, he said in an interview on 25/4/1995 to Folha de São Paulo.

Thus, we are sometimes left with the impression that his path advances in a series of ruptures with himself, from the sociological to the semiological period, from this to the psychoanalytical period, and from this still to a more empirical and free style of thought, which coexists with a more constant investment in practice (the script, the direction and acting as an actor), without each method settling and maturing over the years, integrating objections, growing with impasses and facing blind spots.

In any case, returning to his books without the filter provided by the author's postures and statements, we can perceive a certain continuity among those situated in the same field, much greater than what he tends to boast about. Often his books even function as solidary pairs, even if separated by years of interval. Like this, Filmmakers and images of the people (1985), published almost twenty years after Brazil in movie time (1965) does not seem so far from the first study, with which it maintains some links: both took the form of academic theses (one aborted at UnB due to military intervention in 1965, another defended at EHESS in 1984) on a set of films so recent that would represent, in the author's assessment, a more lively and creative segment of modern Brazilian cinema, the second set not only prolonging the temporal arc described in the first, but also reacting to some of the lessons of the new cinema, addressed therein. Both can be seen as studies of the recent history of the best Brazilian cinema, based on a set of successive analyzes of the films in their relations with the social life of the country, the class representations, the conceptions of politics and history expressed by the artistic work of the filmmakers. .

Yes, Brazilian cinema: proposals for a history (1979), expansion of a text written to function as a historical overview of Brazilian cinema (more airy and less glued to a film diachrony) in a collective book directed by Guy Hannebelle and Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron in France[xii], in addition to expanding the examination undertaken in the other two, finds its conceptual pair in Classical historiography of Brazilian cinema (1995). If the first sought a renewed way of presenting the history of Brazilian cinema, the second directly discusses the reasons for this effort, critically examining some of the matrix models of its classic historiography (above all Alex Viany and Paulo Emilio). Here, too, the points of convergence and complementarity seem stronger than possible differences in focus or emphasis.

The two books on the history of cinematographic ideas in Brazil, Cinema: repercussions in an ideological echo box (1983) and The Author in the movies (1994) are also completed. The first examines the use of the notions of national and popular in the texts of critics and filmmakers, Bernardet assuming the elaboration of the chapter related to the 50s, and sharing that one about the previous decades with Maria Rita Galvão, who elaborated the other one about the 60s. The second book, about the author, covers a similar period (the 50s and 60s), resumes the examination of some critics already discussed in the first (BJ Duarte, Almeida Salles and Paulo Emilio, among others) and makes use of a similar methodology, a commentary on a few selected texts by privileged critics, closer to a summary that abruptly jumps from one to another than to a conclusive overall scheme. There “national” and “popular”, here “author”, both books examine the use of concepts in the Brazilian cinematographic debate.

But if the book on the notion of author seems imperfect and hurried in its making, as if it had been finished in a hurry (Bernardet confirmed to me in a recent personal conversation that this was exactly what happened), its place in the body of work leaves suggestions of the more stimulating information about the profile of our honoree. In the first place, sealing his tendency to talk or reflect about himself when approaching his objects, his criticisms of the presuppositions of the notion of author seem to denounce, in its use by others, those properties (cohesion, unity, stability in time) of which Bernardet himself wants to get rid of his scholarly self-image. More than anyone else, it is he himself who struggles to free himself from this coherentist conception of the author, which would tend to stiffen his intellectual trajectory. If he defined Brazil in movie time as an “almost autobiography” and dedicated it to Antônio das Mortes, Bernardet could qualify his book attacking the author in cinema as an “almost portrait”, and dedicate it to the decentered and plural subject that he always aspired to be.

It is not surprising, therefore, the paradoxical position of this book in its intellectual trajectory. Written in maturity, after a series of previous books, this tough attack on the notion of author succeeded the study of the authors Bressane and Sganzerla (of which it should have been a theoretical introduction for the filmmakers' films to function as case studies), but preceded the only monograph on a filmmaker written by Bernardet in his career, his Paths of Kiarostami (2004). Now, if he tried to show the inconveniences and aporias of the traditional notion of cinematographic author in his 1994 book, it is difficult to explain, in his 2004 book about Kiarostami, his relapse into the mental schemes that surround the notion (recourse to interviews with the filmmaker, invocation of his filmography when examining one of his films, search for themes and motifs common to several of them, etc.).

In fact, already invoked in the title of two of his books, the ideas of trajectory and authorship appear in Bernardet not as an immediate datum of critical activity, but as a question, a problem to be interrogated. Symptomatic in The author in the cinema, this issue also appeared in critical trajectory (1978). This compilation (which gets a pair in the other entitled Piranha in the sea of ​​roses, 1982) brings together 68 texts published between 1959 and 1977, arranged in 6 chapters whose organizational principle oscillates between their editorial origin (Literary Supplement of the State of São Paulo, Last Minute, The Gazette), their main object (“New questions about Cinema Novo”), the political situation in which they were born (“Occupied Area”) and the critical stance that animated them (“Critical bets”).

This diversity of organization criteria, which compete with a partially respected chronology, seems to indicate, if not an indecision about how to structure the trajectory, an impulse to explore it from various angles, or to test its virtualities. Neither simple chronology, nor simple reference to the vehicles of the original publication or the intended objects, nor immediate political context, nor critical purpose, but all of them combined inform the summary, whose laconicism prevents the reader, both in the first edition of Pólis and in the second, by Martins Fontes, to have a clearer idea of ​​the subjects and the chronology of the texts. To these 68 texts assembled, the volume also adds 25 texts from 1978 – 3 brief introductions and 22 commentaries. Introductions and comments accompany almost passi passu the curve drawn by the texts, revisiting the critic's past as if they were constantly seeking to recompose their thread, to establish a possible coherence and meaning for their trajectory.

Now, this attempt to recompose the thread by revisiting past experiences is, mutatis mutandis, basically the same one that was at the base of a good part of the best contemporary Brazilian documentary, from Goat Marked for Death (Coutinho, 1984) to Martyrdom (Vincent Carelli, 2016), going through pawns (Coutinho, 2004), clutter saws (Tonacci, 2006), Santiago (João Moreira Salles, 2008), Time and place (Eduardo Escorel, 2008) and corumbiara (Vincent Carelli, 2009). It is as if the mental operation of the reflective retrospective of the past anchored in the questioning of the present, which marks Bernardet's book, had migrated from criticism to practice, where it gained a constancy and clarity that make one think of a true crafts of contemporary Brazilian documentary.

It is curious and suggestive to think that a book by Bernardet may have played a role (at least as an announcer or precursor) in the chain of contributions that resulted in GoatOn pawns and in the other films in this series, all made up of filmmakers notoriously attentive to the work of Bernardet (Coutinho, Escorel), or grappling with issues that were dear to him (such as that of the so-called “voice of the other”, central to Tonacci’s adventure and Video in the Villages, where filmmaker Vincent Carelli was born).

It is worth remembering here the testimony of Eduardo Coutinho according to which “before doing the Goat, about ten years… 75, 76, I was on television and… I intended to return but I didn't know how, let's say… a kind of… magnetized thing, that I read and provoked me all the time was what Jean-Claude wrote in the 1970s and 1980s. Basically about the documentary, but not only. […] in the period when I thought about doing the Goat I ate myself […], I did the Goat a little bit the way I did it in response to the questions that Jean-Claude posed […] I made the film a little bit for him”[xiii]. Although this testimony mentions by name in some passages the Brazil in movie time, for which it was used, Coutinho does not explicitly link his impulse to Goat to the 1965 book, and nothing prevents linking it as much or more to other texts by Bernardet, and therefore to the critic's gesture in the very structure of his critical trajectory. If the hypothesis proceeds, we will have a case of Bernardet's very fruitful influence on a formal matrix of the best contemporary Brazilian cinema, perhaps more surprising than the one he certainly also exerted on filmmakers who were his students or colleagues at UnB and ECA- USP.


If he made an impact on scholars and filmmakers who were his colleagues and students in Brazil, did Bernardet manage to radiate his influence abroad? In fact, dimensioning the impact of your texts published outside Brazil is also a task that has yet to be done. We know that, although he did not publish books abroad[xiv], he has already had more than 50 articles translated in 11 different countries, into French, Italian, German, English and Spanish, which already makes him one of our most translated film scholars outside Brazil. There were 17 texts in Italy, 12 in France, 11 in Germany, 4 in the United States, 2 in Spain and Ecuador, one in England, Switzerland, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay.

Examining these texts and their reception in the respective countries would go beyond my purposes in these notes. It should be noted that his translations were concentrated between 1967 and 1995 (slowing down noticeably since then), appearing in reference publications in different languages ​​and favoring historical approaches to Brazilian cinema in general or to new cinema in particular. His two joint texts on cinema novo published first in France (“Le Cinema Novo et la société brésilienne”, included in the special issue on Brazil of the magazine Modern Times, n.257, 1967, and the chapter “Le cinema novo brésilien” included in Guy Hennebelle's book, Fifteen years of world cinema: 1960-1975, Paris: Cerf, 1975) soon gained translations in Italy (1969), Germany (1971), Spain (1977) and later in Mexico.

Chapters of your book Brazilian cinema: proposals for a history were translated in Italy, England (in n. 28 of the prestigious magazine Framework) and in Switzerland (in an important publication of the Locarno Festival). An important essay on cinema novo (“Trajectory of an oscillation”, 1968) and two chapters of the Filmmakers and images of the people (“The sociological model or the voice of the owner”, about Viramundo, and “The voice of the other”) were translated respectively in two of the main American collections on Brazilian cinema and Latin American cinema (Brazilian Cinema, organized by Randal Johnson and Robert Stam in 1982, and expanded in 1995, and The Social Documentary in Latin America, organized by Julianne Burton in 1990). Two joint texts on documentary and the issue of identity were published in the most prestigious French collective volume ever dedicated to Brazilian cinema (Le Cinéma Brésilien, from 1987, organized by Paulo Paranaguá for the Center Pompidou), and some texts on cinema novo and pornochanchada appeared in the equally unavoidable Italian volume Brasile: new cinema and doppo (organized in 1981 by Lino Miccichè).

In addition to these texts on the history of Brazilian cinema, especially modern cinema, Bernardet had some essays on particular Brazilian filmmakers (Glauber, Joaquim Pedro, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Eduardo Coutinho, Júlio Bressane, Arthur Omar, Jorge Furtado) translated into magazines, French, Italian, German, Argentinean and Ecuadorian catalogs and books.

After all, we realize that his presence in the international cinematographic debate is fundamentally linked to the history of modern Brazilian cinema (mainly new cinema), whose best foreign scholars always tended to take him into account, but whose end of cycle limits its international visibility after of the 90s – in the midst of the era of celebration of globalization, of which his case (retraction of international circulation) becomes a counterexample.

*Matthew Araújo Professor of Theory and History of Cinema at the School of Communication and Arts at USP. He edited, among others, the book Glauber Rocha/Nelson Rodrigues (Magic Cinéma publisher).

Article written on the occasion of Bernardet’s 80th birthday, and originally published under the title “Two words about Bernardet and film studies in Brazil”, in the collective volume Bernardet 80: impact and influence on Brazilian cinema (Org. Ivonete Pinto and Orlando Margarido), Jundiaí, Paco Editorial, 2017.


[I] “The early days of Anatol Rosenfeld in Brazil”, in J. Guinsburg and Plínio Martins Filho (Eds.), About Anatol Rosenfeld (São Paulo: Com-Arte, 1995, p.59).

[ii] São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1999, p.189-198.

[iii] organized by MD Mourão, Maria do Rosário Caetano and Laure Bacqué, the catalog Jean-Claude Bernardet: A tribute (São Paulo: Official Press / Cinemateca Brasileira, 2007) collects interviews, reproductions of articles and photos by Bernardet, as well as testimonials and some bibliographic data. Inspired by the homonymous book by Bernardet and conceived by Simplício Neto, the CCBB exhibition Filmmakers and images of the people resulted in a homonymous catalog (Rio, Jurubeba, 2010) organized by the same Simplício with a more defined focus and more substantial contributions, bringing the resumption and re-discussion, by a dozen scholars, of Bernardet's hypotheses, approaches and analyzes in that book, in addition to of some texts with which he dialogued.

[iv] Bibliographic production greater than that of Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes and more varied than that of Ismail Xavier, for example.

[v] The ones already mentioned Filmography… of 1979 and Brazilian bibliography… 1987, to which we can add the volume Uncontested Peasant War (São Paulo, Global, 1979),

[vi] That boy, molten skies (São Paulo: Ateliê, 1996), The Hysterics (São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 1993) and The disease, an experience (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1996).

[vii]  Brazil in Cinema Time, (Rio: Brazilian Civilization, 1965), Brazilian cinema: proposals for a history, (Sao Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1979) and Filmmakers and images of the people (São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1985).

[viii] Cinema: repercussions in an ideological echo box – the ideas of “national” and “popular” in Brazilian cinematographic thought (with Maria Rita Galvão, São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1983), Classical historiography of Brazilian cinema, (São Paulo: Annablume, 1995) and The author in the cinema (São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1994), the latter also including a counterpoint with the French universe.

[ix] what is cinema (São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1980) and Cinema and History of Brazil (São Paulo: Contexto, 1988), the latter with Alcides Freire Ramos.

[X] critical trajectory (São Paulo: Pólis, 1978) and Piranha in the Sea of ​​Roses (São Paulo: Nobel, 1982).

[xi] The Flight of Angels: Bressane, Sganzerla (São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1991) and Paths of Kiarostami (Sao Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2004).

[xii] Les Cinémas de l'Amérique latine (Paris: Lherminier, 1981). When writing it, Bernardet originally envisaged an alternative approach to that practiced by Georges Sadoul in France, and he said this to the organizers, who ended up not accepting his text, which expanded and became a book in Brazil.

[xiii] Coutinho's statement on 28/3/2006 at a round table at 11o Festival It's All True, partially transcribed in an “Introductory Note” to a reprint of Brazil in Cinema Time (São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2007, p.11).

[xiv] With two “almost” exceptions: the study Cinema and images of people, presented in 1984 as an academic thesis at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris (one year before its original Portuguese version came out in Brazil with the title Filmmakers and images of the people) and deposited in its library – but never published commercially in France; and the French translation, in the form of an article, of the self-fictional text The disease, an experience (“La maladie, une experience”, The Nouvelle Revue Française, Paris, n.532, 1997).

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