Fox International's Nelson Pereira dos Santos retrospective leading up to Friday's opening of his beautiful, contemplative "Memories of Prison" is a major event, as revealing and rewarding as UCLA's Naruse series or the Four Star's recent festival of pre-revolutionary Chinese films.
Like Naruse, Dos Santos, one of the founders of Cinema Novo, Brazil's new wave, and often called its pope, is more read about than seen. The series began Friday with his outrageous dark comedy "How Tasty My Little Frenchman" (1971), and continues with "Tent of Miracles" (today), "Hunger for Love," which was not previewed (Tuesday), "The Amulet of Ogum" (Wednesday) and "Vidas Secas" (Thursday).
Dos Santos possesses the greatest gift a committed film maker can have: He is a natural storyteller, working in the perfect medium for him. Although he can be grueling, as in "Vidas Secas" or "Memories of Prison," he is never preachy; he has a vision of life that transcends messages. Whether serious or comic (or simultaneously both), he tends to work on an epic scale and concern himself with Brazil's oppressed and dispossessed.
There is a considerable difference between "Vidas Secas" (1963) and the more recent "Amulet of Ogum" (1975) and "Tent of Miracles" (1977), although all three are ranked among the finest of his 15 films. A landmark in the launching of Cinema Novo, "Vidas Secas" ("Barren Lives") tells in an austere Neo-Realist style of the heart-rending struggle of a peasant family of Brazil's Northeast simply to survive, ever at the mercy of both landowners and the elements. (The film was adapted from a novel by Graciliano Ramos, whose own experiences formed the basis of "Memories of Prison.")
By the time of the later films, Dos Santos had decided to try to work within Brazil's popular culture, from which many Europeanized Latin American intellectuals are cut off. (Significantly, "Memories of Prison" represents a reconciliation of the intellectual with the peasant.)
Both "The Amulet of Ogum" and "Tent of Miracles" draw upon the myths and ballads of candomble , the religious cult comprising native Indian, African and Roman Catholic elements. "The Amulet of Ogum" is an underworld odyssey of a youth (played by Dos Santos' own son, Ney Sant'Anna) whose miraculously bulletproof body serves him well in the company of Rio de Janeiro gangsters--as long as he's wearing his magical amulet.
Even more complex and ambitious, "Tent of Miracles," set in Bahia, punctures the illusion of Brazil's racial equality and also satirizes the corrupting role of the media. A pompous young American anthropologist arrives in Bahia to pronounce the greatness of an obscure black man, Pedro Archanjo (drawn from several historical figures), who preached miscegenation as the means to racial harmony. The American's declaration leads not only to the making of a film-within-the-film on the black man's life but also to the ludicrous, meaningless commercial exploitation of his name--a Pedro Archanjo Shopping Center.
Keyed as they are to the rhythms of the lives of their subjects, Dos Santos' films, like other Brazilian films, tend to seem drawn out by our standards--but not if you submit to them. (Even so, "Memories of Prison" has been cut from its Filmex running time of 187 minutes to 152.)
Gary De Walt's appropriately sobering hourlong "Genbaku-Shi: Killed by the Atomic Bomb," launching the Nuart's Thursday-evening "Future Fallout" festival, reveals the little-known fact that at least 10 American prisoners of war were among the 150,000 victims of the bombing of Hiroshima but fails to make clear our government's long cover-up of such casualties and the tremendous amount of effort expended to bare the truth. With it is Nicholas Meyer's "The Day After," now six minutes longer than its TV version.
UCLA's Whale/Browning series continues Thursday with Browning's "The Blackbird" (1925), starring Lon Chaney in a riveting, grotesque Jekyll-Hyde characterization set in a wonderfully atmospheric Limehouse. Also billed is Whale's "Waterloo Bridge" (1931) starring Mae Clarke, who is scheduled to appear.