"Cinema Brazil," which starts today at the Monica 4-Plex with "The Story of Fausta," could just as easily have been called "Cinema Barreto," for each of the films in the series was either produced by Luiz Carlos Barreto and/or his wife Lucy, and five of them were directed by their sons Bruno and Fabio.
It was Bruno Barreto who, with his sly, risque 1987 comedy "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands," put Brazilian films--and its sexy star, Sonia Braga--on the world map. (Note: "Dona Flor" airs on KCET Channel 28 Saturday at 11 p.m., preceded by Carlos Diegues' 1979 bittersweet, terrifically entertaining "Bye Bye Brazil" at 9 p.m.). The films are marked by fine cinematography, dynamic acting, a concern for social issues and much vitality. Taken as a group, they touch upon many aspects of Brazilian culture and society.
Of the six of the series' seven films available for preview, the two finest, however, were directed by Walter Lima Jr., a stylish spinner of fables. "O Boto" ("The Dolphin"), which screens Oct. 19-25, is a highly sensual retelling of an ancient myth in which a dolphin, during the full moon, turns into a man in order to seduce the young women of a fishing village; afterward, the fishermen find their catch depleted. In short, it's a wonderful myth for men in need of reassuring their masculinity: slay a dolphin and you protect both your women and your fish.
In this film with its lush aquamarine tones, Lima and his writer Ana Scheler nevertheless give the myth a poignant twist. Lima's exquisite "Inocencia" (Oct. 29-31), the one period film in the series, is another subtle commentary on machismo and the status of women. In 1860, a handsome doctor (Edson Celulari), traveling in the hinterlands, cures the beautiful young daughter (Fernanda Torres) of an ignorant but powerful landowner of her malaria only to fall in love with her, thus setting in motion a romance with the potential for tragedy. "Inocencia" unfolds with the wit and irony of an Isak Dinesen tale.
Bruno Barreto's "The Story of Fausta" (today through Thursday) launches the series smartly with a lively but clear-eyed look at poverty and survival starring the Anna Magnani-like Betty Faria, who was the sexy, courageous "Queen of Rhumba" in "Bye Bye Brazil's" seedy, tiny carnival. This time she plays a vital, 40ish cleaning woman, married to a combative drunk (Daniel Filho) and living in a shantytown outside Rio; she pins her hopes for escaping her rough-and-tumble existence upon an elderly beau (Brandao Filho) who still has a sparkle in his eye.
Barreto's "The Kiss" (Oct. 26-28) is an exceedingly intense melodrama dealing with the dire consequences of a young bridegroom (Ney Latorraca) who unhesitatingly fulfills the request of a dying youth, struck down by a bus, to give him a farewell kiss. The film becomes a devastating attack on a machismo characterized by a virulent homophobia. So sure is Barreto's control that he even gets away with an ending as neatly schematic as that of a fatalistic Cornell Woolrich mystery novel of the 40s.
The three remaining films in the series, including the gangster picture "King of Rio" (Nov. 1-3) which was unavailable for preview, were directed by Fabio Barreto. His "Luzia" (next Friday through Oct.18) is as misfired (yet entertaining in its potboiler way) as his "India, Daughter of the Sun" (Nov. 4-6), which closes "Cinema Brazil," is stunning.
In the first he tries hard for a contemporary "Duel in the Sun" with a social consciousness--a beautiful but stern dusky-skinned cowhand (Claudia Ohana)attracts both a bad feudal landowner (Jose de Abreu) who cruelly exploits the peasantry and his good younger brother (Thales Pan Chacon).-- But the material is too much the stuff of heady soap opera to sustain the film's solemn tone. In the second, a deceptively decent-seeming army corporal (Nuno Leal Maia), assigned to investigate exploitation and brutality in an Amazon diamond field, commences an affair with a pretty, naive Indian maiden (Gloria Pires) with unexpected consequences. Information: (213) 394-9741.