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He is Claudio Assis, he says what he wants

Losing director berates winners in a moment of strife amid an upswing in Brazilian cinema.

October 03, 2004|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

Rio de Janeiro — His performance, one observer said, was worthy of an Oscar. Unfortunately, his movie wasn't.

Director Claudio Assis has stirred a minor tempest in Brazil's entertainment industry after an outburst at this country's version of the Academy Awards, where he jumped up after being beaten out for best director and hurled abuse at the two men who tied for the win.

"Imbecile! You're an imbecile!" Assis shouted at veteran director Hector Babenco, before going on to swear more graphically at the rest of the audience gathered for the TAM Grand Prize of Brazilian Cinema awards ceremony in Rio last month.

The scene marred an evening dedicated to honoring not only the best Brazilian films of 2003 but important older works. It also put an embarrassing exclamation point on a year that has witnessed a resurgence of Brazilian films in the domestic and global marketplace, creating a buzz of excitement and pride in an industry thought as good as dead just a decade ago.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
"City of God" -- An article in Sunday's Calendar section about filmmaker Claudio Assis said the Brazilian film "City of God" received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Its four nominations earlier this year did not include that category. It was nominated for cinematography, directing, writing and editing.

Last year saw the worldwide release of "City of God," an acclaimed look at the violence and despair in one of Rio's drug-riddled shantytowns. The movie garnered an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Critics also lauded the documentary "Bus 174," about a bus hijacking in Rio and the incompetent police response, and, earlier this year, "Carandiru," Babenco's cinematic treatment of Brazil's worst prison riot.

"The Motorcycle Diaries," a road-trip movie about the youthful Che Guevara, directed by Brazilian Walter Salles, screened at Cannes this year.

Assis' "Mango Yellow," however, has not been released commercially outside his native country, where it drew some critical raves but divided audiences with gruesome scenes of a cow being slaughtered and a man taking delivery of a decaying human corpse, then shooting it.

The film follows the lives of residents, including a gay chef and a butcher, in the slums of Recife, the capital of Assis' home state of Pernambuco. "It's a film about social conditions, about people who exist in the underworld and who are in search of a better life," Assis said.

"Mango Yellow" swept the prizes at the Brasilia film festival in 2002 and received a side award for independent movies at the Berlin International Film Festival last year. It received 13 nominations at the TAM Grand Prize awards, Brazil's most prestigious cinematic laurels, but came away with only one trophy, for cinematography.

The audience booed and ordered Assis to be quiet after he began yelling at Babenco and Jorge Furtado, director of "The Man Who Copied," which won for best film.

"I will not shut up! I am Claudio Assis, and I will say what I want!" Assis shouted, according to press accounts.

Babenco, internationally admired for his 1981 film, "Pixote," a bleak look at abandoned children who turn to crime, shot back at the end of his acceptance speech. "Claudio, I like your film very much," he said. But "I didn't know you were such an ill-mannered person."

In a telephone interview, Assis described his outburst as an act of patriotism against Babenco, a naturalized Brazilian from Argentina.

"Babenco was in Argentina and said that he loved the Brazilian people, who had chosen Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an intellectual, and then Lula, a drunk, as president," Assis said, referring to current Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. "Nobody speaks ill of my president in another country. Let him talk about his country, and I'll talk about mine."

Assis also took a swipe at "Carandiru," saying it whitewashed the prison riot. "The situation was a lot worse than shown in the film. The film romanticized it, romanticized the lives of the people," he said.

Babenco declined to comment but told reporters after the awards ceremony: "I don't foment rivalries. I don't even support a soccer team."

Assis also accused the Brazilian movie industry of cowardice for not crowning "Mango Yellow" as best film.

"We won the prize in Berlin but not in Rio. The Grand Prize of Brazilian Cinema didn't have the courage," Assis said.

He and his fellow Brazilian directors have all benefited from a revival of the domestic movie industry after it nearly wasted away in the early '90s, starved of support from the government of then-President Fernando Collor de Mello. In 1994, under Cardoso, a new law stimulated private investment in cinema, and the industry began bouncing back. Last year was one of the industry's most successful, with homegrown films accounting for more than 20% of Brazil's box-office receipts.

The revival of interest in cinema is evident in the growing popularity of Brazil's film festivals, including one in the capital, Brasilia and another in Rio. Particularly successful, both critically and financially, have been gritty features such as Salles' "Central Station," nominated for an Oscar in 1999, and Fernando Meirelles' "City of God," both set in Rio. "Mango Yellow," set in the northeast, was made with public funds and won a prize from the Ministry of Culture honoring Brazil's best low-budget films.

"We're fighting so that other regions of Brazil can show their face," said Assis, who prefers to concentrate on the underbelly of Brazilian society. "I want to shout out against social injustice.... I'm one of the few [directors] who can film," he said, "and shout out" -- an assertion few are disputing.

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