Films made in foreign tongues, set in distant, poorly understood lands and populated with outrageous, archetypal characters generally are a tough sell in U.S. movie houses. If those films also are historical dramas masquerading as comic farces, inflected with winking references to obscure historical events (obscure, at least, to U.S. audiences), the task is triply daunting.
Such were the obstacles facing Joaquim Pedro de Andrade's Brazilian mock-epic "Macunaima" (1969) when it first reached stateside theaters. To mark the movie's 40th anniversary, it will be screened at 8 tonight at downtown's restored Million Dollar Theater by the Latin American Cinemateca and the Los Angeles Conservancy as part of its 23rd annual Last Remaining Seats film series. Sergio Mielniczenko, host and producer of the "Brazilian Hour" and "Global Village" radio shows on KPFK-FM (90.7), will host the evening.
A fantasia on Brazilian themes and myths, based on a Modernist novel written in 1928 by Mario de Andrade (no relation to the movie's director), the floridly metaphorical, savagely satirical film has drawn comparisons to the work of Fellini, John Waters and Lina Wertmuller. Yet in its faux-folkloric outlook and subtle as well as not-so-veiled references to the country's repressive era of military rule (1964-85), "Macunaima" declares its unmistakably Brazilian identity.
" 'Macunaima' is a collection of all that was left unsaid in the history of Brazil," said Brazilian actor Milton Goncalves, who appears in the film, speaking by phone from his Rio de Janeiro home. Goncalves was planning to attend tonight's screening.
"Macunaima" starts off, ludicrously, as the story of a fully grown black man (played by Brazil's iconic black comedian, Grande Otelo) who is born into the world as an oversized baby, then later turns into a white man. In anti-heroic mode, he becomes a trickster and embarks on a picaresque odyssey, encountering a giant, cannibals and a female revolutionary guerrilla as he roves from the jungle into the modern city.
Brazilian audiences watching the movie could be counted on to catch its risque jokes and allusions to race relations, Brazil's traumatic colonial history, the military dictatorship and other taboo topics.
"It is politically incorrect in terms of race and race relations, but in a very Brazilian way," Goncalves said. "I think it is a portrait of our melange. . . . It engages in the discovery of the contradictions of our people."
When the film was first released in the United States, its most sensational elements were played up. In a comprehensive 1976 essay about it in the media review journal Jump Cut, author J.R. Molotnik wrote that the movie had been dubbed "Jungle Freaks" for its U.S. release and was advertised in the Village Voice as "95 Minutes of Brazil Nuts."
"New Line Cinema, the film's U.S. distributor, was clearly seeking to attract the Voice's avowedly offbeat readers with promises of an exotic spoof," Molotnik wrote. "The movie buff likely to attend such an 'underground' film was thus readied for a far-out lighthearted film, one bearing little resemblance to the 'heavy' classics of Latin American revolutionary cinema."
Arriving on the wave of Brazil's Cinema Novo movement, "Macunaima" draws much of its anarchic energy from the country's conflicted late '60s zeitgeist. As the military regime, consolidating its power, cracked down on all forms of political expression and free speech, a number of Brazilian artists, directors and musicians who hadn't been driven into exile pushed back against the oppressors.
But their critiques often came swaddled in black comedy or subversive symbolism, the better to slip past government censors. Filmmakers encoded their political subtexts in absurdist plots and ridiculous characters.
Forty years later, Brazil's military regime is long gone. But "Macunaima" remains, still surprising, outlandish and mightily amusing.
Special correspondent Cristiana Ferraz Coimbra in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.