Art from Chaos By Derek Malcolm

in 8th Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival

by Derek Malcolm

Spread over this huge and sprawling city, including free open air screenings on the select Copacabana Beach and in several of the considerably less select favelas, the Festival do Rio is nothing if not ambitious. This year, over 300 films were exhibited on 35 screens, with a quarter of a million tickets sold.

Some felt that the limit had now been reached; with money scarcer than usual and Verig, the Festival’s international air carrier, going bust, there were many unforeseen difficulties. Logistically, however, the programme proved a triumph, with the festival’s transport scudding through the crowded streets to deposit delegates at the right place and at the right time.

The Fipresci jury, however, had to work particularly hard to encompass the large group of Latin-American films we were asked to judge. There was only three days to do it, so many of the films had to be watched on DVD – and not all with subtitles. Even so, the jury identified four titles worthy of a prize, and eventually gave its award to Rio-born Hector Dhalia’s O cheiro do ralo (Drained) as the most original and audacious of the four.

Dhalia, whose first feature Nina won prizes at Rotterdam, Moscow and New York, tells the story of Lourenço, who buys used goods from people going through hard times and plays power games with them as he does so. There is, however, something badly wrong with the drains in his kitchen, and the stench begins to mirror his own conduct … especially where a young girl he fancies is concerned. The film is funny about its less than admirable central character, but also has a serious core: It gradually suggests that sooner or later Lourenço will get what he deserves. There’s no magic realism here, but Dhalia observes his characters as if in some nightmarish dream.

Perhaps the best-directed film of the four favored candidates was Karin Ainouz’ Suely in the Sky (O céu de Suely). This had a young woman with a baby leaving Sao Paulo, Brazil’s second largest city, where she had broken up with her partner, and returning back to her hometown in the Ceara hinterland. Though her grandmother and aunt welcome her back, she is soon dissatisfied with provincial life and concocts the idea of selling raffle tickets in the effort to make enough money to return to Sao Paulo. The prize is a blissful night with her.

The film is not unlike a kind of existential road movie, painting the old problem of the dullness of provincial existence and the attractions of the big city with some skill, largely through the internal feelings of its leading character. It is directed and shot with a real sense of atmosphere, and its confident style shows Ainouz to be a film-maker of international quality. The film won the international jury’s main award (they watched a line of Brazilian films), and will doubtless be seen in many European festivals in due course.

The third candidate for the Fipresci prize was from Uruguay. Manuel Nieto Zas’ The Dog Pound (La Perrera) is also about the emptiness of provincial life as David, a 25-year-old who wants to study at University, is ordered by his highly critical father to build a house in the small coastal town where they live. Amidst a host of stray dogs and seemingly cut off from the rest of the world, David inevitably faces tragic-comic trauma. The film’s observance of both its luckless leading character and the town in which he festers is sharp, ironic and cleverly without polemic. In the end, we know exactly why David feels his life to be progressing remorselessly towards failure.

The fourth outstanding film was In the Pit (En el hoyo), a documentary from Mexico about the building of a concrete, steel and asphalt viaduct intended to solve some of Mexico City’s most intractable problems. Juan Carlos Rulfo watches the workers as they begin a task which will become hideously difficult as well as dangerous. They are ordinary men trying to make ends meet and prepared to suffer considerable privation in order to feed their families. They laugh and joke but are well aware that there’s nothing very funny about the job in hand.

The film is dramatically shot and works its way brilliantly towards its cathartic conclusion. The viaduct is built but at considerable cost. This is a first-class documentary which should be widely shown, and not only in Latin America. There are echoes of Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff in its feeling for the construction workers, inhabiting a world not very far removed from purgatory.

It was a privilege, as president of the Fipresci jury, to give our Lifetime Award to the great Brazilian director Nelson Pereira Dos Santos. He received it with acclamation and brought up to the stage many of those who had worked with him on his earliest films. The great pleasure for myself was to tell him that Barren Lives (Vidas Secas), dealing with the plight of an impoverished family in North-Eastern Brazil, had a profound effect on me at a time when I was uncertain whether to become a film critic.

That film, and Ozu’s Tokyo Story, persuaded me, and probably others, that the cinema could match the work of any other artist of the 20th century, and that writing about it was definitely a worthwhile occupation if only one could do it well.