To Whom Does The Cherry Orchard Belong?

in 26th Rencontres Cinémas d'Amérique Latine, Toulouse

by Julia Khomiakova

The film Casa Grande— the title also a very common Ibero-American surname — is sometimes translated as Casa Grande, or The Story of Poor Jean). The metaphor of Brazilian society as a big house populated by lords and servants is evident but who is really ruling this place? The story starts with the view of a huge mansion and its owner enjoying the Jacuzzi. One need not be a very experienced viewer to guess that at the end of the movie this trendy image will dissolve like a piece of sugar in a hot Brazilian coffee. Hugo (Marcello Novaes) the owner, a hedge-fund manager, is close to bankruptcy. Still eager to keep the mansion as a sign of a high status, Hugo first fires his driver Severino (Gentil Cordeiro). Eventually their live-in housekeeper Rita (Clarissa Pinheiro) and maid Noemia (Marilia Coelho) leave the house, and Hugo realizes that rumors of his unsightly financial affairs are already spreading around. What remains after all this? Only two sacred treasures, the first of them is their big house with luxurious room design and exotic garden (well, in Brazil, I think, these palms and flowers are not that exotic). Another is a sum of money saved for educating Hugo’s children, senior pupils Jean (Thales Cavalcanti) and Nathalie (Alice Melo). Their Mom, Sonia (Suzanna Pires), ‘francofile brazilienne’, communicates to them in a French way: Paris is her dream, however her nearest real prospective is selling Avon or Amway production. The importance of studying in the most prestigious college of Rio de Janeiro (requiring payment, of course!) is not only for the high level of education. Hugo, at the edge of imprisonment for debts, is vitally interested in his son’s possible important personal connections. He doesn’t approve of Jean’s infatuation for mulatto Luiza (Bruna Amaya), the beautiful daughter of a lonely mother. But Jean, in his turn, sincerely moves towards ordinary people. What is the use of being snobbish when life in Brazil is so unstable — once you are rich, next you are close to returning back to favelas?

The script of Casa Grande, written by young Brazilian director Fellipe Barbosa and Karen Sztajnberg, is based on Barbosa’s personal experiences. Think of Sergei Eisenstein who once said: “Revolution gave me the most precious thing I could ever desire — a chance of becoming an artist” (otherwise he would probably become a mediocre engineer). Well, the soap opera Brazilian professionals and young actors of Casa Grande should also be grateful to that misfortune of Barbosa’s family which somehow helped them to reveal their artistic potential in this art-house movie, very realistically and sincerely. “Celui qui perds, gagne” (the one who loses, he wins), as Jean Paul Sartre once said! However, I hope that Fellipe Barbosa’s art potential may be higher than half-autobiographical stories. The most interesting part of Casa Grande is a wide social background which not only illustrates but in fact moves the story. For example, I never knew that in Brazil there are 40 per cent quotas for young black people to enter the high schools. And the most dramatic scene is a family meeting where Luiza, smart and bright yet unprotected (she is half-Japanese which deprives her of racial quotas), nevertheless passionately stands for them. Luiza regards this as chances to study which the policy of quotas gives to black people. However, they who make 80 per cent of Brazilian population are still behind the doors: “Do you know more than one or two black lawyers or doctors?” — asks Luiza, already understanding that Hugo shall do his best to destroy her relationships with Jean (which he does). This dialogue is immediately followed by showing the mansion to the real estate professional: alas, taking care of the garden is too difficult for Hugo who, after falling down from the tree which he tried to disbranch, realized that everything should be done by professionals, be it gardening, financial speculations or real estate sales. “The Cherry Orchard is now mine!” — as Lopakhin, nouveau-riche from Anton Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard would say. So, who is going to be the next victim of this luxurious (and cursed) house? Jean’s hugs with Severino, to whom he comes with a kind of repent, are symbolic. However, instead of deflowering his beloved and now lost Luiza (which would be like an intimacy with Eve after Adam’s banishment from Paradise), Jean finally becomes a man with Rita. She is no longer his servant, and they, though not up to much in love with each other, are at least equal now. No more artificial paradise surrounded by favelas. Well, the one who loses, he wins!

Edited by Steven Yates