Only Human

Aaron Cutler on “Nelson Pereira dos Santos: Politics and Passion” at MoMA

Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Rio, 40 graus (Rio, 100 Degrees), 1955, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 100 minutes.

THERE ARE FEW wider-sung songs than Brazilian composer Tom Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema,” myriad versions of which are performed in The Music According to Antonio Carlos Jobim (2012). The documentary, codirected by Nelson Pereira dos Santos and the late composer’s granddaughter Dora Jobim, almost entirely consists of archival concert and studio footage of musicians (among them Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Gal Costa, and Chico Buarque) rendering Jobim tunes like “Girl,” “Desafinado,” and “Waters of March” across a wide span of languages and decades. Occasionally performing is the Rio de Janeiro–raised Jobim himself who, in chronicling Brazilian culture through his work, acts as both artist and witness.

An April 9 screening of Music will open the Museum of Modern Art’s film series “Nelson Pereira dos Santos: Politics and Passion.” The still-active eighty-six-year-old Pereira—who will introduce screenings during the series’ first weekend and whose archive is providing its 35-mm prints—has devoted much of his life to finding ways to represent Brazil’s many faces onscreen. While MoMA’s eight-film tribute comprises less than a third of his output, it still offers a strong gathering of views.

Pereira was born into a cinephilic working-class family in São Paulo, studied law, and worked as a journalist before pursuing filmmaking. The Brazilian cinema of the late 1940s and early 1950s was dominated by studio films made in imitation of Hollywood models; Pereira, dissatisfied, instead drew inspiration from Italian Neorealism for his first feature, Rio, 100 Degrees (1955) (screening April 10 and 14). He shot on streets and enlisted a large cast of nonprofessional actors to portray a Sunday in modern Rio de Janeiro, evincing the class, race, and gender inequities that shape the lives of cariocas from all backgrounds. The film’s stories are linked by scenes of five impoverished young black peanut vendors traversing town in search of customers, and are resolved with the hope of Rio’s residents—like their city—outlasting their present-day struggles.

Rio, 100 Degrees and its like-minded follow-up, Rio, Northern Zone (1957) (screening April 11 and 15)—a tragic portrait of a black lower-class samba composer (Grande Otelo) striving to gain recognition for his work—are often considered catalyzing films in the Cinema Novo movement. They also indicate the career-long thrust of Pereira’s humanist art. His main characters, both in these films and in subsequent ones, are outwardly fragile human archetypes that endure through inner strength.

Pereira’s first film to gain international acclaim was Barren Lives (1963) (April 10 and 15), an outraged and compassionate adaptation of Graciliano Ramos’s novel about a nomadic family searching Brazil’s northeastern desert in the early ’40s for a place to settle. As they find shelter, lose it, and set out again, each member seems trapped by the need to rely upon others: The illiterate, uneducated patriarch is at the mercy of his employers; the matriarch and two children are unable to earn their own livings. The arid landscape in which the family moves beneath strong, clear light gradually turns into a blinding hell, one that the film suggests these people will survive for their descendants to continue to wander.

The military coup that occurred a few weeks before Barren Lives’s Cannes screenings led to a dictatorship whose rule over Brazil lasted until 1985. Pereira escaped censorship during these years partly by shifting further toward allegory. A Very Crazy Asylum (1970) (April 11 and 16), for instance, adapted Machado de Assis’s 1882 satirical novella The Alienist into a tale of townspeople who respond to being institutionalized at a scientifically minded priest’s behest by compelling their jailer to join their mad ranks. How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971) (April 12 and 16) satirically uses colonial explorers’ texts to show a sixteenth-century indigenous tribe that resolves to feed on Europeans and, in so doing, potentially dooms itself to extinction. In The Amulet of Ogum (1974) (April 12 and 17), a blind street troubadour sings of a young man combating gangsters through outlawed Afro-Brazilian religious rites, whose power the singer seems to knows firsthand.

As the dictatorship’s hold weakened, Pereira made the epic Memoirs of Prison (1984) (April 13 and 17), a docudrama based on Graciliano Ramos’s unfinished nonfiction book. The author was imprisoned in the 1930s during an earlier era of authoritarian governance in Brazil for having ostensible Communist sympathies. Despite a lack of formal charges, he chose to remain in prison without initially protesting his arrest, an experience from which his first-person narrative emerged. In Pereira’s self-reflexive film, the gaunt, hawklike Ramos (Carlos Vereza) appears as an ambivalent figure. Several scenes show him sitting apart from his cellmates and writing in faithful observation of them. He feels driven to expose their conditions, without laying claim to a political cause.

“Nelson Pereira dos Santos: Politics and Passion” runs April 9–17, 2015 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.