PRINT May 2014

Chris Stults

Eduardo Coutinho, Cabra marcado para morrer (Twenty Years Later), 1964–84, 35 mm, black-and-white and color, sound, 119 minutes.

TALKING IS AN UNLIMITED RESOURCE; the ability to listen is always in short supply. The tragic murder of the Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho (1933–2014) this past February took from us one of cinema’s greatest listeners. Although he was born in São Paulo and shot his most renowned film—Cabra marcado para morrer (Man Marked to Die, 1964–84), released in the anglophone world as Twenty Years Later—in Brazil’s rural northeast, he spent much of his career eliciting and recording in film and video the thoughts and attitudes of a wide spectrum of Cariocas, as the residents of his adopted hometown of Rio de Janeiro are called.

Along with Boca de lixo (The Scavengers, 1992), filmed at a large garbage dump outside Rio almost two decades before the much-ballyhooed Vik Muniz documentary Waste Land (2010), Coutinho’s strongest work in the late 1980s and ’90s was an unofficial trilogy set in Rio’s favelas: Santa Marta—Duas semanas no morro (Santa Marta—Two Weeks in the Slums, 1987), Santo Forte (The Mighty Spirit,1999), and Babilônia 2000 (1999). In the course of making these documentaries, Coutinho developed and refined the elements that would become the hallmarks of his mature style, the observational vérité of the director’s earlier work in television increasingly overtaken by engaged interaction with the people who were his lifelong subject. Rather than make a film to tell a story or convey his own ideas, Coutinho began to make films to encounter the stories of others. He became a seeker rather than a shaper. This inquisitive and attentive approach resulted in works in which the filmmaking process became the subject of the film itself.

By the final decade of his career, Coutinho had completely eliminated any trace of the conventional documentary techniques that may have lingered in his work, whittling his films down to their bare essentials: the voices of Rio’s citizens and the countenances that so faithfully register their lived reality. In Edifício Master (Master, a Building in Copacabana, 2002), he leaves behind the streets, where he conducted the interviews that were a trademark of his favela films, for the much more claustrophobic environment of a single densely populated, run-down apartment building a block from the famed Copacabana beach. The result is an atypical portrayal of Cariocas, quite different from stereotypical depictions of the resourceful favela dweller and the decadent elite. Coutinho found an ordinary building, past its prime, full of the petite bourgeoisie who are ubiquitous in the city’s life but invisible in representations of Rio. If the earlier films showed a ground-level view of the ways in which the city’s social structures play out in the lives and routines of its citizens, Master reveals the effect on Cariocas’ souls. The streets are replaced by hallways. This is a domestic film, focused on interior landscapes, in every sense.

In the 2000s, the vital Rio production company VideoFilmes (founded by brothers Walter and João Moreira Salles) began producing Coutinho’s films and providing him with greater resources. The security afforded by this patronage allowed Coutinho the luxury of distilling his methods even further (whereas most filmmakers would use such an opportunity to make their productions more elaborate). With Master, Coutinho triangulates a method of mediated representation that is as complex as it is simple. The trajectories of address in the film glance between the indelible physiognomies and personalities of the subjects, the relationship between the subjects and Coutinho, and the subjects’ final representations in filmic form. Most of the people in the film are shown in short interview segments that border on monologues (when they aren’t in fact monologues) and range from two to three minutes. The result seems so pure as to be a conversational cousin to Direct Cinema. This transparency is, however, deceptive—a ploy Coutinho would exploit and explore in his next Rio film, Jogo de cena (Playing, 2007).

Perhaps the summation of his career, Playing is a delirious mise en abyme fraught with emotion and intensified by close analysis. The already-reduced palate of interior environments in Master here gives way to a blank canvas, on which Coutinho limns the ambiguities of authenticity. On a theater’s empty stage, ordinary women from Rio recount their life stories to an off-camera Coutinho. Their lives are full of the stuff of heart-wrenching melodramas and “women’s pictures”: love gone bad, unplanned pregnancies, single motherhood, difficult relationships with parents, the death of a child, and other personal tragedies. Succinctly sketching each subject’s character through cinematic means honed over the course of a career, Coutinho stages the interviews against a bare theatrical backdrop that decontextualizes the women’s lives almost to the point of abstraction. With external cultural signifiers of place stripped away, the representation of the self is emphasized over its presentation.

Still from Eduardo Coutinho’s Edifício Master (Master, a Building in Copacabana), 2002, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes.

Coutinho amplified and complicated this aspect of the film by having actresses reenact several of the women’s interviews as if they were dramatic texts written for fictional characters. He then masterfully intercut these dramatized portrayals with footage from the original interviews. Indeed, so skillfully did Coutinho structure the film that, at moments, we can’t be quite sure whether we’re watching the documentary interview or its mimetic representation. Over the course of Playing’s hundred-minute running time, we become privy to the construction of emotion, reveling in it while examining it from a distance—experiencing it viscerally and analytically at once.

Playing expands and explodes the ideas that run through Coutinho’s career, casting his earlier films in a new light. What previously appeared to be straightforward “direct” documentary films may now also be seen as explorations of the presentation and willful construction of self. With Coutinho’s body of work having suddenly come to a close, a clear trajectory reveals itself—one that is, perhaps, exemplified in the development of his Rio films. What began with unusually engaged man-on-the-street documentaries made by a man of the people ended with more abstract films set within the hermetic confines prescribed by the proscenium arch. But even when Coutinho’s films are at their most sequestered from the outside world, they never lose sight of the hardship and suffering, bonhomie and joy, determination and everyday heroism of individual lives as they are actually lived. With his unparalleled sense of curiosity and an uncommon generosity, Eduardo Coutinho showed us that the voice that listens may be the most valuable voice of all.

Chris Stults is an associate curator of film and video at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, OH, where he recently organized, with Jennifer Lange, “Cruzamentos: Contemporary Brazilian Documentary.”