New York

Ana Carolina, Mar de Rosas

Museum of Contemporary Hispanic art

Carolina is one of Brazil’s leading female directors of feature films. Carolina uses her camera like a diagnostic tool, and her methodology suggests her experience attending medical school. The results are a brashly confrontational visual discourse on the body and its absorption into Brazil’s history of authoritarian regimes. Between 1967 and 1974 she made many documentaries that deal with the notions of political reality, for example, Anatomia do Espectador (Anatomy of the spectator, ca. 1970–72) and Getúlio Vargas, 1974. But the documentary genre became problematic for her, as she had difficulty with the responsibility of telling the truth when she felt it to be a lie.

Mar de Rosas (Sea of roses, 1978) is Carolina’s first fictional feature, and the first in a trilogy that ostensibly deals with a young girl’s development from adolescence to adulthood. But this fictive gathering foregrounds another task: to delineate the circumstances that define a life lived in Brazil during the period of military dictatorship. In Mar de Rosas Carolina mercilessly scrutinizes a family and exposes the deformation and determination of the middle class during this period. In the second film in the series, Das Tripas Coração (Heart and guts, 1982), she examines a relationship between her “heroine” and the other young women who share the raucously harrowing experience of a Catholic education with her. In the third film, Sanho de Valsa (Dream waltz, 1987), Carolina focuses on the young woman’s love relationships with her brother, her father, and God.

Mar de Rosas begins with an image of a car eking its way through the night, its headlights slicing the darkness. At dawn’s early light we are greeted with a closeup of a pair of squatting female legs, and we quickly realize that it is one of the travelers relieving herself by the side of the road. And relief, indeed, is what is needed from the escalating verbal sparring that fills the car. The legs are those of Betinha (Cristina Pereira), the teenage daughter of Sergio (Hugo Carvana) and Felicidade (Norma Benguel), the brawling couple occupying the front seat of this hell-house on wheels; and although she seemingly seeks relief, it becomes increasingly clear that she certainly doesn’t contribute any to this reckless triangle. The family soon lands in a hotel in Rio where, after a few more screams and slaps, Felicidade slits her husband’s neck with a razor and then runs off with Betinha. The film quickly becomes a devastatingly desperate road movie, a murderous melange of physical and verbal violence during which the daughter’s perpetual mission is to murder her mommy, while mommy resolutely engages in her own histrionically embellished self-destruction.

On the road, the duo realize that they are being followed by a tall, dark stranger in a short, squat Volkswagen, a mysterious Mr. Borde (Otavio Augusto). He kidnaps them, thereby filling yet another careening auto with screaming slogans: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” “If there’s life there’s hope.” Betinha sets Felicidade’s skirt on fire. Felicidade is run over by a bus. The trio is rescued by a dentist, Dr. Dirceu (Ary Fontoura), and his wife, Dona Niobi (Miriam Muniz), a couple whose verbal circuitousness ups the film’s language to ridiculous new heights. Through Betinha’s mischievous machinations, the dentist’s office becomes filled with tons of dirt, transforming it into a kind of postindustrial sandbox, replete with half-buried adults playing with sand and still spewing unstoppable speech. So the site of the maintenance of the mouth is muffled by dirt, and still the group keeps mouthing: “More love and less intimacy.” “Work is effort, capital is investment.” The dentist unintentionally slits his wrists when he uses a bar of soap spiked with concealed razor blades, a lethal prank that Betinha had intended for Felicidade. Then we find out that daddy was not fatally injured by mommy’s slashings, and Mr. Borde attempts to deliver mother and child to the authorities. In the final scene, Betinha pushes her mom and Mr. Borde off a speeding train and gives a triumphant “fuck you” sign to the receding camera.

Betinha appears not only incapable of working to relieve her familial predicament but intent on compounding the cycle of confusion and malevolence, functioning as a kind of motor of conflict. She is portrayed as a creation of circumstances not of her own making, which have defined who she is and how she lives. Carolina uses the model of the family as a reflection of the larger field of social relations at work within the military state. Betinha is presented not as a conventional “heroine” but rather as the comeuppance of a venal social set. Emerging as a cross between Agnes Depesto and Damian, she is neither a passive martyr nor a heroic struggling figure, but more a kind of unsightly social force, brattish yet romantically reactionary. Her character, while somewhat liberating, gives the film an edge, making it more entertaining but aligning it with the conventional narrative devices of good and evil. While seemingly representing the opposite of state collectivity and control, she emerges merely as its mirror double, as if a plurality of tyranny were sipped through a straw and thinned to a singular space, a singular body: that of the anti-heroine. Carolina’s films seem to be riddled with these unexpected hitches. In Das Tripas Coração, the sassily emancipatory tale of school girls on the rampage is revealed in the last scene to be merely the ornery wet dream of a male academic. Ana Carolina is a filmmaker who playfully mixes audacious surprise, political acuity, and formidable visual prowess.

Barbara Kruger