12 October 2006 | debblyst
A Brazilian masterpiece waiting to be (re)discovered by the world
The first thing you'll remark when you see "Os Cafajestes" today (if you are lucky enough to find it) is how accomplished, daring and mesmerizing it still looks. The existential drama of 4 characters -- two men (low-life scum Jandir, small-time pseudo-playboy Vavá) and two women (used up Leda, provocative petit bourgeois Vilma), who indulge in dangerous, deceitful games that include sex, photos, cars, beaches, drugs and blackmail -- has great visual style, thematic boldness and an acid criticism of amorality and egotism. That, plus the virtuoso camera- work by Tony Rabatoni, the blazing summer whiteness of Cabo Frio beaches and dunes, the surprise turns in the plot, the edgy dialog and the (then) complex treatment of sound and image make this an unforgettable film, one of the most impressive directing debuts in the history of Latin American cinema, regrettably little known outside Brazil.
Many historians cite "Os Cafajestes" as the zero milestone of the Brazilian New Wave/Cinema Novo; that's debatable, but not the fact that it was the first Cinema Novo critical success that was also a smash commercial hit. It introduced a complex, fresh, demanding cinematic grammar, in part derived from the French New Wave (director Ruy Guerra studied at IDHEC in the 50s), in part akin to Antonioni's aesthetics, but decidedly the result of Guerra's own conceptions and artistic freedom, unburdened by concessions to studios or the market. This independent, low-budget film made entirely outdoors proved to young Brazilian filmmakers that uncompromising cinema was viable, could click with audiences and even be lucrative (well, it was the 60s). "Os Cafajestes" took critics and public by storm and forced Brazilian cinema into adulthood.
"Os Cafajestes" provoked the hugest "succès de scandale" Brazilian cinema had known, with its candid approach to nudity (the frontal nude scene on the desert beach, with Norma Bengell being "stripped and raped" by a circling, dizzying, threatening camera must rank among the most unforgettable sequences ever filmed); drugs (Jandir and Vavá take amphetamines all the time, and pot-smoking is the core of the long beautiful sequence in the fortress of Cabo Frio), social criticism (laughing off bourgeois values such as virginity, marriage, family etc) and racy sexual innuendos (the two macho protagonists are sexual failures, the two young women have active, unhampered sexual needs).
The notorious Bengell nude scene made history, not only because of its length (4 uninterrupted minutes!), visual impact and breathtaking camera-work but also for treating nudity anti-erotically: it's a scene of humiliation, degradation and cruelty, absolutely essential to the story. Guerra, knowing he would have to face raging censors, chose to make it the undisputed core of the film; if censors chose to cut that, they might as well censor the film entirely. Guerra won, and the film opened in 1962 with a brand new censorship rating in Brazil: no one under 21 was allowed in. Such scandal led, of course, to a massive box-office hit (the biggest in all Cinema Novo): the film payed itself within 5 days of exhibition. "Os Cafajestes" belongs to the finest lineage of "scandal" films, along with e.g. "Viridiana", "Last Tango in Paris", "Souffle au Coeur", "Ai no Corrida" or "La Dernière Femme".
The film is structured on oppositions: the first two-thirds are bathed in heat and sunlight, when the two men dominate and Leda is humiliated; the final third is a long beach sequence at night (with precarious lighting that betrays the film's low budget) where Leda and Vilma turn the tables around and Jandir and Vavá are cruelly and justly belittled.The open finale (almost a "must" in the 60s) became a tug of war between director Guerra and producer-star Jece Valadão and may seem too "loose" for some viewers; it certainly lacks impact, but is nevertheless perfectly tuned to the film's agenda (listen carefully to those news on the car radio).
There had never been a star like Jece Valadão in Brazilian movies before. With his rugged, macho ugly/good looks, raw sex appeal and cynical, menacing persona, he was born to play Jandir, probably the best role and performance of his long career (with the possible exception of his amazing "Boca de Ouro", also in 1962). Norma Bengell, who also scored in 1962 with her supporting part in Cannes-winning "O Pagador de Promessas", made Leda her signature role: her total commitment to such a difficult, soul- and body-bearing part, allied with her sad beauty (a mix of Monica Vitti and Jeanne Moreau), secured her instant stardom and a career in European films and theater. Daniel Filho is "caught" acting here and there, but is appropriately cowardly and shallow as Vavá, and performs some really dangerous stunts on top of a car hood.
Besides Rabatoni's dazzling camera-work, the locations in the then still desert beaches of Barra da Tijuca, Cabo Frio and Arraial do Cabo (all in the state of Rio de Janeiro) are stupendous: we can FEEL the heat, the sand and the salt, and literally squint with the whiteness of the blazing sunlight on the screen. The carefully composed shots are reminiscent of Antonioni's "L'Avventura" and are on the level of great film formalists like Pasolini, Zurlini, Wenders, Bellocchio or Polanski. The music (by Luis Bonfá, composer of the Orfeu Negro classic "Manhã de Carnaval") has a throbbing Brazilian free jazz feel, adding to the film's anti-romanticism. The dry, wry, matter-of-fact dialog rejects all schmaltz, venturing into the risqué (when Jandir sees a girl approaching him with a Bible in her hands, he asks her "what's that comics you're reading?")
I could go on and on; instead I'll just state my fervent request that some DVD distributor (hello Versátil, Videofilmes) will do cinematic justice and release a sparkling new copy of this masterpiece, with subtitles in English and Spanish (at least), so people around the world will know what they've been missing all these years. My vote: 10 out of 10, hands down.