Cinema & Beyond
Latest Essays by Ela Bittencourt
The figure of a prostitute emerged forcefully in various cinemas novos. The “fallen woman” isn’t an invention of the 1960s, of course, far from it. She is biblical, as native as original sin; she traverses world literature, from The Middle Ages to Shakespeare (Hamlet’s treatment of his mother, Othello’s of Desdemona), through Flaubert, Müsil, Dostoyevsky and the modernists.
Such long lineage is useful in considering how Brazilian filmmaker, Ozualdo Candeias, presented women, particularly prostitutes, in two of his most accomplished films, A Margem (1967) and Aopção ou As Rosas da Estrada (1981). Firstly, there’s brutality and subsistence. In A Margem, the “margens” (margins, or literally, embankments) of Tietê River house dwellings so rudimentary they create an indeterminate space, between the country and the city. In Aopção, the bare subsistence lies not only in the dwellings or backbreaking labor in the sugarcane fields but also in the frequency with which women accept food as payment for sex work.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961), with its prostitutes and pimps, is similarly based on journalistic reports. In A Margem, Candeias was inspired by a newspaper story about a bride stood up at an altar who wanders, without taking off her bridal gown. In Aopção, there’s a reference to newspapers’ sensationalist reports of brutal murders of sex workers. We cannot deny the direness of the context. But more importantly, who can forget the image of the black bride traversing the empty landscape? What a wondrous figure she cuts, against the austerity of an abandoned church! Against the unfailingly bleak terrain, of factories, decrepit huts and dilapidated churches. The landscape’s flatness and vastness evokes more the setting of epic cinema of Glauber Rocha and Cinema Novo than the densely populated urban backdrops of other Cinema Marginal filmmakers. The trim of the bride’s white gown drags in the mud. Her body increasingly slumps. Candeias and Pasolini have a unique sense for the images’ plasticity, which is why Pasolini could claim that, in depicting marginalized characters, he was equally inspired by the rural folk, their speech and manners, as by the paintings of Masaccio and Caravaggio, by the profane and the sublime.
Let’s consider the beatific face—and the agonistic torment—of the man showing signs of mental illness in A Margem. He devotedly follows a young blonde to hand her a white flower. More than in Pasolini, Candeias’ visual language is syncretic. We would be pressed to call it “symbolist.” The white dress and flower are innocent, for sure, but also surrealist, particularly when juxtaposed with the realist depiction of São Paulo’s modernity and hectic life. Such juxtaposition serves to denounce the suave urbanity and elegance of the city.
Candeias’s true radicalness lies in his denial of language: Language, and with it, all high culture, fail to capture the most elemental emotions. This in turn takes us to silent cinema and to the expressivity achieved with close-ups (also beloved of Pasolini) and body language. The problematization of language has philosophical dimensions, best expressed by another sex worker, Nana, in Godard’s Vivre sa vie. “Must we always speak?” Nana asks a real-life philosophy instructor (Godard’s former tutor), Brice Parain. “Do we speak to understand?” Parain answers that words are necessary to think. But does thinking equal understanding (compassion)? Nana isn’t convinced. In A Margem, Candeias repeatedly exposes language as reductionist, used not to express what is most human, i.e. caring and love—the bride’s ardent love in A Margem is conveyed only via her gestures and glances—but rather to carry out commercial transactions (“Is that it?” a matron asks taking a prostitute’s money in A Margem, to which the latter replies with a single word, “Tomorrow.”)
Candeias’s visual language can be as spare as his words. The black bride’s flip-flops peering from beneath the dress echo an earlier shot in which they clash with a dandy’s polished black shoes. The dandy wears a suit, though his hair is unwashed and his shoes are muddied. Candeias, who in later films would show sex graphically and with no adornments, omits the sexual tryst in A Margem. While later he will suggest that all societal ties have dissolved, he concludes A Margem with a tender funeral procession. The blonde’s admirer carries her body and lays her in the grave, placing the white flower in her hands. Candeias uses the agility of the handheld camera to suggest the man’s vertiginous fall into madness. As the man flees, terrified, he reaches the church where the abandoned bride has been waiting. She now falls dead, an abrupt action that has the blunt impact of silent cinema. The final sequence is epic as the characters—the bride and groom, the follower and the blonde (with a visible wound, blood seeping through her white dress) unite on a boat. This Noah’s Arc suggests that the outcasts, the humble and humiliated, will be saved first, but the death association is bitter and melancholy, and undercuts the biblical image.