Between God and the Devil in the land of the sun

New edition of Brasil em tempo de cinema [Brasil in the time of cinema], by Jean-Claude Bernardet, confirms the title as being a classic and preserves the importance of critical appraisal in the New Cinema

MIGUEL BOYAYANGlauber Rocha (1939-1981) never pardoned the Belgian-Brazilian critic, Jean-Claude Bernardet, for how he dealt with what can be seen as a fundamental aspect of the New Cinema movement, of which the film-maker from Bahia was the exponent and theorizer, in his first book, Brasil em tempo de cinema, published in 1967. Contrary to their statements, wrote Bernardet, the directors were unable to establish a dialogue with the popular classes through their movies, although this was their purpose; they limited themselves to the middle class.

Until the late 70s, Glauber lost no opportunity for making caustic remarks in the press about his supposed enemy, particularly when Bernardet was writing in the weekly reviews, “Opinião”  and  “Movimento”. One day, a mutual friend, Maurício Gomes Leite, asked him why he was so annoyed. The reply was shot right back at him and with a certain degree of naturalness: “Well, if it’s not him, who am I going to attack?”  This is perhaps the greatest compliment that the best director in Brazilian cinema could have paid to someone from his area.

For the critic, and also a documentary-maker, actor, novelist and university professor, nothing could have been more flattering. So he wrote him a letter in which he defined both of them as “brother enemies”, and went on: “We’re much closer than these taunts in the press might give the impression.”  The statement had to do with a certain concession by the film-maker which had been dealt with by the critic, when he pointed out in his own voice in the movie Câncer that there was a small radical bourgeois class in the country. “It’s very curious, we fought a lot but deep down we were closer than it seemed,”  observes Bernardet.

Jean-Claude Bernardet, who is responsible for some of the most important books about Brazilian cinematography, to which he has dedicated most of his life, has just been honored by the Brazilian Film Library and the Official Press with a splendid catalogue of his life and works to celebrate his 70th birthday. The volume, entitled Jean-Claude Bernardet – Uma homenagem (A Tribute), organized by Laura Bacqué, Maria Dora Mourão and Maria do Rosário Caetano, reproduces pages from newspapers and magazines, with some of the author’s most representative critical work. It also contains an interview, a filmography and bibliography.

At the same time, the Companhia das Letras publishing house is releasing a new edition of  Brasil em tempo de cinema, first launched exactly 40 years ago and considered a classic of its type. Not only that, but it was written in the heat of the moment in 1965, when the first feature-length films of what would be known as the New Cinema appeared. The author analyses works by directors Nelson Pereira dos Santos (Vidas secas [Dry Lives] and the pioneering Rio 40 graus [Rio 40 degrees] and Rio Zona Norte [North Rio), Glauber Rocha (Deus e o diabo na terra do sol [God and the Devil in the land of the sun), Luiz Sergio Person (São Paulo S.A [São Paulo Inc]) and Paulo César Sarraceni (O desafio [The challenge]).

Despite the controversy that it caused, the edition returns with no changes or review of the content. “I don’t think it can be changed and I consider it to be more or less a document of the time.”  But is it? What we see is that the text has lost none of its contemporariness in that it continuous to be a pugnacious, present and militant critical work. As Paulo Emilio Sales Gomes, an exponent of the São Paulo school of criticism of the 60s and 70s and Bernardet’s mentor, wrote in the foreword, this is a work that “was born a classic”, written when critics and film-makers were still trying to understand what was happening and if there really was a Brazilian cinema movement.

From the personal point of view it became a fundamental work for Bernardet, because it was during its preparation that he realized that he was developing an analytical methodology that would stay with him for the rest of his life as a critic; in other words, it was the genesis of an intuitive investigative style, without any academic formality. For these and other reasons it is the work he most loves and that is most important to him. If he had to change it he would have had to rewrite it, which he did not want to do.

The only weakness he admits to is his theorizing about the middle class. He points out, however, that there were practically no works that provided a definition. “It was shocking to many people. I could have had a more elaborate concept of the middle class, of intellectuality, the artistic environment and of artistic production. However, at that point in time, as far as I knew, there was no bibliography on this. So I’m not the only one who didn’t do something more extensive.”

The genesis of Brasil em tempo de cinema reveals the author’s own story, from the early days of his film critiques, and highlights a seldom studied aspect: the role of these analysts, either directly or indirectly, in the conception of the new cinema movement, carved out tooth and nail by a new and talented generation of film-makers. This is a story that goes back to the arrival of the young boy in Brazil in 1949, when his father came out with the family in search of opportunities.

As he was only 12 years old, he explains, if he had experienced any esthetic contemplation it would not have been in France, where he spent his childhood during the war years and entered adolescence in the post-war period. So in a good humored way he denies Paulo Emilio’s statement in the book’s foreword that “until a little while ago he was a young, fairly contemplative and melancholic European aesthete, whose metamorphosis was provoked by Brazil and by the cinema.”  He adds: “He made that up; I wasn’t like that.”

Bernardet reveals that in cinema he initially looked for a way of becoming integrated into his adopted country . “I felt trapped in the French colony and I began to make every effort to get out of it.,”  especially by learning Portuguese, as he spent almost ten years in environments in which almost only French was spoken – in the family, at school and at work, in the French Bookstore.

He concluded that one way would be to get close to the group in the Dom Vital Film Club in the rua  Barão de Itapetininga , next to the bookstore, and which was attended by young people who would later turn out to be very talented, such as Gustavo Dahl, Daú de Andrade, Maurício Capovila and others, all of whom were very friendly with Paulo Emílio, a columnist of the Literary Supplement of the O Estado de São Paulo newspaper and an authority on cinema for youngsters.

Their meeting point was the Turist Bar, in Dom José Gaspar Square, not very far from the MAM film library in 7 de Abril Street. Every morning one of the film club’s members was chosen to watch a movie that was being shown and to prepare their critiques before the debate they would later hold. Bernardet was chosen to talk about a French production adapted from a novel by Émile Zola. His new friends liked him, despite his barely passable Portuguese, and he became a fixture in the group. “This allowed me to solve my problem, the issue of  how to integrate as an immigrant, and got me out of my almost totally French environment. People were interested in what I was saying.”

This experience led him to enroll in the Cinema Library course for training (organization and administration) film club managers, at an important time for Brazilian film clubs. “A lot of people were trained in this way because there was no film school. What this prepared us for was watching and discussing films and these courses, which appeared from time to time, included a lot about the history of the cinema and its analysis.”

When he was 21, Bernardet published his first text in the Jornal do Brasil. He critiqued Les Aimants (1958), by Louis Malle. As he really did not know how to write Portuguese correctly his friend Nelson Nicolai, who also worked at the French Bookstore, translated his words with him during their lunch hour and after work. “He used to ask if I preferred this or that word. That’s how I learned to write in Portuguese.”

A professional opportunity that would prove to be important arose when Paulo Emilio decided to go on a long trip to Europe and formed, at Bom Vital, a small team to replace him at the Literary Supplement, consisting of Gustavo Dahl, Maurício Capovila and Bernardet, who would take it in turns to write his column. When he returned the apprentice continued writing from time to time, until he was invited to write a daily piece for the Última Hora newspaper.

Before this, when he noticed the unexpected repercussion to a critical piece of his, published in the Literary Supplement, about Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita, he realized that there was one person who would not read his text, namely, the director himself, because he had no access to it. “I noticed that dialogue with the production team was a part of the critique. To establish this contact I needed to concentrate on Brazilian films.”

At the time, Paulo Emilio was insisting that everyone should watch Brazilian movies, but Bernardet thought he had something that differentiated him from the others: as far as he was concerned there were only good and bad movies, regardless of whether they were French, Italian or Brazilian. “I don’t think I ever had this attitude of the Brazilian elite that was somewhat biased, very unfavorable to what was being produced in the country,  doubting everything and I was one of the spokespeople for Paulo Emilio, who tried to convince them otherwise.”

At the time, a movie would only arouse any interest if it made it to Europe and won some prize over there. “We were graduating as critics at a time when production was being transformed.”  In this context, he agrees, critiques were important, not for their analyses of the films, but for their role as an arena for debating and even struggling against American cinema, driven by a nationalist spirit that today may appear very dogmatic. “I think we had this role of creating an arena for a discussion about the politics and esthetics of cinema.”

With the military coup, Jean-Claude Bernardet was prevented from writing and going to the Cinema Library, accused of being an “articulator”  between the French and Brazilian Communist parties. “The police, which was very misinformed, invented stories about me.” They said that I was close to Brazilian communists because I knew a lot of people from the Arena Theater, such as Gianfrancesco Guarnieri. “My militancy, however, was cultural.” To survive I went to work at a publishing house. The following year, at the invitation of Paulo Emilio and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, he and his wife, Lucila, joined the group coordinated by Pompeu de Souza that intended to set up the first cinema undergraduate course at the University of Brasília.

The course, however, lasted only eight months and was dissolved in November 1965, after a crisis that led 219 professors to resign because of the interference of the military government in the university. Bernardet had completed his thesis, Brasil em tempo de cinema, but was unable to present it. He only did so the following year, in a disguised way, during the Brazilian Cinema Week, the forerunner of the Brazilian Film Festival. The book finally came out in 1967.

The starting point of the research consisted of three previously established aspects: writing about Brazilian cinema; talking about the contemporary scene and what was happening in the area; and amending the proposal to the idea that they were still building a new university, despite the military coup. Only when he started working on the acknowledgements section did the author realize that in dealing with misguided personalities he was projecting himself into the very text. “I noticed that by doing this I understood them, the movies and myself better.”