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History in the darkness of a movie theater

Study shows the connection between cinema and the State in Brazil

Acervo Cinemateca BrasileiraRebuilt sailing ship to provide realityAcervo Cinemateca Brasileira

The first major event of the then recently implemented Estado Novo regime was the creation, in November 1937, of the “Altar da Pátria,” a backdrop against which a pyre was lit to burn state flags. This was a demonstration that power was in the hands of Getúlio Vargas. One week later, the film O descobrimento do Brasil by filmmaker Humberto Mauro (1897-1983) was premiered. “This was not something accidental, because the film symbolically brings together the ties between politics, history, education, religion and art (film and music), as if this connection were being staged again at the time of the Discovery, showing the spectators of those times that what they had seen and experienced in 1937 had originated in 1500,” analyzes historian Eduardo Morettin, a professor from the School of Arts and Communications (ECA) of the University of São Paulo (USP). Morettin wrote the book Humberto Mauro, cinema e história, published by Cosac & Naify, scheduled to be launched in 2011. “The concept of nation in the films of that time was related to the repression of civil rights and everything that represented anything regional or specific points of view, which the regime viewed as diverging from the national interests,” he explains. Fully aware of the huge power of cinema, Vargas referred to the film as “a book of luminous images.”

“Cinema was transformed into propaganda of the national symbols of the State and its cultural institutions. Cinematographic images gained the same status as that of fine arts and didactic books.” Various films were produced from this point of view, among which were O descobrimento and Os bandeirantes (1940), both of which had been filmed by Mauro, but seldom associated with the filmmaker from the city of Cataguases. “These films produced at the height of the Estado Novo regime were totally aligned with the regime’s ideology. However, they were forgotten by critics because, in comparative terms, they are precarious and do not resemble any of the other films made by this film director from the State of Minas Gerais. Forgetting them, however, is to ignore the conservative aspect of Mauro’s film production,” says the researcher. Morettin points out that the movement of the State and of the conservative intellectuals in the period from 1920 to 1930, during which the two films had an exemplary function, ultimately provided Brazilian cinema with cultural legitimacy. “Both films are inserted into a broader discussion of the use of cinema for educational purposes, in which it was important to validate the cinematographic discourse. To this end, authentication strategies were used to distinguish the educational film from the melodramatic films of those times, in which there was no concern about historical facts.” Brazilian cinema took its first steps, hand in hand with the State. “The 1930’s might have been the moment that witnessed the creation of a cultural policy to strengthen the Brazilian film industry; however, the connection between the film and the State began in the 1920’s.”

Acervo Cinemateca BrasileiraPoster for the film’s opening night in 1937Acervo Cinemateca Brasileira

The event that triggered this union occurred during the International Exhibition held in Rio de Janeiro in 1922-1923 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Brazil’s Independence. At that time, the government implemented a number of measures to support film production: contracting of cameramen and producers; subventions for films through the waiver of import tax on film negatives; purchase and production of documentaries, etc. All of these measures were implemented to allow the country to make films that would show the country’s progress to Brazilians and to foreigners”. “This shows that there was a connection between Brazil and the USA or European countries, where films were used as a means of propaganda. For organizers of exhibitions, cinema provided the necessary link with the contemporary world.” According to film critics of those times, the difficulty of accepting cinema in Brazil supposedly derived from this way of insisting that films portray inequality and lack of harmony, as seen in the popular “natural films,” dedicated to the exuberance of nature and to life in rural areas, the “opportunity” of viewing the undesirable. Educators clamored for the creation of a cinema that would be worthy of the country idealized by the elite and that would represent the country’s “qualities.” This moralizing discourse was in line with the movement in the 1920’s and 1930’s led by intellectuals such as Edgar Roquette-Pinto and Fernando de Azevedo, which focused on educators of the Escola Nova, who demanded that cinema be included in the school curriculum.

“Within this context, the actions of Roquette-Pinto were outstanding. He pioneered the use of mass communication, such as radio and cinema, to transform society. As early as 1910, he had created our first collection of scientific films, which were housed in the Museu Nacional museum; he always said that cinema would extend knowledge to all citizens,” says historian Sheila Schvarzman, professor of contemporary communication at Anhembi Morumbi University, and author of the book Humberto Mauro e as imagens do Brasil (published by Editora Unesp). “He recognized cinema’s educational potential, but denied that cinema had any artistic stature. He would refer to fiction films as ‘agitators of souls.’ Roquette-Pinto and Vargas believed that cinema was an instrument that affected people directly, ‘teaching them regardless of their lack of willingness to learn and which extended so far out into space,’ because of its visual language, that children and illiterate people were able to understand.” Images were the expression of progress, as they were able to faithfully reproduce reality, and had the possibility of “generating progress” through the examples they showed. Cinema, given its entertainment-related nature, conveyed messages efficiently, and, as such, was able to wear down “the resistance of ignorance, of local power and of underdevelopment.” Of course cinema could only do this if it were placed in “competent and conscientious hands:” it was urgent “to save cinema from cinema itself,” moving it away from fiction and placing its power at the service of education.

“However, people would be obliged to have a relationship with cinema that was based on cold reasoning and not on feeling. The desire was to educate an audience, seen as homogeneous, that would not be influenced “negatively” by the so-called commercial films. These filmmakers were concerned about children whom educators considered as “easy prey.” It was enough to witness “the uncontrolled manifestations during the matinees”: “loud screaming in the auditorium, the young people’s wild excitement, full of intense emotions”. The State was asked to deal with the issue. Initially, the State issued decree nº 2.140, of 1932, which, among other measures, established that it would be mandatory for a short feature film to be shown prior to the showing of a long feature fiction film. The decree highlighted the importance of educational films, “an instrument that has many advantages for the instruction of the viewers and for showing propaganda of the country, inside and outside of its borders,” thus reaching out to everybody: “The school for those who do not have school.” In 1936, the government took a step further and decided that it would produce its own films. To this end, the government created the National Educational Film Institute (Ince). Roquette-Pinto, director of the institute, invited Humberto Mauro to be the technical director. In eleven years, the filmmaker produced approximately 300 films on zoology, art education, physics, literature, dance, geography, and history, as well as films praising Vargas” accomplishments.

Acervo Cinemateca BrasileiraScene from the movieAcervo Cinemateca Brasileira

Mauro was a renowned film director and had produced such major films as O tesouro perdido (1927), Brasa dormida (1929) and Ganga bruta (1933). “These films followed the narrative language of Hollywood, but were in line with the ideological spirit of Cinearte magazine, published by Adhemar Gonzaga, which focused mainly on themes linked to – national qualities” and masked poverty. The objective was to show a “civilized” Brazil, similar to the USA and to Europe, far from anything that, to the elite, portrayed our underdevelopment,” Morettin points out. “A few years later, Mauro decided to change his focus and use cinema as a way to modernization via education, as it was neither enough nor possible to create modern images in an archaic society, as was the desire of Gonzaga. Under the INCE project, cinema was not an end in itself or a form of expression; instead, it was a means,” Sheila points out. “Based on his work together with Roquette-Pinto, the filmmaker came into contact with the salvation-like model that preached that modernization would be achieved through education. Mauro embraced the idea that the nation and its values were able to redeem man corrupted by the original sin.” The first major film based on this new concept did not come from INCE. It stemmed from a request made by the Cocoa Institute of Bahia, which had invited Mauro to produce a short feature propaganda film that ultimately resulted in the film O descobrimento do Brasil. “The film was part of a project whose objective was to find the correct and scientific way of portraying history, that is, through the visualization of a historical fact. To validate its insertion in the market, under the concept of educational cinema, the film relied on the consulting advice of Afonso de Taunay, director of the Museu Paulista museum, and of Roquette-Pinto. Villa-Lobos composed the soundtrack.” Iconographic references of paintings such as A primeira missa (1861), by Victor Meirelles, or the use of Caminha’s letter as the basic reference for the script (the letter was shown on the screen) were retrieved to ensure the authenticity and educational value of the film production. “The idea was to eliminate any signs of entertainment and melodrama from the film. According to the filmmakers, historical films were supposed to be a staging of documents, placing viewers in contact with history ‘as it really happened’.” Taunay, for example, felt it was enough to animate paintings of historical characters to confer veracity to moving images. This explains the static composition of films, which was often in the form of tableaux linked to pictorial references. “It was not simply propaganda; Mauro’s production and the music of Villa-Lobos fitted perfectly into the Idea of creating a unified element around objectives in common, led by a leader who was not involved in social controversies.” Could Mauro have been a Brazilian version of Leni Riefenstahl?

“There are some similarities but, unlike the German filmmaker, Mauro was merely a technician, with restricted autonomy, someone capable of transforming intellectual theories into images, without any major authorship. Villa-Lobos, however, was an artist who mystified the role of the State as being the subject of history, but Mauro did not view the work he did for INCE as an identity between his creation as a filmmaker and the regime’s ideology,” Morettin believes. In addition, in the two films the director, albeit not aware of this fact, revealed himself to be not very confident about the ideological project. “This can be seen in some of the style that is evident in the film, such as melancholy and the absence of a happy end, which are typical elements of his style. These interferences prevented the films from being the appropriate way for an epic sense that the intellectuals of the regime wanted to see portrayed.” “In O descobrimento,” says Morettin, “one can see the continued harmonious interpretation of the moment when the nation was founded: this is attested to by the scene of the reception of the natives by the Portuguese, where Cabral and monk Henrique de Coimbra seem to be cradling the natives to sleep. It can also be seen in Os bandeirantes, where the Vargas ideology is manifested in the speech of Fernão Dias Paes as he strangles his son to maintain discipline and order in the expedition, much like Vargas, – the father” of Brazilian society, would do. In contrast, the director unexpectedly emphasized the high cost of the expeditions taken on by these colonial scouts: illnesses, death, hunger; and, even when the explorers find the precious gems they were looking for – the climax of the story – gets a mere two long distance shots. The melancholic death of Fernão Dias Paes also does not fit into the expected historical apologetics. This is repeated in the ambiguous end of O descobrimento, when, in contrast to the vainglorious music of Villa-Lobos (with a chorus of “Brazil! Brazil!”), the viewers see the image of the cross and three desolated exiles standing around it. These are jarring contrasts. “However, I don’t think that that was deliberate criticism or a sabotage of the ideological project; I think it reinforces the idea that film is polissemic and cannot be silenced.” After Roquette-Pinto had left INCE in 1947, Mauro was once again able to make such notable films as Canto da saudade (1952), and this reinforced the Idea that the historical films had been a mere interregnum in his career. The ambivalence of these films prevented him from being totally identified with the Estado Novo regime. It took time for the world evoked in such films as Ganga bruta to resurface and for the Cinema Novo movement to once again consider Mauro as the “founder and father of Brazilian cinema.” The Leni Riefenstahl of the tropics was forgiven.