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Pernambuco’s Hollywood

Thesis recalls the Recife Cycle, the youngsters who made films like the American ones for the local cinema

In 1929, Gilberto Freyre received a strange visit at the newsroom of A Província [The Province], one of Recife’s most traditional newspapers. The old man, an aristocrat from the old generation of sugar mill owners from Pernambuco’s woods (Zona da Mata), had come to ask the then young director of the paper to set the police after some ghosts that were perturbing his life. Startled by the request, Freyre dispatched his friend to a psychiatrist. And began to collect ghost stories for a book.

It was a sign of the times. The city was no longer the same. Recife of the oil lamps was surrendering to the dazzling lights of modernity. And even Freyre, a great defender of the traditions of the northeast, could not manage to take these stories seriously. The space for stories by the stove, told by the nannies to the ill-behaved little masters, had been done away with. Automobiles, ice creams, airplanes, and American films were seducing a new generation, avid for the emotions of the century of speed.

In the city that was making a point of hiding its past – changing the names of the streets, constructing modern buildings, opening up avenues –, a group of youngsters decided to make films like the American ones to exhibit them in the cinemas of the city. This was how one of the most important cycles of regional cinema began in the country, little known up to this day. The researcher in cinema from the Multimedia Postgraduate Program of the Campinas State University (Unicamp), Luciana Corrêa de Araújo, is now doing postgraduate research that is trying to analyze the Recife Cycle, identifying the social and cultural scenario in which these productions were carried out.

“In this period”, says Luciana, “ambitions for modernity and desire to preserve traditions live together with particular intensity, in a process that develops in various aspects and which has amongst its main manifestations the polemics involving the sociologist Gilberto Freyre, who was to write the ‘Manifesto Regionalista’ [Regionalist Manifesto], and journalist Joaquim Inojosa, lonked to the intellectuals of the Week of 22 (an exhibition that introduced Modernism in Brazil) and a great enthusiast and publicist of the modernist ideas of the Northeast.”

The polemics took hold of Recife and were to influence both the production of films and the criticism in the papers of the films exhibited in the city’s cinemas. The sessions did not take place only in the famous and always remembered Cine Royal. “I insist on this point, because one usually talks only of the Royal, but researching the daily papers showed that the films were exhibited in other cinemas, and some films even followed a significant circuit for their exhibition, in cinemas in the center and in the districts.”

The Recife Cycle has as one of its main landmarks the return of goldsmith Edison Chagas to the city, coming from Rio de Janeiro, then capital of the Republic, with the idea of doing American cinema in Pernambuco. In Rio, Chagas had gone so far as to work in some small cinematographic productions, where he had learnt some techniques that were used by him for the productions of the Cycle. He soon joined engraver Gentil Roiz, who owned a second hand camera and was already writing screenplays for imaginary films.

The two of them, along with engineering student Ary Severo, found Aurora-Film, the Cycle’s first and most important producer. In 1924, they are already filming the first full length film. “In a short time, they manage to bring together about 30 youngsters from several occupations, including journalists, shop assistants, artists, public servants, who saw in Aurora an opportunity to go from fans of the cinema to actors and technicians”, the researcher says.

To start with, the productions were cheap and relied on the goodwill of the youngsters who orbited around the producer. With time, the production and distribution costs kept increasing, and the producer came to have serious financial problems. Aurora-Film went bankrupt twice, but its conceivers continued to make films in different manners. The Cycle’s first film, Retribuição [Retribution], makes its debut in March 1925.

Written and directed by Gentil Roiz and with photography by Edison Chagas, the film tells the story, typically Hollywoodian, of a couple that, in search of treasure, fights with a group of bandits. The cast included Barreto Junior and Almery Steves, who later on was to be recognized as the biggest star of the Recife Cycle. The film was a great success at the Cine Royal, a place that was to become the main shop window for Pernambuco’s cinema produced in the period, thanks to the co-owner, a Portuguese called Joaquim Matos, whose work guaranteed the exhibition of the films, always in great style.

In the period that runs from 1922 to 1931, 13 films with a plot were produced and several called natural films, “which is the nomenclature of those days for nonfiction films”, according to Luciana Corrêa de Araújo. Soon after Retribuição comes Um ato de humanidade [An act of humanity] and Jurando vingar [Swearing vengeance], both in 1925. Even with the commercial success of Retribuição, the producer had to make a commercial film to balance the budget, and this was how Um ato de humanidade arose, as advertising for Garrafada do Sertão [Bottleful from the Backlands], from Laboratório Maciel.

In this film, Jota Soares – who was to become an important name in the Recife Cycle – made his debut as an actor, playing a syphilitic youngster who was miraculously cured by the mentioned bottleful. “It is interesting to note that these advertising films help to professionalize the young filmmakers and also became a breadwinner for many after the Cycle ended –, the researchers says.

Right after that, there was the debut of Jurando vingar, in which the young filmmakers try to repeat the scheme of the first film, with a strong influence of the American cinema. This time, the reaction of the public was not so enthusiastic. The three then decided to film the reality of Recife itself. With this in mind, Aitaré da praia [Aitaré from the beach] emerged, in 1926 (the film has been well preserved, and is available in DVD today).

In it, the fisherman Aitaré courts Cora, an innocent girl from a small village. Several disagreements separate the heroes, until the expected happy ending. It is a film, in which actors like Almery Steves and Jota Soares take part, that shows both the beautiful beaches of the region and the sophisticated milieu of the aristocracy in Recife. The clash between tradition and modernity can been seen in an obvious way in the film, which has a duration of one hour.

The film was an enormous success and went so far as to be exhibited in other cities. The news that there was a group committed to making films in Recife soon reached Rio de Janeiro, in the specialized criticisms of journalists like Adhemar Gonzaga and Pedro Lima. This awakened the interest of other entrepreneurs who wanted to do cinema. Four new producers arose, Vera Cruz-Film, Planeta-Film, Veneza-Film, and Olinda-Film. Still in 1925, Filho sem mãe [Motherless son], is produced by Planeta, a film that has been lost and which, so it is said, boasted the presence of backland bandits in the plot, indicating that typical personages of the region were made use of.

The members of Aurora-Film, in spite of the financial difficulties resulting from Aitaré da praia, set off towards the Recife Cycle’s most ambitious films, A filha do advogado [The lawyer’s daughter], which made its debut in 1926 and had a duration of 92 minutes. With screenplay by Ary Severo and directed by Jota Soares, the film is a melodrama about a piquant story of seduction, which would make writer Nelson Rodrigues ( famous for his piquant stories) envious for not having created the story.

The hero, Helvécio, is the son of one of the city’s famous lawyers, Dr. Paulo, and leads a Bohemian life. His father has a lover and a daughter from this illicit relationship, Heloísa. Not knowing that the girl is his half-sister, Helvécio tries to take her by force. In the struggle that ensues, she kills him. Nobody accepts defending him in court, until a stranger appears, willing to help him. In the cast: Jota Soares, Guiomar Teixeira, Euclides Jardim, Norberto Teixeira, Olíria Salgado, Ferreira Castro, Jasmelina de Oliveira, and Severino Steves.

The film was even exhibited in Rio, but the debts from its production were immense, and Aurora-Film went into bankruptcy for the second time. Bankruptcy did not mean that the filmmakers who created the production company stopped making films. Edison Chagas continued filming with Liberdade-Film, which launched Dança, amor e ventura [Dance, love and venture], in 1927, and No cenário da vida [In the scenario of life], in 1930, a romantic drama that followed the line of A filha do advogado. “In 1930, the Cycle’s films with a plot came to an end, amidst the consolidation of the sound films, the difficulties in exhibiting local films, and the disturbed political and economical moment that the country was passing through.”

Films with a plot, though, account for only a part of the Recife Cycle’s production. The documentaries are even less known, and show the city on special dates, like Pernambuco e sua exposição [Pernambuco and its exhibition] of 1924, by Ugo Falangola and J. Cambière, Carnaval pernambucano [Pernambuco carnival] of 1926, by Aurora-Film, and O progresso da ciência médica [The progress of medical science], made by Edison Chagas, in 1927. In Luciana Corrêa de Araújo’s research project, the Recife Cycle is understood within a broader picture, which extrapolates the cinematographic field, to delve into the society and culture of Pernambuco of the 1920s.

“One of the main issues that mark the period is the clash between tradition and modernity.” One of the privileged place for perceiving this tension is the newspapers and magazines of those days. “The daily papers of Recife, the magazines, and the cinema columns from Rio de Janeiro bring a contemporary vision capable of enriching and problematizing the readings made afterwards”, she adds.

The last films of the Recife Cycle are exhibited in 1930, but movies production in the city continues over the following decades. A production that comprises, above all, newsreels and documentaries, which do not achieve the same repercussion as the films with a plot that were made in the days of the silent cinema. With Super-8, in the 1970s, the cinema in Pernambuco gains fresh strength, with filmmakers, who also wrote in the city’s newspapers, like Fernando Spencer, Celso Marconi, and Geneton Moraes Neto.

And, following the resumption of the 1990s, production goes back to affirming itself beyond the borders of the state. Films arise like Baile perfumado [Perfumed ball] (1987), O rap do pequeno príncipe contra as almas sebosas [The rap of the small prince against the greasy souls] (2000) and Amarelo manga [Mango yellow] (2004), which, just like the production of the Recife Cycle, find fertile ground in the dialog between the modern and the traditional.

The project
Recife Cycle, the Films, the Stories (nº 01/10071-5); Modality Postdoctoral Scholarship; Supervisor Lúcia Nagib – Multimedia Postgraduate Program/Unicamp; Researcher Luciana Sá Leitão Corrêa de Araújo – Multimedia Postgraduate Program/Unicamp