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Portraitist of Brazil

The many faces of the country present in the cinematography of director Humberto Mauro

A witness to practically half of the history of the Brazilian cinema, Humberto Mauro (1897-1983) left historiography good reasons for featuring amongst the main sources form those who occupy themselves with the relationship between cinema and history. Not only for the extent of his work – he produced films from 1925 to 1974 -, but for their tenor, all of them focussed on the things of the country. The best known of them, O descobrimento do Brasil [The discovery of Brazil] (1937), with music by Villa-Lobos, was defined by the director as “detailed illustration of the letter by Pero Vaz de Caminha”.

A complete study about the images of Brazil in Humberto Mauro’s work has just arrived at the bookshops, from Unesp’s publishing house. Humberto Mauro e as imagens do Brasil [Humberto Mauro and the images of Brazil], by Sheila Schvarzman (399 pages, R$ 49.00), is the result of a doctoral thesis defended (at the History Department of the State University of Campinas, Unicamp) after six years of intense and arduous research, due to the nonexistence of a Humberto Mauro collection, and to the disappearance of the written documentation from the National Educative Cinema Institute (Ince), where the filmmaker worked between 1936 and 1964.

Of the 357 films directed by Mauro at Ince, Sheila was able to see 90 – between the Brazilian Cinematheque and the collection of the Audiovisual Technical Center in Rio de Janeiro (CTAV) -, and an analysis of these works allowed her to do a historiographic revision of the reasons that led Humberto Mauro to be regarded as the most nationalist of Brazilian filmmakers. The work originated a postdoctoral research, under way at The State University of Campinas (Unicamp), with the theme Octávio Gabus Mendes and the images of modernity in the 20’s, which includes the joint work with Mauro.

“When for the first time I watched some films from the Ince days, I soon noticed in Mauro’s cinematography questions that interested me as a historian”, Sheila says. “Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes had already written Humberto Mauro, Cataguases, Cinearte, about Mauro’s first cinematographic phases, so I decided to keep to the Ince period, in which the filmmaker did films ranging from the trailblazing ‘bandeirantes’ to scripts about the preparation and conservation of foodstuffs.” As she advanced in her research, Sheila realized, though, that it would be difficult to understand in depth the label of national authenticity attributed to Humberto Mauro if she did not study all his cinematographic career and, above all, the author’s critical and historiographic construction. So she went back to the first years of the filmmaker’s work, in the so-called Regional Cycle (1925-1930), in order, later, to launch herself into the Getúlio Vargas and Ince years, and, finally, to Humberto Mauro’s familiarity with the New Cinema.

In each one of the three phases of Maurean cinema, Sheila identified the construction of utopias in which there was a quest to make cinema an agent of changes in the country, and in which the director contributed with his work. In the interior of Minas Gerais, during the Cataguases cycle, the filmmaker, together with Adhemar Gonzaga, tries to guarantee the implantation and acceptance of the Brazilian cinema by the public, by possible investors, and by the State. Cinema ought to be a vehicle for displaying modernity, following the successful models of the American studios. A critic from Rio de Janeiro and founder of the Cinearte magazine, Gonzaga shared with Mauro the desire for creating a modern national cinema, the fruit of a country that was abandoning the rural paradigm in search of urban ideals.

To do so, Cinearte created the “Campaign for the Brazilian cinema”. Taking advantage of the interest of intellectuals, politicians, and occasionally of the State itself and of portions of the public, besides the vacuum caused by the temporary instability in the exhibition of American films, with the problems posed by the sound films, Cinearte sought to contribute towards the making of films, trying to make Brazilian cinema, definitively, an artistic expression and a possible and desirable economic activity.

Adhemar Gonzaga was the central figure in the fictions Lábios sem beijos [Lips without kisses] (plot), Voz de Carnaval [Voice of Carnival] (production) and Ganga bruta [Rough gang] (production), made by Mauro, now at Cinédia, in Rio de Janeiro. He was also in the documentaries Ameba (production) and Como se faz um jornal moderno [How a modern newspaper is made] (production). The partnership was maintained between 1930 and 1933, and the breach occurred after the failure of the full-length film Ganga bruta, whose production dragged on for so long that sound became indispensable, as there was a risk of the film being anachronic. Adhemar Gonzaga had already made contact with the innovation in Hollywood, in 1929, where he realized that, with the use of disks, it would be possible to make an adaptation.

In 1936, Humberto Mauro found himself unemployed in Rio de Janeiro. It was when the opportunity arose to work as a technical director at Ince, run by Roquette-Pinto (1888-1954). A prominent figure in the period of office of Gustavo Capanema at the Ministry of Education, Roquette-Pinto graduated in medicine, but circulated with tranquility in areas like anthropology, ethnography and history. He was the president of the 1st Brazilian Eugenics Congress, in 1929, although he did not partake of racist ideas like those of the São Paulo lawyer Renato Kehl, who founded the São Paulo Eugenic Society.

“Being a doctor in Brazil at the beginning of the 20th century meant taking part in the debate which engaged the national elite, divided about the destinies and the identity of a nation marked by ethnic diversity”, Sheila explains. A convinced Mendelian, Roquette-Pinto refused to see in crossbreeding between whites and blacks a factor of racial degeneration, as many of his contemporaries did.

“Immersed in this set of ideas and in the then ruling evolutionism itself, Roquette-Pinto wanted to speed up historical time, to arrive quickly and far, with his messages about the illumination of science and knowledge”, says the researcher. Hence his commitment to developing telegraph, radio and cinema in the country. It was in this environment that Humberto Mauro directed a major part of the 357 films at Ince. “The filmography from Ince can be divided into two stages”, Sheila explains. “At a first moment, the films clearly have the objective of constructing the image of an extraordinary country”, she says. This was the period of the New State, and, according to the author, Vargas knew of and intended to use the power of cinema for education. “In this stage, the ordinary man does not exist in Mauro’s cinema. We are immersed in the universe of positivism, of the scientificism of a romantic notion of a nation. Everything is grandiose, nature is portentous, and science works like an anchor for the nation”, Sheila adds.

It is from this period that there came documentaries like Practice of taxidermyThe telegraph in Brazil, Preparation of the vaccine against rabies, and The Lusiads , titles that clearly show some of Ince’s objectives: technical and scientific popularization, prevention and sanitarism, school content. But Mauro was also charged, often, with recording national scenes, like military parades, car races, and inaugurations of public spaces. “When we compare these films reporting on national life with the scientific ones, we perceive Humberto Mauro’s true vocation”, Sheila comments. “Mauro records a military parade like any one of use would record it, without any enthusiasm or more crushing intervention”, the researcher analyzes. “In compensation, when the subject is the human body, nature, the royal water platter – themes that challenged him – Mauro shows that above all his interest was to film everything, which he did with mastery.”

With the New State over, Ince’s cinematographic production followed other courses. In the democratic State, the extraordinary country gives way to expressions of the common many, shows itself to be an “ordinary country” on the scale of men. It is the time for films like The preparation and conservation of foodstuffs, the first to call the attention of Sheila Schvarzman, even before then beginning of her studies. “This film has a simple and colloquial language”, the historian says. Well, it was this simplicity and the immense capacity for producing a realist cinema, in spite of the difficulties of the Brazilian cinema, that led Humberto Mauro to have a significant role in the third utopia of national transformation embarked on by the cinema, described by Sheila.

If in the Cataguases cycle Humberto Mauro produced a cinema that sought to express the modernity of the country, and, in the Ince years, a cinema that intended to educate and to transform the population through the knowledge that would come from science or history, at a third moment, from the end of the 1950’s, Humberto Mauro ceased to be a subject to be an object. “Humberto Mauro exerted a fascination on the filmmakers of the New Cinema and became a model for how to do national cinema: a realist, handcrafted, low cost cinema, in opposition to the expenses of the studio cinema”, says Sheila. “Although, in political terms, the new cinema people disagreed with Mauro.” As to a project for a nation, the researcher defines each one of the stages in the following way: “With Adhemar Gonzaga and Cinearte’s Campaign for the Brazilian cinema’, it was a question of defining how Brazil should appear to itself. Humberto Mauro’s career can also be compared with the apparent contradictions of mutant modernity of gthe 50’s, in which he worked as a filmmaker”.

Coming from the interior of Minas Gerais, Mauro experience the opulence of the modern Rio de Janeiro of Getulio Vargas and make his cinematographic work act as a record and an instrument of this universe. In the 1950’s, though, he betted on the possibility of doing a rural cinema. He went back to Minas, where he opened up the Rancho Alegre Studio, with which he took to the last consequences his handcrafted cinema and where he made his last full-length film, which he called Canto da saudade [Nostalgia corner].”This going back to his origins shows a man who lived close to modernity, but, in the end, realized that the way was perhaps another one”, claims the researcher.