Despite all the improvements in the methodology of historical research related to film history, it has become common for approaches to cling to certain biases, whether thematically or spatially, which shape the way historical processes are interpreted. With Brazilian cinema, this has been no different. Even though Jean Claude Bernardet questioned founding myths in the 1990s, we seem to still believe them. We continue to establish hierarchizing causality relations which may hinder us from developing new points of view when writing about the history of Brazilian film. As a result, objects and subjects which could be considered more central in the canon by researchers become “blindspots”.
There are many examples, but in this text we will focus on the filmography made in the state of Bahia during the 1950s and 1960s. Part of it, such as the films of Alexandre Robatto Filho, remains relatively unknown1, while other films, especially those made between 1959 and 1964, are considered nothing but a path to the Cinema Novo movement. This is mainly due to the presence of Glauber Rocha.
The period between 1959 and 1964 is referred to as “the Bahian cycle”, the name emphasizes the ephemeral nature of Brazilian film production, especially those not based in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. This period is also referred to as the “Bahian New Wave”, which stresses its connection to New Cinemas that were developing around that time, mainly in Europe. The Bahian cycle took place in Salvador, Bahia’s capital city, effectively inscribing it in a context of intense intellectual and artistic production, not only with respect to film, but also visual arts, literature, music, theater, and even the structure of daily college life, with the creation of the University of Bahia.
We should also stress the importance of the creation of the Clube de Cinema da Bahia (Bahia Film Club), in 1950, spearheaded by film critic and lawyer Walter da Silveira, who also became its programmer. The existence of this film club made it possible for the Bahian film scene to organize, and, according to Veruska Silva, from then on Salvador saw the...
...formation of a sensibility to reflection and/or participatingin implemented or desired change, which made it a singular, memorableexperience for so many people. It was also at the Clube de Cinema that thepossibility of making film a vehicle for thought, expression, creativity andwork became a concrete option for many cultural agents in Salvador (2010, p. 48).
Between 1959 and 1964, fifteen films were made in Bahia. In many ways, filmmakers were searching to present images on screen that were deemed fundamental to Bahian culture and society2. During this period, there was an ongoing debate about what these features precisely were in the fields of the social sciences and arts, reflecting how filmmakers, intellectuals, visual artists and writers systematically cared about issues relating to Bahia’s cultural formation.
We can point to literary works during this time period such as those by João Ubaldo Ribeiro, Adonias Filho, Sônia Coutinho, in addition to Jorge Amado (who had been writing since the 1930s) which look closely at the daily lives of commonfolk via characters who were fishermen, prostitutes, street urchins, dock workers, yalorixás, market traders, union men, Native Brazilians, and poor black, white and mestizo people. In addition, since the 1950s, Milton Santos, Thales de Azevedo and Vivaldo da Costa Lima had been conducting research about Bahian society. They observed, among other issues, the complexity of racial relations and social hierarchies in a state with a predominantly black population.
Lastly, Mário Cravo Jr, Pierre Verger, Carybé and Rubem Valentim dealt with the aesthetic impact of Afro-Brazilian religions, creating a novel visual identity based on that new referential which visual arts resignified. There were also the incursions of architect Lina Bo Bardi working on the Museu de Arte Popular da Bahia (Bahia Popular Art Museum) and the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia (Bahia Museum of Modern Art) which shared that interest, as hinted by their very names. It is in this cultural melting pot that we can locate filmmakers, artists, and intellectuals from Bahia and other parts of Brazil, and also Trigueirinho Neto and his film Bahia de todos os santos.
Bahia de todos os santos, the disenchantment of Bahia
On June 30, 1959 Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes wrote a letter of introduction for Trigueirinho Neto to Walter da Silveira, in which he briefly mentioned Trigueirinho’s interest in shooting a film in Bahia, as well as his formation in Rome’s Experimental Film Centre. According to Maria do Socorro Carvalho, (2002, page 100) Trigueirinho was in Salvador since February, working on Bahia de todos os santos, but he was initially seen with suspicion by Bahian filmmakers. However, this changed after the local filmmaking community had the opportunity to see his (now lost) short Nasce um mercado at the Bahia Film Club.
From then on, his upcoming film was met with high expectations. Between November 1959 and February 1960, catching the attention of film critics and the Bahian film scene. By then, Redenção (1959), Pátio (1959) and Um dia na rampa (1959) had already been completed and shown publicly.
In the guise of a preamble, the opening credits of Trigueirinho’s film are imposed on a map of Bahia highlighting the Bay of All Saints (Baía de Todos os Santos), a geographical accident around which Salvador and the Recôncavo Baiano region were settled. As it was one of the first regions to be occupied in colonial times, to this day the Bay accounts for the most common images used to identify Salvador, -the blue sea, the Lacerda elevator, the ramp of the Mercado Modelo, the houses of the old downtown region and the mostly black population walking around. It is also where a significant portion of the film takes place.
Following the map, but still during the opening credits, we see many schooners tied to the shore at the ramp of Mercado Modelo and workers unloading the merchandise brought from towns all over the Recôncavo onto the street markets. This is a fictional film, but those two opening minutes are imbued with a documentary quality which directly relates to Luiz Paulino dos Santos’ documentary Um dia na rampa, about a day in the life of workers at that same place. That very environment with intense circulation of goods and people is where we first meet our protagonist, Tônio (Jurandir Pimentel). Skinny, shirtless and sitting on a barrel, seemingly oblivious to the world around him, he conveys his anguish and relative isolation due to his racial and economic situation. Then, he notices the presence of a well-dressed man in a light suit and carrying a pocket watch. So, he follows the man and steals his watch, bringing an end to the preamble.
From then on, we follow Tônio as he walks through the Comércio neighborhood (which is undergoing a renovation) and a cut takes us to an unspecified beach where he meets his friends, Pitanga (Antônio Sampaio), Manuel (Geraldo Del Rey), Matias (Eduardo Waddington), Neco (Francisco Contreiras) and Crispim (probably Nelson Lana). There they hide from the police, where they receive and handle smuggled goods and the outcomes of petty thefts.
There they also discuss, for the first time, themes that are dealt with throughout the film: the hardships and limitations of living in an impoverished city, with few job opportunities often relegated to those with the right connections, and the ambiguity in their desire to go down to Southwest Brazil in the hopes of finding better life conditions.
Not much later, far from downtown Salvador, we are amongst dunes and coconut trees, an image that is recurring in Alexandre Robatto Filho’s films Entre o Mar e o Tendal (1953) and Xaréu (1954). There, a mounted police troop swiftly rides to a fishing community, right when a Candomblé ceremony is taking place. The policemen, still on horseback, stampede toward the population, destroying the pejís where the symbols of the orixás were placed, set fire to the house, threaten to arrest the yalorixá, Mother Sabina, and force the women to carry what is left of the religious symbols to a police post, in a sort of funeral parade which goes by Tônio as he makes his way to the village.
With his arrival, we find out that Mother Sabina is his paternal grandmother, that his mother is sick and his father abandoned them, and even though Tônio wants to get closer to them, the two women shun him, as if he didn’t belong there. This is the reason for his isolation - being a mestizo, he is too white for his mother and grandmother, and too black for what scarce job opportunity the city has to offer. Lacking a permanent home, he spends his time at Pitanga’s mother’s, or at the Englishwoman’s (Lola Brah) - a foreigner with whom he has a turbulent affair - in Neco and Alice’s (Arassary de Oliveira) room, or at the beach hideout. Even though all the other characters have family or acquaintances to turn to, the film mainly takes place on the streets.
In one of Tônio’s visits to Pitanga’s mother, there is a dialogue regarding a strike at the docks in which Pedro, Pitanga’s brother, is involved. He is killed after killing a police officer and because Pitanga tries to help him he needs to hide from the police. Tônio steals some money from the Englishwoman to help in the escape of the union men, who successfully flee when police take down the strike. When Tônio breaks up with the Englishwoman, she denounces him to the police. He is arrested but refuses to tell on the fugitives. It is important to stress that the persecution to Mother Sabina’s Candomblé house and the dockworkers’ struggle to unionize are hints to the film taking place during the Estado Novo (1937-1945), specifying the information from the first scene that it is set “a few years ago”.
After their triumph, Pau da Bandeira hill goes back to their daily lives, until next October. Gimenez shows us the following morning: China looks down at the city from his window. Off-screen people (the direct sound, made possible by the modern equipment imported by Thomaz Farkas, attentively records that favela’s soundscape) sing Zé Keti’s10 samba Opinião (“fale de mim quem quiser falar / aqui eu não pago aluguel / e se eu morrer amanhã, seu doutor / estou pertinho do céu”11). Somewhere in the distance, dogs bark. Boys in uniforms walk to school; the mother of Ana Lúcia (Suco’s daughter), highlighted in the first rehearsal, wakes her daughter up. Suco drinks coffee as he watches people go by. The people go on singing Opinião (“Podem me prender / podem me bater / podem até deixar-me sem comer / que eu não mudo de opinião / daqui do morro, eu não saio não”12). Men and women go downhill to work and earn their daily bread. The chorus of Opinião goes on, until the voices fade out. The sun goes up as another day begins. Pau da Bandeira hill is pure samba, even if Carnaval is over. Or maybe samba is pure Pau da Bandeira hill. The people are inseparable from their party, Carnaval, as they are the main component of the very DNA of Carnaval; without the people, it simply doesn’t happen. Nossa Escola de Samba is an underrated gem of Brazilian cinema and one of the definitive films on one of the greatest events on the planet.
1. For more information on Alexandre Robatto Filho, I recommend the master's dissertation and doctoral thesis of Ana Luísa Coimbra, respectively: Memória e imagens da Bahia no documentário de Alexandre Robatto Filho, defended in 2011 in the Graduate Program and Memory: Language and Society of the State University of Southwest Bahia and Rodar filmes, fazer cinema: Alexandre Robatto Filho e as imagens dos povos, defended in 2019 in the Graduate Program in Arts. School of Fine Arts, Federal University of Minas Gerais. And also the book SETARO, André; UMBERTO, José. AAlexandre Robatto Filho: pioneiro do cinema baiano. Salvador: Cultural Foundation of the State of Bahia, 1992.
2. Redenção (1959), A Grande Feira (1961) and Tocaia no Asfalto (1962), by Roberto Pires; Pátio (1959), Cruz na Praça (unfinished) and Barravento (1962), by Glauber Rocha; Bahia de Todos os Santos (1960), by Trigueirinho Neto; Mandacaru Vermelho (1961), by Nelson Pereira dos Santos; O Pagador de Promessas (1962), by Anselmo Duarte; Senhor dos Navegantes (1964), by Aloísio T de Carvalho; A montanha dos sete ecos (1963) by Armando Miranda; O Caipora (1964) by Oscar Santana; Um dia na rampa (1959) by Luiz Paulino; Grito da terra (1964) by Olney São Paulo.
BERNARDET, Jean Claude. Historiografia Clássica do Cinema Brasileiro: metodologia e pedagogia. 1ªedição.São Paulo: Annablume, 1995.
CARVALHO, Maria do Socorro. A nova onda baiana: cinema na Bahia (1958-1962). Salvador: EDUFBA, 2002.
GUSMÃO, Milene de Cássia Silveira. Dinâmicas do cinema no Brasil e na Bahia: trajetórias e práticas do século XX ao XXI. Tese de Doutorado. Universidade Federal da Bahia, Faculdade de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas, Programa de Pós-Graduação em Ciências Sociais: Salvador, 2007.
NOGUEIRA, Cyntia (org). Walter da Silveira e o cinema moderno no Brasil: críticas, artigos, cartas, documentos. Salvador: EDUFBA, 2020.
RUBINO, Silvana e GRINOVER, Marina (orgs). Lina por escrito. Textos escolhidos de Lina Bo Bardi. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2009.
SETARO, André. Panorama do cinema baiano. 2ªedição. Salvador. EGBA.
SILVA, Veruska Anacirema da. Memória e cultura: cinema e aprendizado de cineclubistas baianos dos anos 1950. Dissertação de Mestrado. Programa de Pós Graduação em Memória: Linguagem e Sociedade. Universidade Estadual do Sudoeste: Vitória da Conquista, 2010.
STAM, Robert. Multiculturalismo tropical: uma história comparativa da raça na cultura e no cinema brasileiros. São Paulo: EDUSP, 2008.
Such logic - of juxtaposing individual and collective aspects - is established organically, and the whole film is based on it; Gimenez wants to show us the daily lives of the dwellers of the Pau da Bandeira hill, instead of focusing exclusively on matters of the Carnaval. As we witness a morning in the favela, we are shown problems faced by those who live there, such as water shortage. But the film also takes its time to portray tender images of children eating at the table. Gimenez’s gaze, genuinely curious and affectionate, is closer to Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Rio, 40 Graus, than, for instance, the later wave of favela movies made during and following the Retomada,6 with their “cosmetics of hunger”7, which saw the favelas as little more than a background for stylized exploitation films.