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Retomada Upside Down

Amelia (2000)

by Filipe Furtado

         Amelia was released in the heat of the so called retomada, the restart of Brazilian film production in the 90s under slicker safer terms. A period film, very large, partially in French, with a historical hook, Marília Pêra’s presence and a great cast. Long story short, it is a feature film of that moment which, superficially, suggests something very distant from the anarchic films that Ana Carolina made at the beginning of her career. Part of Amelia's appeal comes from this: its surface is of the most official Brazilian cinema at the height of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, but Carolina, always a shrewd director, makes its reverse. The costly surface elements are corrupted by a violent attitude towards each of the relationships they are there to establish.

         This is a bitter comedy about the impossibility of communication between Sarah Bernhardt, the great actress, diva of the European theatre at the turn of the 20th century, and the sisters of her Brazilian chambermaid, with whom she needs to settle some accounts. An incommunicability that has little to do with language, because they deal with those differences relatively well, but between colonizer and colonized, in the different ways these women have experienced and negotiated exploitation and power relationships. The film is set in Bernhard's third passage through Brazil, when she had an accident that resulted in a broken leg, which she would eventually have to amputate. The film is marked by this wound, and everyone knows the action will climax with the sisters playing a role in the accident, because everything in it is charged with this promise of violence.

         Amélia, the chambermaid who conveniently died offstage - and is played in a very symbolic choice by Marília Pêra, one of Brazil’s greatest stars better known for foreigners for her role in Babenco’s Pixote - is a constant presence in her absence, the possible bridge between those experiences that are no longer there. She describes her sisters to the French actress as the "beautiful savages," and the movie as a whole works as a response to such an attempt at appeasement. There's a subversive use of the forms of the retomada: from the most officialesque moment of Brazilian cinema - of its desire for a pacified image - Ana Carolina extracts its opposite. There is no sugarcoating in Amélia, no lowering of tone. There is no beauty in Carolina’s film, but it rather makes a necessary praise of savagery. As exemplified in Myrian Muniz's magnificent performance, an exquisite tone of voice and body language, always ready to go into an attack position (Camila Amado is not far behind), ready to pounce at any moment, Amélia is a film that understands the need to take a bite. In the face of these violent power relationships, it is necessary to impose a reaction to match it. It is a movie that talks crassly, loud, and in a bad tone. A big production that asks everyone to adapt to what it brings to the table.

        In Ana Carolina's films there has always been a tendency to take the parts for the whole. She comes from a generation for whom this totalizing ambition is a vital engine, one can see that in her feature film debut being a movie about Brazilian dictator and populist leader Getulio Vargas. In the trilogy that made her reputation, this expansive gaze remained filtered by the individual experiences of her feminine characters. Amélia reverses the situation somewhat: it is undeniably a national panel. For example, there’s a very open dialogue, with Mário and Oswald de Andrade’s literary works, and there is also the expressive use of Gonçalves Dias, whose I-Juca-Pirama is a recurrence that expresses, throughout it, the clash of civilizations. At the same time, each of its four main characters brings with them a series of experiences that move the action from the field of the symbolic to a more immediate drama. Let's think about a famous cause of Brazilian criticism of the time - Chronically Unfeasible (2000) and its grotesque country portrait - and observe the differences: in a film like Sergio Bianchi's, Sarah would play the role of the shallow rich woman and Francisca the uneducated crass one, with every diminishing return that both descriptions allow. But Amelia offers its four main characters something much more complicated and impossible to reduce to a few easy words, which makes the broad portrait of the failure of their communication more expansive. 

        The movie belongs to a tradition in Latin American fiction, that of the traveling gringo who must deal with tropical delirium, an idea very dear to retomada since Walter Salles' proto-Retomada debut Exposure (1991), but usually in a much more conservative key than allowed here. Beatrice Agenin and Ana Carolina's Sarah Bernhardt is a perfect image of this genre main character, and the film establishes a narrative of abyss and damnation. Amelia is about how notions of European civilization lose their grip around here, but it is not happy with a simple negative portrayal of the country, but rather makes room for the strength of the sisters' behavior, which turns relationships inside out. As far as foreign itineraries through these parts are concerned, Amélia is much closer to Rogério Sganzerla's Tudo é Brasil (1997), an essay film about Orson Welles' 1942 Brazilian sojourn, than Carla Camurati's Carlota Joaquina, Princess of Brazil (1995), Retomada’s first big hit, a satire about the arrival of the Portuguese court in Rio in early 19th century. Sganzerla's film is about the seductive Brazilian image through the eyes of another famous foreigner, and Ana Carolina makes a similar movement, in a more violent way, pushing Sarah Bernhardt to our country, not to demean her, but to better devour her. The filmmaker has often described her love-hate relationship with her country, and Amelia is a movie where the scathing gaze and the embrace seem especially united. Everything is deglutinated and it all ends with Gonçalves Dias repackaged for gringo watching. But its effects are undeniable: very far from negativity or appeasement, Amélia unravels into a satirical tragedy of these relationships’ violence, an affirmative and savage farce.


October, 2022

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