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Notes on Carnaval Atlântida:
70 years later

by Pedro Henrique Ferreira

           One of the most emblematic moments of Carnaval Atlântida is when two swindlers hide in a doctor's office, and with the help of a nurse who dreams of being a movie star, try to con a poor teacher, whom they convince is suffering from a rare disease. At first they operate a Turkish bath to scare him with the heat, but after they see that maybe they are taking the 'scare' too far, they give him a glass of water. What they don't realize is that Dr. Healer's two bottles were titled 'serum of sorrow' and 'serum of joy'. As he takes one, the professor weeps copiously. Then he is given the other one and laughs non-stop. Although he has never been sick in body, the alcohol beverage has perhaps cured his spirit - the professor thanks them and leaves. The tricksters don't understand anything, they try the drink themselves, and laugh their asses off, culminating in a musical play where they sing "Cachaça", a march by Marinésio Trigueiros Filho. What seems like a mere self-sufficient comic sketch is, in fact, a defining scene of Burle's feature film: when we meet the professor again, he has completed his metamorphosis. We see him smilingly breaking the news that he has decided to write a music carnival instead of the historical show for which he was hired by the Acropolis Films mogul. The cure - the serum of joy - was, therefore, determinant for this transformation.


1. The whole trajectory of Xenophontes (Oscarito), from his intense inability to talk about Eros, the God of Love, to his renunciation of Ancient Greece and adherence to samba, is a portrait of the  overcoming of national culture problems pointed out by Paulo Prado in 1928, and Graça Aranha a little later - our inability, at that time, to modernize ourselves because of our deep-rooted sadness. The Brazil of the Republic had inherited the melancholy of its romantic spirit reigning in the 19th century, a country 'banished in our own land', longing for the overseas, fated to become exhausted with paradisiacal landscapes, excessive mining and libidinal relations, which would mark our absolute impossibility to civilize. This 'arielistic' vision established in the country would be the reason why the positivist ideology of our first decades as a nation would do nothing more than an artificial, out-of-place modernization. Thus, the problem to be solved is that we would be fundamentally sad beings. “Oh, poor culture," Oscarito replies in his character's introduction upon hearing his visit referred to as 'a guy'. The professor from Ancient Greece is the prototype of the intellectual to be overcome, the figuration of a country that needed to transform itself authentically. The typical problem that the modernists since 1922 had rolled up their sleeves to face, their 'litmus test'.

          It is way too strong to say that the 'chanchada' was modernist in the full sense of the word, although the aesthetics of the decors where the radio stars paraded under contract to Cinédia or Atlântida doesn't lie. It (the chanchada) was so because it is directly associated with the ideology from which the other (modernism) comes from. The association between a revolution in the political field (the Vargas period and the rise of the urban and industrial bourgeoisie that defeated the Old Republic) and another in the arts (modernism) takes clearer contours in Capanema's architectural patronage, for example, but this ideological current that Octavio Ianni called 'national capitalism' certainly exerted influence in other areas that were not directly financed by the government; and it was probably, in some way, present in the fervor of the genesis of our first film studios that set themselves up as a business activity. However, for the cinema, it was not enough just to industrialize. It was necessary to find a formula for this great overcoming. Some other efforts emerged to give features to the aspirations of the ascendant bourgeois class: the modernism of films like Limite (1931) or Ganga Bruta (1933), urban and youth dramas like Barro Humano (1929), those of Oduvaldo Viana or Chianca de Garcia, or even the ufanistic euphoria of Raul Roulien. But I don't know, maybe all these were still very, very sad. The sign of carnival happiness as an elixir would soon find, in the 'chanchada', its purest expression, and it came almost without the will of those who made movies. That is the question: that industrial cinema could not be radically anthropophagic like literature; because of the costs, because of the market. Xenophontes' option for the ‘musicarnavalesque genre' is also economically justified to producer Cecílio B. De Milho (Renato Restier). In an ironic way, Burle had already put the explanation in the title of his second feature film, Tristezas não pagam dívidas (1943) (T.: Sadness don’t pay the bill).

2. Even if indirectly, this would be equivalent to repeating what has often been written about Carnaval Atlântida - that it stages the clash between a European/North American high culture and a popular, national one (that is, when critics like Hugo Barcelos or Pedro Lima and others didn't simply execrate it for being a 'chanchada'). Also, that its dose of 'moral joy' is the pacified and institutionalized replica of modernism, giving its face as the official cultural policy of the Vargas government: it took advantage of the stars of radio in its Golden Age - the privileged vehicle of communication and entertainment for the Estado Novo -, of the well-known sambas and carnival marches that became a known facet of official cultural policy, etc. In this sense, Acrópoles Filmes could very well be a satire of the megalomaniac pretensions of the São Paulo studios that were becoming sinking titanics right in those years. The explanation makes sense and contributes to situate Carnaval Atlântida on the side of national-developmentalism and against interdependence capitalism, a more philosophical version of the Rio de Janeiro versus São Paulo clash in the political field.

           At best, it is conceded that Carnaval Atlântida would be a 'typical' chanchada, but metalinguistic and self-conscious. Drawing from Hollywood 'backstage' films of the time, such as All About Eve (1950), Sunset Boulevard (1950), In a Lonely Place (1950) or Singing in the Rain (1952), it takes advantage of the narrative structure to comment on the ideological clash, point out its characteristics, and position itself on one side. The popular element is exalted to the detriment of what is gringo or elitist, the myopia of the authoritarian elite is evidenced in its inability to notice the strength of a cultural model of ours that would be resignified by the Estado Novo in the exaltation of 'malandragem', 'ginga', and the adaptive capacity of the 'race'. Thus speaking, the risk of putting the cart before the horse in a generic and sociological reduction of the work is very great. This is because Carnaval Atlântida is also a solemn swan song, Burle's last feature film in the production company he founded and whose's project of its initial manifesto he saw end up being distorted; made in the year Atlântida suffered the pity of a fire (and the original title of the film, On Fire, was changed). The intention, therefore, more than a conscious elegy of the genre should be a cautious look at the viscera of what was once. And in this sense, this ideological pendulum is much more subtle than it seems at first sight.


3. Names are very important things in movies, their memory and forgetfulness. In Fort Apache (1948), the cadet rebels with the general for always forgetting his last name of Irish descent; John Ford's joke is in line with the discourse that his westerns built about the genesis of the USA, a place where the high ranks of the army and their mythological characters did nothing more than ride over the forgotten bodies of immigrant workers. There are more than a few jokes made with Xenophontes' name in Carnaval Atlântida, but the intent of the repetition is here for us to remember it. The allusion of the tycoon's name to Cecil B. De Mille helps establish the target of the parody, and Count of Verdure is also said several times to emphasize his aristocratic claim. Even a Lolita acquires the codename 'Cuban hurricane' and Regina 'Brazil's little girlfriend'. It's somewhat obvious that in cinema, names are remembered by their systematic repetition, but Burle seems to make sure we don't remember the names of the poorly-mentioned tricksters in the aforementioned scene, Piru (Colé) and Lito (Grande Otelo). IMDB, for example, doesn't mention them, and the Cinemateca Brasileira database confuses Lito with Miro, which is why most of the film's synopses repeat the same mistake. The only mention of their names is as en passant as Hercules, the secretary's boyfriend. The difference is that the weight both comedians have for the narrative is much greater, and that the actors who play the pair were famous. One of them, especially, is one of the most renowned actors in our history. There are two reasons for this oversight.

          First, because the duo dresses up as fake all the time: as cleaners, detectives, fortune tellers, doctors, etc., and according to financial necessity, they mold their figures and take on new names (Nick Carter Jr., Sherlock Holmes III). They represent the caricatured adaptability of the Brazilian rascal to an eternally harsh reality, finding a way here and there to earn a living ('if there is money, we are in,' they repeat more than once); the popular type that is elevated to the status of a national symbol by Vargas' cultural policy is, in Carnaval Atlântida, a kind of silent motor. The ‘malandros' (rogues) do not figure as beings directly central to the plot, but they are the ones who elucidate the paths, as happened in Burle's previous film, Barnabé, Tu és Meu (1952). His counter-currency is in another character of popular origin, the 'Count of Greens', whose real name, 'Tobias', we also easily forget. But he is an opportunist. He differs from the duo in the fact that his stratagems are aimed at social ascension, at maintaining an aristocratic and serious existence (explicit in the musical pieces of his aching dream). Instead of being a rascal, he turns out to be just a phony. His disguise emanates lies (the musical play 'the mask fell of the face' comments on it), and we would have to wait another four years for Burle to do justice to another liar who steals the boss's car only to try to be well-liked, in Depois Eu Conto (1956). Piru and Lito don't want to get anywhere; they live by immediacy, between money and 'cachaça', they align themselves to any side and do a million of zig-zags to get around the reality that oppresses them.

       Second, because Burle comments on this forgetfulness. It is not irony that those who are truly malandros, in Carnaval Atlântida, don't long for financial ascension at all - they live for the present - and accept their place in the social stratification. The 'malandro', which Antônio Cândido defined as a sum of our Iberian heritage, a synthesis of the revolutionary spirit of the Spanish picaro with the Portuguese bourgeois conformism, is basically a great 'passive revolutionary'. The two end up arm-in-arm, dancing with the tycoon in the face of class conflict. Once the problem is solved, let them go back to their misery, back to cleaning. The miscegenation theory and the myth of the three races, of course, as well as the bourgeois officialization of the rascal, also meant the great class conciliation that the new laborist Brazil proposed. Pacification was also synonymous with maintaining certain privileges of the elite, and Carnaval Atlântida went there and showed its guts. In essence, this official ideological position was promoting a double softening; on the one hand, from the violence and association with criminality of the 'malandro' to integration within a spectrum defined as the praiseworthy place of the poor; and, on the other, the whitening of the negro, who, likewise, lost his differences in the great theses of miscegenation that replaced the Europeanizing positivism of the era before. In the end, everything becomes samba, but wait a minute: as much as Carnaval Atlântida is a mirror of all this cultural politics, what seems essential to me is that it also, very consciously, exposes the intestinal contradictions of the process. Conscience? At one point, Cecilio tells the cleaners that they don't have any. Hence, Carnaval Atlântida perhaps acts as its protagonists relegated to nothingness, who disguised themselves as doctors to fool the intellectual , but who ended up giving him the medicine he needed. Deceived, yes, they were, but the cards never lie.


4. Again, we could even suppose that Burle did nothing more than repeat the book, and that, because he did it so well, it is us, the spectators, who perceive the contradictions in a perverse reading. And then, condemn him for the thoughtless repetition of the representations he makes in the emulation of the genre. It would be to ignore that there is criticism at sight. Piru and Lito give the intellectual the remedy, but the truth is that they have already given, also, all the response that the feature film needs since its first sequence. Carnaval Atlântida begins with the duo delivering a 'musicarnivalesque' script to Dr. Cecílio, who complains that it's not the script for Helen of Troy, and turns them into cleaners. If he had listened to them, well, then there simply wouldn't need to be a movie at all! The conflict in the plot only delays its resolution because the tycoon does not see the glory in front of him, and needs the intellectual to convince him of the same that was told him earlier by the cleaners. By the way, a group of four young people are the ones who are going to convince him: the intellectual, the 'dedicated worker', and the two girls who assure him that everything is kept in famiglia. The irony is not fortuitous. The scoundrels need to deliver the key to the problem twice, first to be ignored, then against their will. Among the many satires the film makes, the greatest is that of the intellectual's place as a 'necessary mediator' in a racist society. This is why Oscarito's character is given the protagonism and the memory of his name, and the other two... Well, let them find their way throughout the movie. It is as if we were watching Rio, Zona Norte (1957) from Paulo Goulart's point of view.

             The exact point that Carnaval Atlântida makes requires even a little more attention and guesswork. Piru and Lito are complementary names (Pirulito which means Lollypop), and it is hard to think that Colé and Grande Otelo are not automatically associated as a duo in the film. But the fact is that in this first scene of the film, one of them gladly accepts the position of janitor while the other squeaks. Lito - the black man mistaken for Miro - requests of himself the posture of an artist and not a few times jokes that the true geniuses are not understood. He is the one who suggests the black woman from Morro da Formiga to be Helena. And in between shoots, he takes his own troupe, hidden from the studio owner, to rehearse a musical film that he 'dreams' of making someday. It is he who serves the professor the serum of joy. Is it forceful to say that there is a racial commentary by Burle in the fabric of the work, a subtle denunciation of the racism implicit in the social stratification of the cultural and miscegenation policies of the period of the immediately preceding decades? I don't think so. One doesn't need to hold up the Communist Party Card of Atlântida's founders or their manifesto for social works to defend this. The director himself had already made this comment in an even more frontal way in Também Somos Irmãos (1949). And this same Great Otelo that here embodies, in some way, the dreamer artist... The same Grande Otelo who also denounced that, as the eternal duo of Oscarito, he received a lower fee than him simply because of racism... had his artistic trajectory praised in Moleque Tião (1943, originally entitled Artist’s Dream), Burle's directorial debut, Atlântida's first fictional feature film, and of a black protagonist in the history of Brazilian cinema. The myopia that makes us frame works of art in historical or genre models may not grant us this, but Carnaval Atlântida is not a mere metalinguistic film that elucidates mechanisms and artifices of the ‘musicarnavalesque genre'. It is a revisionist work about the paths of an enterprise that also distorted its dreams, and the critical exercise of, ’through the inside’, exposing the social and racial contradictions of its time.

October, 2022

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