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at the Orson Welles

By Esther Dyson

BRAZIL IS notorious for its continuous political upheavals and its rigid censorship, but its filmmakers are now in the forefront of the newest "new cinema," making politically relevant and thought-provoking films after years of stagnation and American imports. Many of the best of these films are simply banned and never heard of again, other are either too avant-garde or too boring to survive the first few showings. Macunaima, after a few cuts by the censors, has managed to avoid all these fates, and is now the most popular home product in Brazil's film history.

But Macunaima doesn't follow the Cinema Novo percepts. Going on the premise that politics is reality, writer-director Joaquim Pedro de Andrade has left all the heavy analysis behind and concentrated on a picaresque comedy that has about as much relevance as, say, the Marx Brothers--who did, to be sure, portray their share of dirty capitalists, insatiable lovers, and corrupt millionaires. The villain of Macunaima is just such a dirty capitalist, a fat greedy man who is eventually eaten alive in his own cannibal-capitalist swimming pool human soup when Macunaima, the hero, pushes him in. However, Macunaima himself is hardly poor, and anything but honest.

The publicity and the director himself have made much of Macunaima as a political parable of contemporary life in Brazil: the hero's family, with members of all colors, represents the interrelation of Brazil's races; the people he encounters--police, gangsters, politicians, poor, rich--represent various sectors of society; and, most important of all, the recurring theme of cannibalism is a metaphor for the way in which Brazilian society is consuming itself. "Those who can," says de Andrade, "eat others through their consumption of products, or even more directly as in sexual relationships." That's as may be, but on the evidence of this film one could not form a very clear picture of the political structure of Brazil: Macunaima is just a sour though hilarious appraisal of human nature everywhere.

The humor rises and falls through each incident there is no climax to the film. Macunaima simply rollicks through Brazil until he dies, and the film ends, with the plot serving, as in a Marx Brothers vehicle, only to hold the episodes together.

Coming to the city from the jungle with his two brothers, one black and one white, Macunaima is at first confused because he cannot tell the difference between men and machines. He quickly recovers equilibrium and shacks up with a female guerrilla. With great zest she makes war by day and love by night, while Macunaima spends his day lounging in her hammock.

HE SOON meets the villain, vanquishes him, and returns to the jungle, where he dies alone at the teeth of Uiara, a water-nymph-cannibal. Hanging from this framework is a series of absurd encounters with de Andrade's representatives of Brazilian society.

The adult black actor who plays the young Macunaima is a superb comedian: strutting almost spastically in a yellow sack, he combines the goonish petulance of Jerry Lewis with exaggerated indolence and lasciviousness. Yet he is still such a child that his mother, who sleeps beneath him in the lower of two hammocks, takes an umbrella with her to bed.

The brothers leave for the city when they are flooded out, and on the way Macunaima bathes in a magic fountain which turns him white--and into another actor. This white actor goes through several changes of hairstyle, which as far as I can tell have nothing to do with either plot or political significance, and which typify the director's casual attitude to details. During several crowd scenes some of the extras look more interested in the camera than in the antics of Macunaima, and when Macunaima dies, bloodily, in a stream, a rubber hose can dimly be seen pumping the "blood" into the water.

However, such faults do not much mar Macunaima as they might a more tightly-constructed film. The atmosphere is more one of frivolity, with nothing to be taken too seriously. Even the censors, apparently, could do little but laugh. They had nothing but sex to object to since the only difference between Macunaima and the capitalist villain Venceslau is that the villain has all money can buy and wants more; while Macunaima has no money but does possess all that villain wants; charm, good looks, and the girls to prove it.

So the two fight it out, Macunaima employing tricks just as dirty as the villain's. He gets himself up as a lonely divorcee to visit Venceslau, but, taking off his disguise behind an inlaid ebony screen, foolishly hands over two tell-tale oranges along with the brassiere. Still, as the narrator observes, "Venceslau is broadminded," and tries to bed the naked Macunaima nevertheless. It is Macunaima, healthily hetero--is this the bounds of the Brazilian revolutionaries or the Brazilian censors?--whose prudery ends the escapade.

The white Macunaima is not as fine an actor as the black, and the humor in the second half of the film depends less on him than on the situations. Except for the marvelous miming talents of the black Macunaima, this is totally the director-writer's film, with thanks too to the cameraman and his almost over-ripe color photography. In addition to the censor's cuts, the picture could still do with a little pruning: some of the scenes run overlong, but not one of them is anything but hilarious while it's happening.

It is only the connection between events that is tenuous, leading to lots of small, satirical barbs instead of a reasoned, coherent critique of what is wrong with Brazil. Although the humor is fierce, the film is more funny than thought provoking. It is as good as the Marx Brothers ever were, but fails when it tries to be more. Bananas, Woody Allen's film about revolution, had the same problem, but Bananas also had Woody Allen.

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