Sunday, 4 September 2011

the faber book of new south american cinema (demetriou matheou)

The first half of Matheou's book has more of the feel of a publisher's vision than the writer's. Matheou is a film critic who's clearly good buddies with Walter Salles. Salles is connected, for reasons the book explains, with a host of Brazilian film-makers. Therefore, Matheou has had privileged access to them. An access which takes the form of a series of interviews, which are brought together in this collection. In a 400 page book, the first 220 are dedicated to Brazil, and most of this is taken up with these interviews which offer a somewhat uncritical perspective on the Brazilian new wave which has evolved over the course of the past twenty years, known as the 'retomada'.

Whilst this offers a host of fascinating insights, the emphasis on the filmmakers' personal accounts of their achievements means this is no Raging Bulls, Easy Riders. Rather, it feels like a sanitised account. The conflict between Lund and Meirelles over the authorship of City of God is alluded to, but only to such an extent that one is lead to suspect there might be a more intriguing story there that hasn't been told. Matheou is reverential in his approach to Salles' work, and those (including many South Americans I know) who feel the Motorcycle Diaries was something of a lightweight, sentimental treatment of the Guevara myth, later surprisingly eclipsed by the Hollywood doyen, Soderbergh, might be disappointed by the author's refusal to even suggest that it was anything other than a masterpiece. The writing doesn't address the issue of how Brazilian cinema is dominated by the perspective of a relatively affluent class. Again, reading between the lines, one of the most intriguing strands is the way in which Salles, Meirelles & co are seeking to overcome their own ignorance through the process of their filmmaking; leading them to explore aspects of the country which remained hidden below the surface of their somewhat sheltered lives. The overall impression of the Brazilian half of the book is of a somewhat cosy relationship between the critic and his subjects, which leads to some fascinating insights, but a sometimes frustratingly worthy account of Brazilian cinema.

What seems apparent is that the writer is less well connected when it comes to the other countries he chooses to focus on, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Peru. This takes up the second half of the book. Matheou writes in less detail about the cinema of these countries and one gets the feeling that he has had to work harder to gain his insights. This communicates itself through his writing. The book becomes less of a showcase for the director's voices and more of a genuine investigation of the causes and subsequent themes of the respective national cinemas. Perhaps it also helps that most of the filmmakers from these countries on the whole come from a younger generation than the Brazilians, with a more restless approach to their work. The device of using interviews continues, but given that the films the directors are discussing are by and large less well known, Demetriou works hard to fill in the gaps for his audience and in so doing provides a strong resume of Southern Cone and Peruvian cinema over the course of the past decade.

In addition, he's particularly good on the issue of funding, marketing and distribution of films. Again, the contrast between Brazil's more established industry and the evolving industries in the other countries is fascinating. There's no doubt that any European filmmaker ought to be inspired by the tales of the likes of Trapero, Martel, Alonso, Scherson, Larrain etc, as they recount the way in which they overcame the financial obstacles to get their films made.

Matheou's book is a useful if frustrating guide to Latin American Cinema. He's seen the films and he brings a whole host of names to the reader's attention, even if his remit feels less ambitious than it might have been.

No comments: