Brazilian Cinema: Alberto Cavalcanti Retrospective at the BFI
Alberto de Almeida Cavalcanti. The name is imposing, though it was often shortened in credits to Cavalcanti, as if he were, in Charles Drazin’s phrase, ‘a great magician or circus performer’. He was, in fact, a magician of cinema, and practised his conjuring in an astonishingly itinerant career. Born in 1897 to an aristocratic family, he followed architectural studies in Geneva with life in Paris, vortex of modern art. By the mid 1920s he was directing French avant-garde films. Commercial talkies followed. Feeling boxed in, he crossed the Channel to work with the GPO Film Unit established by John Grierson and, later, with Michael Balcon’s Ealing Studios. For 15 years in Britain, Cav (his industry nickname) directed, produced, taught and inspired, widening the artistic horizons of an often parochial industry. Then, with dwindling success, he worked in Brazil, Austria, East Germany, Italy, France again: a one-man travelling circus. He died in Paris in 1982.
Doing justice to this many-sided, complex figure isn’t easy. From the modernist poetry of Rien que les heures to the ‘Brit-grit’ thriller They Made Me a Fugitive, the films he directed – this season’s focus – jostle through realism, surrealism and fantasy, and never settle on a single genre. Narratives are rarely linear. Jagged violence keeps erupting. Images and sound disconnect, or fuse in ways beyond a bread-and-butter mind. Britain generated the best from him partly because he was the outsider, the foreign observer viewing us afresh. Working for Government agencies in peace and war, he never accepted patriotic bromides, nor did he worship the word documentary: it smelled, he said, of ‘dust and boredom’. At Ealing, he sharpened the studio’s vision of England in ways that his boss Balcon sometimes found uncomfortable. Consider the hedonism of the wartime musical Champagne Charlie, or the subversive sting of Went the Day Well? (on extended run this month), where Nazis and British traitors threaten the sweetest of English villages.
Cav possessed precious film-making genius, but he lacked political savoir faire; hence in part his disjointed career, the dead-ends, the frustrations. This tribute season collects the best, the most personal, of his films; there are no others in cinema quite like them.
By Geoff Brown
• 22 Jul 18:30
Cavalcanti’s musical delight about rival Victorian music-hall performers.
Dead of Night
• 16 Jul 20:20
Michael Redgrave stars as a nervously tortured ventriloquist hounded by his malignant dummy.
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
• 24 Jul 15:40
• 27 Jul 14:30
• 29 Jul 20:40
Cavalcanti channels Dickens with a breathless kaleidoscope of villainous grotesques, Victorian sentiment and whimsy.
O Canto do Mar
• 27 Jul 20:40
• 31 Jul 16:00
Cavalcanti energised the Brazilian film industry with this powerful drama.
They Made Me a Fugitive
• 19 July – 5 August
show all dates
A dangerous cocktail of harsh violence, surreal black comedy, Hitchcockian twists, amorality and poetic realism.
Went the Day Well?
• 16 July – 5 August
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A cosy English village is attacked by Nazis during the Second World War.
Entry filed under: BRAZILIAN CINEMA, LATIN AMERICAN FILM. Tags: BFI, BFI London Film Festival, Brazil London Film, Champagne Charlie, Dead of Night, O Canto do Mar, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, They Made Me a Fugitive, Went the Day Well?.