By Gary M. Kramer.
What I needed from Pitanga was the history of the cinema in his body and his eyes. I needed to bring to the screen the ‘blood in his eyes.’”
João Paulo Miranda Maria makes an auspicious feature film debut with Memory House, which had its World Premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. A hypnotic tale of racism and oppression in Treze Tílias in Southern Brazil, the film follows Cristovam (Antônio Pitanga), an older Black man who works for a milk company purchased by Austrians. Cristovam has been employed at the factory for decades, but in an effort to reduce expenses, Crisovam’s salary is being cut.
The situation is just one of many slights he experiences in the small town where he is an outsider. He is baited by young Austrian kids with guns, gay men break into his house to have sex, and racist graffiti is spray painted on the walls of his home. He copes with these and past traumas in realistic moments and in scenes of magical realism – as when he kills an animal that enters his home. Eventually, he dons a bull costume to confront his abusers.
In a recent Skype interview, the filmmaker chatted about Memory House, and his film’s themes of racism and oppression.
Gary M. Kramer: Your film has a very distinct, deliberate feel to it – the textures, the camerawork, the use of space, and sound. Can you talk about how you created the world of the film?
João Paulo Miranda Maria: There is a famous phrase from Robert Bresson, that the filmmaker makes visible what may be invisible. That’s what I am looking for – to find the texture; it’s important to show the layers we can see in the objects, the place, the characters. Cristovam is often silent, so you can see something exists beyond what he’s saying. We need to feel his different sensibility. I am looking not only at the space, but at the scars of time [history] that are visible in the objects, elements, and characters. His solitude also provides elements that tell his story.
I took a lot of risks and wanted to express something personal – to use the camera and mise-en-scène. I am looking to see what society ignores. I am inspired by Pasolini and Ozu, people who make intense films and make something radical that finds the essence of the soul of something. That’s what I wanted with each shot; it’s not action and reaction. The idea of sound and image is not to be complimentary or indicate what we are seeing. I like to use sound to show something invisible. This idea that you are going through a tunnel of time. The dark hole in the glove in the beginning is to find Crisovam’s soul and who he is and where he came from. The horn instrument he plays is a way to dive inside another tunnel of time.
GMK: The film is a heady mix of realism and magical realism, with themes of death and rebirth, shapeshifting between man and animal. What observations do you have about these metaphors?
JPMM: For me, it’s more like a spirit animal that comes to the character. Jennifer (Ana Flavia Cavalcanti) has a jacket with a tiger on it. The animals for me are symbols of our past; they represent generations. It is interesting to go to an actor and tell them to use the animals as elements to find their past, their origin, and where they came from.
GMK: One of the most palpable qualities in Memory House is the near constant threat of violence. Can you discuss your depiction of violence against man and animal in the film? Some acts happen on screen, some off, some never.
JPMM: The violence for me is something we are waiting for, and it is stronger in our mind. We have the kids and the death of animals, but there are more elements that we cannot see, so the audience can suppose, imagine, or expect [violence] because we have the impression that something violent is going to happen. That comes from the short films I’ve made, and from my past living in the Brazilian countryside in the South [of Brazil] and seeing how people treat each other. I saw these people in my life and they give a strong impression of violence.
GMK: What observations do you have about the community in the film?
JPMM: We could think it’s weird, and grotesque that this community can exist. That the audience does not know what will happen is interesting. I am not looking to show good taste and be beautiful, or have a traditional, classic interpretation. I want to find another truth, something naïve or unexpected. Its more interesting to show a different point of view, to break the classical meaning. I need to show something true. I need to see the characters failing. I want them to put their finger in their nose to show something truthful, unexpected. They are not victims, but they hide their problems and conflicts inside in gestures, acts, or performance that inform the mise-en- scène.
GMK: The film addresses racism and oppression in multiple ways, from the colonialism represented by the Austrians taking over the milk company, to the way the North and South are pitted against one another in Brazil, to the way Black/indigenous people, women, and even gay men are treated in the town as outsiders. Why did you choose to explore this subject and in the way that you did?
JPMM: The North is poorer and has African and Indigenous communities. The South is more European. That’s the reality of Brazil, and it has developed over the years and remains very strong today. It’s more prevalent in this government. I cannot hide or not show this Brazil. Brazil is not a tropical paradise that people are all open-minded as seen in photos from Carnival. This is one of the realities of my society in Brazil and it is more present today with Bolsonaro, who represents the conservative society. The “monsters” of the conservative society are showing the xenophobia and racism and claim that people from the North are lazy. These old attitudes – I call the film Casa de Antiguidades, House of Antiquities – because the film is about old elements lost in time. This society is lost in time. In the production design you see there are no modern TVs or cell phones. It’s more the style of the 70s, the time in Brazil where we were under a dictatorship.
GMK: Antônio Pitanga gives a very internal performance, expressing so much despair with his eyes and his body language. He has very little dialogue in most scenes. What decisions did you make regarding his character and what guidance did you give Pitanga regarding his performance?
JPMM: He’s a great actor. He comes from the Cinema Novo movement. He worked with Glauber Rocha. He has a lot of history in Brazilian cinema and he’s 81 years old. I always imagined him in my film. I didn’t know he would do this. What I needed from Pitanga was the history of the cinema in his body and his eyes. I needed to bring to the screen the “blood in his eyes.” He came very open to making something radical, minimalist, and silent, but also strong and intense. He loved his experience making the film. It’s not about him being Black, it’s his age and his history of cinema and his energy that I wanted. I wanted to find the way of seeing the light in the eyes of the character. It’s not digital VFX. I worked with my cinematographer to work with the irises of the actors and use light from a mirror to bring this special light out in their eyes. It’s like the moment in 2001 with the jaguar. I really needed to find a real way to see the blood in the soul and spirit of my characters.
GMK: Memory House also examines trauma in the way Cristovam processes his pain. What do you want viewers to take away from the film’s moral lessons?
JPMM: My characters are not only individuals but represent a history of a family or a generation. He represents the North and the Black people from the North coming from Africa and Indigenous people. He brings their religions. When I think about the pain, it is about showing how this character tries not to hide, but that his religions and African past in this conservative society are forbidden. The [Austrians] are more interested in European history and how they bring technology to the region. You can see in the scene when the Director of the company is talking to him and Cristovam is silent because of his pain. He doesn’t understand the German, but he can feel all this pain of his history being erased or ignored.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.