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Leaving Home in Three Films by Walter Salles
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Leaving Home in Three Films by Walter Salles

When Walter Salles began making feature films in the early 1990s, Brazilian cinema was at one of its lowest ebbs, occupying at one point less than 1% of the domestic marketplace.1 Struggling in the 1980s, the industry was completely derailed by newly-elected President Fernando Collor de Mello's 1990 austerity program, which included a freeze on all personal savings accounts and the closure of Embrafilme, the government agency that had supported filmmaking since 1969. Any Brazilian filmmaker in this period would have needed to go outside the country for work, or at least for international financing. As a result, for his feature debut in 1991, Salles directed an English-language co-production titled Exposure, a thriller based on A Grande Arte (1983) (High Art, 1987) by popular Brazilian novelist Rubem Fonseca. The film stars Peter Coyote as Peter Mandrake, an American photographer-turned-detective living in Rio de Janeiro, who learns the art of knife-fighting to avenge his near-death at the hands of knife-wielding assailants. Set in Brazil and Bolivia, the movie anticipates the borderless character of Salles' later films, in particular Terra Estrangeira (Foreign Land) (1995), Central do Brasil (Central Station) (1998), and Los Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries) (2004), whose success both locally and abroad has made him one of Brazil's best-known directors today.

Salles is not the only Brazilian director to make films under co-production arrangements or outside the country. What is unusual, and one might even say unique, is the broad geographic scope of his productions and their emphasis on characters who move into or across new environments. Foreign Land takes place in São Paulo, Lisbon and the [End Page 125] borderland between Portugal and Spain; Central Station begins in Rio de Janeiro and ends in the hinterland of Northeastern Brazil; and The Motorcycle Diaries starts in Buenos Aires and winds through most of Spanish-speaking South America. In many ways quite different from one another, these films are alike in their focus on travel and their striking or unusual topographies. For the most part, they treat cities as dystopian (locus terribilis) and rural landscapes as a mixture of the pastoral (locus amoenus) and the mythic. In the passage from the first of these films to the third, the narratives gradually become more utopian, creating bonds between people who are normally separated by real or economic borders.

Perhaps because he lived outside Brazil for much of his early life, Salles seems especially drawn to the theme of dépaysement, a term that denotes "leaving the homeland" and that connotes cognitive estrangement. Estrangement is in fact a central theme in Foreign Land, Central Station, and The Motorcycle Diaries. Whether forced or voluntarily, the city-dwelling protagonists of these films leave home for distant, unknown lands, in search of something that may or may not exist.2 They are often on the road and at times on the run, traversing large stretches of land and sea and traveling by various means. They have unusual, sometimes dangerous encounters as well as lighter, humorous moments. Although not all of them arrive at their destinations, they all follow the trajectory of classic realist narratives, shaking off conventional assumptions and making social or political discoveries through their encounter with new worlds. Key to those discoveries is the journey itself, which often takes them into dramatic natural vistas that evoke the romantic sublime.

In this essay, I want to treat Foreign Land, Central Station, and The Motorcycle Diaries as travel narratives that deal with the sociopolitical implications of dépaysement. In discussing these films, I am taking a position different from Brazilian critic José Carlos Avellar, who is critical of Brazilian films that "leave home" (i.e., films made outside Brazil and/or films that appropriate popular cinematic genres associated with Hollywood). According to Avellar, such films constitute a "foreign cinema" that is anathema to Brazilian identity and to a socially responsible national cinema. My position is more aligned with that of Randal Johnson, who writes: [End Page 126]

There may be some truth to Avellar's argument, particularly dealing with...