- Remaking Brazil: Contested National Identities in Contemporary Brazilian Cinema by Tatiana Signorelli Heise
Suppose we begin with a simple question. How can the much greater box office success of the film 2 filhos de Francisco within Brazil (as opposed to the greater success of Cidade de Deus outside Brazil) be accounted for? Tatiana Signorelli Heise’s solid, well-researched book does not begin with this question. Nor would she ever pose it quite so bluntly; at most she might be content with the banality that the very existence of two such wildly different films demonstrates the “diversity” of Brazilian cinema in recent decades. Instead, Heise’s interest is in providing historical background for this diversity, classifying it, and demonstrating how all recent films contribute in some way to the enduring questions of Brazilian national identity.
As befits a scholarly book, the usual suspects are noted: critics of various aspects of Brazilian cinema (Robert Stam, Ivana Bentes) and critics of a more theoretical bent (Benedict Anderson, Doris Sommer). Of postcolonial theoreticians, Heise especially admires Stuart Hall rather than the more provocative Homi Bhabha. (Alas, Fredric Jameson’s famous work on national allegories is not mentioned.) Hall enables her to emphasize a fundamental point: how recent Brazilian cinema continues the modernist project of national cultural construction within the new globalized order that threatens either to do away with it or to disrupt it utterly.
After four initial chapters on the development of race and nationhood up to the 1960s and 1970s, Heise sets out a “continuum” of three categories for the study of Brazilian film: celebratory, reformist, and oppositional, with a fourth, alternative, staging itself from entirely outside the “conventional paradigm.” Basically, her interest is in the so-called retomada period of the last twenty years of renewed government support for film. Her classifica-tory scheme becomes a way of making sense of it. Thus, 2 filhos de Francisco would be an example of the first category, Cidade de Deus an example of the second. Individual chapters are given over to each category.
Two chapters seem to me particularly strong. One is on celebratory films, which not only emphasize the “hegemonic” idea about how Brazilians see themselves as warm, familial, and religious but also mark the “iconic” presence of the sertão in this construction. The other chapter is the last, which [End Page 199] concentrates on the rise of the so-called “talking heads” documentary and the emergence of indigenous media. There is an extended discussion of Fala tu fala mulher! whose voices, however marginal and argumentative, may be read by the end as expressing the traditional view of Carnival as compensation for social inequities.
In her introduction, Heise states the purpose of Remaking Brazil as follows: “One of the questions explored in this book is whether the significance of Brazilian national identity is indeed in decline and giving way to alternative social identities or if on the contrary, national consciousness and the sentiments of belonging to the nation prevail despite (or even because of) these new processes of collective identification.” Fala mulher! is as good an example of a test case as Remaking Brazil contains. Does it suggest Brazilian national identity in decline or not?
Of course it partly depends upon other films one chooses to associate with it. If the documentary Babilonia 2000, Fala mulher! is selected, it then becomes more explicitly political and “oppositional.” On the other hand, the trilogy Futebol, fala mulher! appears more celebratory. In any case, the interesting thing is that Heise fails to urge the last film of her book to a broader analysis of its fundamental question, much less to some deeper comprehension of hegemony in the study of popular culture. The examples she gives, or the very categories she locates for them, are not “contested.” Over and over again to the end, films are simply produced and at most are in dialogue rather than struggle with others not of their kind.
Granted, as we read at...