Leon Hirszman

First European retrospective

Hernani Heffner | Filipe Furtado


Let it come from reality
by Hernani Heffner

There are some constants in how Leon Hirszman’s film work has been appreciated. Biographers, critics and academics highlight his affiliation with certain traditions of political cinema, realism and popular dramaturgy. They also affirm the coherence of his artistic project in the face of a changing context in Brazilian society, between the hopeful years of the governments of Juscelino Kubitschek and João Goulart, and the beginning of the timid processo f redemocratisation after the military coup of 1964. A project that oscillates between the difficulties of Brazilian cinema, the desire to give prominence to the proletarian subject and the need to expose the mechanisms of capitalist oppression, and overcome them. Often considered cold, distant, didactic, conventional or humourless, his films im fact move away from calculated rationalism in favour of a fragile balance between emotion, critical conscience and mobilisation. They display an elaborate scenic construction that favours the presence and expression of a class subject, in their ambitions and contradictions, even if Leon had not been a communist, a Marxist and a cinemanovista since his adolescence.

Leon Hirszman’s work can also be contemplated in a less closed and synthetic way, without denying the main lines of thought delineated above. Or rather, dialectically, we can see how the same dramaturgical lines are expanded and affirmed with each exploratory detour, such as Sexta-feira da paixão, sábado de aleluia (1969). What unites them in their points of departure, and arrival, is the same mirror image, the question of the popular. Gestated at the time of his joining the Brazilian Communist Party, of his first Marxist readings and of his contact with the proletarian characters of Italian neorealist cinema, the composition of the popular world – its characters, its political values, its forms of expression – will gain adherences and distances, nuances and revisions, until it reaches a “pluralist” vision in the works of the 1980s. Even when the filmmaker enters into apparent contradictions with himself, in his approach to the “sweet barbarians” of the tropicalistas, always less in favour of art having greater political efficacy, which perhaps psychologically explains the difficulty of concluding projects in common, what he admires, especially in Caetano Veloso, is precisely his praise of the creativity and singularity of popular art, respected, references and appropriated on an equal footing with the references considered more “erudite”.

Moving away from the avant-gardism, experimentalism and aestheticism that accompany some of his more foundational cultural references, such as the constructivist composition of the Latvian Sergei Eisenstein, or the formal aspects of Italian neorealism (its modernity, so to speak, based on frontal framing, lighting without backlighting, the rejection of classical decoupage and dramatic cropping, among other aspects), León nevertheless continues to draw on both an analytical perspective and a humanism of these sources, which feed what might be called a critical realism. But what does this construction actually look like? The refinement of his cinema lies less in the political message than in the relations of attraction within the frame between characters and scenery. More directly, in the insertion of the characters in ever wider scenic frameworks, overcoming the merely functional character, defined as a subject by the dressing of the world (architecture, furniture, relief of the places). The subject is never singled out, isolated by the camera; on the contrary, he is given space to act, to react, to melt into the world, as if he were melting into his own time, into history. This scenic quality of his cinema can be qualified as “theatrical” and certainly has its roots in the social theatre that emerged in Brazil in the 1950s, in particular in the experience of the Teatro Arena, one of the direct sources of the renewal of cinema made in the country, by providing “popular” casts, themes and characters and its own political vision of Brazilian society.

This committed and militant theatre, very close to the ideals of the Communist Party, does not, however, propose a caricatured and Manichean vision, with a jdanovista backdrop. It seeks to insert and emphasise this broader “framework”, especially by highlighting local cultural elements. Brazilianness, so dear to the intellectual-publishers of the journal Cultura Política, reconfigures an ‘expression-concept’ as national-popular, thrown into the heart of the political debate that runs through fundamental formative experiences such as the Popular Culture Centres of the National Union of Students, the basis of Leon’s political, artistic and existential work. Although revalued and rethought in their historical limits, in the face of the loss of the post-’64 revolutionary horizon, they continue to be committed to popular art. This is present in the years of formation (1958-64), of arbitrariness (1964-1979) and of the struggle for re-democratisation (1979-87). Symbolically and literally, samba will run through his cinema almost from beginning to end, with Nelson Cavaquinho (1969) and Partido alto (1982) not so much extolling the popular artist, but assimilating the apparent nonchalance, informality and spontaneity of the samba circle and its characters. The scenic environment is once again superimposed onto immediate action, which, strictly speaking, was more frayed than interlinked.

It is said that Leon developed a beleaguered and humanised vision of cinema, favela culture and the popular subject with Nelson Pereira dos Santos, the celebrated director of Vidas secas (1963), although one cannot forget the exiled origins of his Polish Jewish parents (his father brought him to the Party), and his childhood and adolescence spent in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, then the federal capital. The neighbourhoods of Lins de Vasconcelos, where he was born, Vila Isabel, one of the cradles of Carioca samba, where his family set up a shoe shop, and the cosmopolitan Tijuca, where the city’s largest cinema circuit was located and where Leon fell in love with films, in particular the film Rio, 40 graus (1955), contributed to his coexistence with the lower and lower-middle class social strata, far from the elites located in the south of the city. Even studying engineering at university did less to change his social hierarchy than his approach to film clubs (he founded the Federation of Film Clubs of Rio de Janeiro in 1958) and his joining the CPC. Nelson took him in during the filming of Rio, zona norte (1957) and gave him many practical, artistic and political lessons during the editing of his first two films, Pedreira de São Diogo (1962) and Maioria absoluta (1964). Above all, the flexibility needed to address the contradictions of the world through art. Party orthodoxy was one thing, but expressing a political ideology through film was another.

Leon would make a subtle but fundamental shift from his first to his second film. In the premiere, still attached to his admiration for Eisenstein, in particular Potemkin, he became more affiliated with the style than the social problem he was trying to expose. Reality was equated with  underlying Marxist theory, sounding less idealistic than cartoonish at several points, especially in the composition of the figure of the worker, although the aesthetic impact of the film endures to this day. In the second, he abandons the predetermined style and even the commissioned subject matter (the Paulo Freire method) in favour of free contributions from reality. He lets the subject speak, rather than framing it conceptually. In his words: “letting it emerge from reality”. In his best moments, León’s cinema opened the mise-en-scène and the film itself to something in no way determined or determinable. A state of affairs in the world, which imposed itself on the camera and the viewer, often as a raw fact, often as a crystalline truth. A form of direct state, of direct cinema, which captured reality in a dimension that was both emotional and cognitive. In this sense, León reconfigured, in his own way, the famous mandate of the Instituto Superior de Estudos Brasileiros-ISEB that gave the figure of the intellectual the capacity to speak and act on behalf of the people, distancing himself from the prejudice against the popular, considered archaic, crude and backward. The filmmaker not only sympathises with the popular cause, he also empathises with the popular subject to whom he cedes the stage space, even if he controls the staging and editing.

An early member of Cinema Novo, and considered within it as the political conscience of the movement, although reluctant to use manifestos, pamphlets, reviews and other texts, León was interested in themes dear to the left in the first half of the 1960s, in particular the alienation of both the popular classes and the bourgeoisie, the focus of his projects A falecida (1965) and Garota de Ipanema (1967), written in collaboration with fellow CPC member Eduardo Coutinho. He was one of the few filmmakers of the time and of the movement who did not react to the coup through the prism of the crisis of the left-wing intellectual, an approach adopted in films such as O desafio (1965), Terra em transe (1967) and Vida provisória (1968). This does not mean that his cinema does not question the reasons for the failure of the left-wing revolutionary project, and his analysis of the roots of Brazilian authoritarianism is eloquent in films such as S. Bernardo (1972), considered by many to be his masterpiece, and Que país é este? (1976), an Italian production co-directed by Zuenir Ventura and now considered lost. Even the exhaustion of the pecebistas and cepecistas in Eles não usam black-tie(1982), was to be followed by a revitalisation and reframing of marginal characters from an already urbanised, industrialised and enriched country, in the classic triptych ‘Images of the Unconscious’, perhaps his most ambitious project and indicative of a conceptual turn that never fully materialised, due to his death in 1987, at the age of 49, from complications derived from immunodeficiency syndrome, contracted during a haemodialysis session.

Nor did Leon abandon the short film form in favour of feature films, especially fiction. In the 1970s he continued with a consistent production, which was both a space for reflection and also for documenting reality, diversified but in dialogue with the legacy of the so-called Farkas Caravan. Ecologia and Megalópoles (both 1973) stand out for their sensitivity in revealing issues and conditions arising from the country’s entry into the industrial era, especially the negative consequences of the so-called “Brazilian miracle”, a theme taken up again in Qué país é este?. From the second half of the 1970s onwards, other projects were developed which, for one reason or another, remained unfinished and were completed posthumously by other directors, as in the case of ABC da greve (1979-1990) and Bahia de todos os sambas (1983-1996), the latter actually made almost entirely by co-director Paulo César Saraceni. The counterpoint between more strictly political films, succeeded by films closer to the universe of art, was another constant in his filmography, highlighting the precarious balance between hardening himself and not losing the tenderness so dear to his generation.

As a synthesis of his political and cinematographic ideas, a kind of profession of faith, I transcribe a fragment of his statement to the magazine Cine Cubano, on the occasion of the screening of Eles não usam black-tie in Havana:

“There is no popular dramaturgy if there is no respect for the character and his contradictions. If I place myself inside the character and resolve it according to my ideas, the contradiction is over, and the internal project of the character is broken. It then becomes an illustrative discourse of an idea of mine. And that’s not what it was about. It was about exposing contradictions and deepening them, attempting an effective popular communication, in which the interest in the contradictions would be kept alive internally in the spectators (…) Any kind of radicalising idealisation would be destructive for the popular identification with the film. And it seems to me that the perspective of a national-popular cinema – which is the perspective that Eles não usam black-tie proposes and assumes – is a universalist perspective, in the sense that a worker from any part of the world finds points of identification, of human self-recognition”.  (Cine Cubano, December 1981, pp. 158-9)

Hernani Heffner


A marginalized talent
by Filipe Furtado

When it comes to film movements like Brazil’s Cinema Novo, film culture often oversimplifies things. At most, cinephiles are aware of some of its more celebrated key figures, like Glauber Rocha or Nelson Pereira dos Santos. A talent like Leon Hirszman can end up marginalized, especially given the already fleeting foreign appreciation of the movement.

Cinema Novo was intended as an intervention on Brazilian society and film through a united stand of younger filmmakers and feels more collective than most 60s new waves. Hirszman was very much part of its hard nucleus: his first short, Pedreira de São Diogo (1962), was part of the anthology film Cinco vezes favela, intended as a calling card for the up-and-coming filmmakers linked to it; his follow-up Maioria absoluta (1964), on Brazilian illiteracy, was central in the movement, absorbing direct cinema to deal with the country’s social ills; and his second feature, Garota de Ipanema(1967), inspired by the bossa nova classic, one of its first self-conscious attempts to reach a larger audience.

But Hirszman was always a little out of step, and his filmography is very scattered: four fictional features, some documentaries (a few released posthumously) and a series of shorts, some related to Brazilian music, like the wonderful Partido alto (1982). His better-liked movies (São Bernardo and Eles não usam black-tie) came out in the 70s and 80s after foreign interest in the movement had slowed down. When Abraccine, Brazil’s main film critic association, made a poll of the greatest Brazilian films in 2015, the latter came in at #14 and the former at #20. Eles não usam black-tie(1981) finally gave him a popular and well-regarded triumph (plus a Special Jury Prize at Venice), but he never had a chance to build on it. Hirszman passed away in 1987 at the far too young age of 49 due to AIDS.

Cinco vezes favela was produced by Centro Popular de Cultura, a communist organization, of which party member Hirszman was a key founder. Pedreira de São Diogo does not escape the movie’s condescending mystification of “the people,” but it is one of its better entries with its clear eye and sharp editing, and it is death-obsessed and psychologically laced in a way none of the others are. The mix of Marx and Freud would be a constant in Hirszman’s later fictional work. On this, one can trace some strong parallels between his movies and those of Marco Bellocchio, and his work does suggest a strong influence of Italian political cinema.

His first feature, A falecida, deals with a woman obsessed with preparing her own funeral. Hirszman mostly ignores author Nelson Rodrigues’ dark social satire—a sense of humor isn’t among his strengths—while playing up her obsession with all its disturbing morbidity, another constant in his filmography. Garota de Ipanema is supposed to be a musical comedy aimed at the youth market, but it is turned into a social study of a type and her milieu. Despite the wonderful score and many musical cameos, it is a bitter take, and Hirszman was accused of being an intellectual buzzkill, but its movement from lightness towards an emotional abyss seems one of his most successful gambles now.

By the early 1970s, he was perceived as a more important background figure than filmmaker, when he finally had his obsessions pay off with São Bernardo (1972). Adapted from Marxist author Graciliano Ramos, it is a very psychologically acute portrait of a landowner who rises in life and makes the ownership of places and people his only obsession. Hirszman locks the audience in the perspective of this very unpleasant man with no distance through 105 minutes.

In the late 1970s, Brazil, in the middle of a long military dictatorship, was rocked by a series of strikes in São Paulo’s major working class region ABC, which reintroduced the issues of labor and projected its leader, future president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. Hirszman filmed it all, and many well-known images of young Lula come from his lens (ABC da greve finally came off in 1990).

He got inspired to update a late 1950s play, Eles não usam black-tie, by another communist author, Gianfrancesco Guarnieri (who also plays the dad in the movie), about a father–son conflict during a strike. It became hugely popular by combining Guarnieri’s very strident agitprop with a tender intimate portrait of a working-class family. The son, who genuinely loves his community but cannot even conceive the idea of standing in solidarity with them, is one of Hirszman’s biggest creations, and like São Bernardo, it suggests a deep understanding of capitalism psychology. The movie stands as these twin portraits of a community coming together and the rampant individualism that would make it increasingly impossible, and it is Hirszman’s major legacy.