Plot: In 1975 the controversial Transamazonica highway finally cut through the Amazonian forest, fostering a short-lived development of ranches, factories and timber projects. A floating population of migrant workers, postitutes, con artists and officials, much like that inhabiting frontier areas elsewhere in Brazil and in other areas of the world, inhabited the zone. The lead characters of Iracema exemplify two social types sacrificed in this forced march of progress: the indigenous American and the Brazilian worker. Iracema (Edna de Cassia) is an indignous girl whose family works as fruit pickers in the forest, selling their produce at shamefully lo pries to a local middleman. She escapes this 19th-century-style subjection, fleeing to the pestholes of the Amazon port city of Belem, where she becomes a prostitute. Learning the language of rootless discontent quickly, she soon hustles a ride out of town with a trucker (Paulo Cesar Pereio, a leading Brazilian actor).
The trucker is an independent operator who calls himself 'Tiao Brasil Grande (Joe Big Brazil). He seems to have swallowed whole every jingle, slogan and sticker the then-military government's media campaign pumped out in the early '70s--phrases like "Brazil, love it or leave it!," "No one can hold us back!," "Forward, Brazil!" For him, the government-issue T-shirts boasting about Amazonian development speak only the literal truth. Amazonian development is, quite simply, Brazil's future, and his own.
'Tiao takes Iracema along on a run he makes to a dismal lumber mill settlement. And he leaves her there, standing in the road in her brand-new, Coca-Cola-emblazoned hot pants. "What am I gonna do?" she yells at him. "Trust in the future!" he yells.
Iracema blunders from one bad deal and misbegotten settlement to the next. One day she meets 'Tiao again, at a small storefront hed on the road, where she and a handful of other prostitutes sit in wait of the occasional traveler. Drunk, despairing, missing a tooth, she's at the end of her road at 16. Not him, though. Blearier than before but ever optimistic, he's on his way to the newest frontier to the west, Acre, which he proudly hails as on the way to "a sea, I think it's called the Pacific or something."
'Tiao is always willing to look around the next corner for the wonders of the future. He's a paragon of the romance with technological progress as an answer to all social problems, and he barely notices that he's only a pawn in a big game. Iracema, on the other hand,is an antiromantic heroine. Her name, an anagram of "America,"is drawn from a romantic novel by 19th-century writer Jose de Alencar in which the Indian princess Iracema symbolizes the higher spirituality of the indigenous American over the more literal-minded Chrstian white settlers. The novel was written at the height of a Brazilian romance with its indigenous heritage, more a nativist defense against European culture than an homage to Indian culture. Iracema's fate is meant to show that the modern romance is not with a Hiawatha, but with hydroelectricity. Iracema, searching haplessly for the Brazilian good life, becomes an easy victim.
Style: The style of the film is gritty, using the trappings of cinema verite to lend authenticity to its tale and showing that the film was produced on a minimalist budget. The only professional actor is Pereio; others play themselves, including a peasant complaining that the land reform agency sold his land to a developer, a prostitute enjoying her moment before the camera, a labor broker who sells workers off pickup trucks as if they were slaves, road workers and beaten-down mothers cooking on outdoor fires for dispirited children. Much of the dialogue was improvised. Camera movement is slow and often horizontal, methodically taking in a scene and often featuring the faces that usually form the background of an image. The rough style of the film echoes the roughhewn reality of the frontier it captures.
Background on director/film: Jorge Bodanzky, a Brazilian filmmaker with his roots in documentary, worked from a script by renowned Brazilian scripwriter Orlando Senna, and received some funds from Brazilian film agency Embrafilme. He also worked here as in his later Third Millenium, a documentary about an Amazonian politician, with the German Wolf Gauer, using some funds from German television. Because the film was shot in 16mm, and Brazilian labs were not able to process it, it was mixed in Europe. Upon completion, Embrafilme refused distribution, on the grounds that it was no longer a Brazilian film. This criterion did not apply to less politically sensitive films also mixed in Europe. When it was finally released in 1980, it won major Brazilian awards and was circulated internationally on the festival circuit. By that time, Amazonian development focus had shifted from the Transamazonica to Acre, which, just as the film predicted, replicated the economic and human debacle that the Transamazonica (now in many places impassable) created.
Film production context: This film builds on the traditions of Brazilian cinema novo. Beginning in the late '50s, influenced by the Italian neorealists, the New Wave and the political movements of the 1960s, Brazilian filmmakers participating in that film movement struggled to find an authentic film vocabulary for an authentic Brazilian experience. After 1968, when a coup within a coup brought fierce repression to the arts, it was immensely difficult for filmmakers with a social mandate to produce. The Brazilian film agency Embrafilme was launched by filmmakers themselves, but in a roller coaster history (ended in 1990 with its abolition) often fell hostage to intergovernmental politic. Bodanzky, working in documentary style and in 16mm, fell outside the normal concerns of the government's vigilance, since his work was unable to be seen in major cinemas. Indeed, his work was partially funded by Embrafilme. Nonetheless he did not succeed in showing his work within Brazil for five years.
This kind of work, in the precariously democratic era since 1985, has now become the preserve of videotape, and Brazil in fact has a variety of videotape networks for grassroots, activist and agitprop works.
Importance: Iracema was well-received, winning Brazil's most prestigious film festival award at Gramados, when it was finally released. It was shown in Europe and the U.S. on the festival circuit, where it functioned largely as a Third World curiosity, and is in distribution but not widely seen. However, its theme remains entirely current, especially as the debate over the international investment in Amazonian resources heats up. It is important not only because of its theme but also because its gritty style implicitly comments on the resources of developing countries and puts the grassroots participants at the center of its narrative and the frame.Further reading:
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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