Brazil / 1931 / Silent

Directed by Mário Peixoto

With Olga Breno, Raul Schnoor, Tatiana Rey

Still from 'Limite'Limite centers on a tiny life boat adrift in the middle of a shimmering ocean. Its three desolated passengers, two women and one man, are trapped in a daze of sunstroke, malnourishment, and remembrance. Through flashbacks we are taken into each person’s story, exploring the things from which they are running, and because of which they are now cut loose from the land, stuck in the confines of a narrow, floating prison. The images that flicker before the viewer, exquisitely wrought in a loose but quite intimate cohesion, interact with one another by way of association that transcends conventional narrative. Thus when we watch the film, we sense the connection of things rather than decode them fully; the images translate directly to our subconsciouses, absorbed through a visual engagement that is rare to find so completely and appealingly in evidence.

Director Peixoto is making full use of what is sometimes referred to as the “camera brain,” a concept concerning the intuitive use of visuals as an extension of a thought process, independent of articulated story or rational structuring, in realizing a film. Thus this particular work has perhaps a greater affinity to dream-consciousness than much of the surrealist canon. In what transpires, few things are certain besides what we can see, with clarity, in the moment that they are happening. Peixoto has said that the film “projects itself as a tuning fork, a pitch, a resonance of time itself.” Indeed, the way that it relates to time through imagery suggests a direct communion with the progression of time, which happens outside of intellectual considerations and the human ability to confine it to an order.

We can speculate on the relationship between scenes, and not hope for much more. The experience is as rewarding as it is challenging. We know that one of the women in the boat is a prison escapee. We know that the man was in an affair with a married woman who subsequently died. We know that the other woman in the boat is married to a silent film pianist, a man notably absent from their present predicament. Each character has experienced emotional restriction, echoed in their metaphorical situation, bound together by frustration and backed into a shared corner. They are together but they cannot look one another in the eye. What has happened up until this point? There are only these glimpses into the past, which will have a different composite effect on each separate viewer.

The initial image, inspired by André Kertész, of a manacled pair of hands encircling the face of a woman is also the film’s most entrancing shot, leaving its spectral imprint on what will come later. It is formal, eerily geometric, and theatrically lit, thus carrying connotations of the circus. The mutual restraint that is being enacted, on both the owner of the hands and the woman he is embracing, expresses a crossing of the duality between gaoler and prisoner, aggressor and victim, with elements of both being expressed in either person. Peixoto revisits the image later, at another point showing the woman again, but freed from the embrace.

Still from 'Limite'The film’s structure is visualized partly by means of inventive angles, improbable heights, and a seductive use of camera movement. At times cinematographer Edgar Brazil will begin a shot from ground level and slowly rise as if to meet an actor’s eyeline – but stop just short of reaching it. In one scene we watch a figure walking down a dusty road from the vantage point of the top of a telephone pole that we have previously only seen from a distance, disconnecting us from the protagonist of the scene and bringing the inanimate landscape to the fore. There is even a shot in which the camera appears to have been situated on the connecting rod of the wheels to a steam locomotive as it slowly rolls into a station. Such flourishes do not seem out of place, even given the comparatively weighty rendering of the storyline. Having an unexpectedly dissociative effect, the extreme subjectivity of many shots takes our perception out of that of the characters while remaining ensconced in their stories, a bit like seeing oneself in a dream, either up close or at a distance. This cements the film’s oneiric atmosphere and our overall sense of remoteness from what we are seeing, for while the camera charts an unmoored, rather liberated trajectory, the narrative is attached to the tragic limitations of the characters’ situations.

When Limite was released in 1931 Peixoto was only 23, and he never completed another film after it. In 1959 the film was taken in for restoration, a process which took nearly 20 years. As a result it became more talked about than seen, a phantom that would often get a brief mention in historical accounts of Brazilian cinema, but with which few were actually familiar. Upon encountering the film, however, it becomes clear that the aura it has accumulated over the decades, no matter how overblown it gets, is secondary to the incredible power and genuine allure that it possesses in its own right.

European-influenced, Peixoto’s film possesses a concentrated refinement and an almost intimidating beauty that place it closer to Cocteau’s films than to Buñuel’s early work. It points to a formalist, French frame of reference, suggesting nothing of the provocative, vertical invader from the Southern climes (think Diego Rivera, Lautréamont, or Picasso) making a mark on European art. Thus, having an essentially foreign flavor, it failed to make a large impact on Brazil – where more local storylines and characters were favored – and then also overseas, in spite of impressing Orson Welles. But, barring the discovery of a great, similarly “forgotten” film that would be comparable, it has almost no antecedents in the silent era. Like Cocteau, who came to directing more or less as a neophyte (and still exhibited an unbelievably sophisticated synthesis of voice and vision), Peixoto seems to be working in an altogether different manner than most scenarists for narrative films.

Still from 'Limite'While Limite is, undeniably, a rigorously-composed succession of images, it is informed by what could be called crypto-narrative – that is, one whose basic contours are known primarily to its creator and not made manifest to the audience, instead existing in the rhythm of the images, as well as their intimations and possible corollaries. There is most certainly a story but a total grasp of it is unattainable, not to mention inconsequential. Peixoto’s imagery is almost never cut apart by intertitles and indeed, does not really demand any. The poetry is in the pictures, and vice versa. Not abstract as music, the film has the clarity and emotional effect of a prose poem, arriving through a similar type of thought, pointing to a melding of rigorous internal logic and a visual sensibility that acts in place of analytical comprehension. For many viewers it has been and continues to be a puzzle, one whose haunting elegance hints at the extent to which poetry can inform cinematic thinking.


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