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Brazil Holds Its Breath Until Eve of the Oscars

If 'O Quatrilho' wins, exposure will boost a reviving film industry's confidence

By Jack EpsteinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 1996


THE year is 1969. A euphoric United States ambassador is celebrating the American landing on the moon at a popular downtown dance hall.

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In halting Portuguese, the diplomat greets a crowd of men in baggy suits and women in beehive hairdos, standing before a cake decorated with a replica of the Apollo 11 space ship.

The above is a scene from the movie "Que Isso, Companheiro" (What's Up, Comrade?), now being filmed on location in Rio de Janeiro. It tells the true story of Charles Burke Elbrick - played by veteran actor Alan Arkin - who was kidnapped by urban guerrillas during Brazil's military dictatorship and later exchanged for 15 political prisoners.

"Que Isso, Companheiro" is part of a recent revival of a Brazilian film industry that has been moribund for the past five years. Cameras are rolling across the country, movie studios are reopening in Rio and Sao Paulo, a commission has been launched to lure foreign film crews, and the first Brazilian movie in 34 years has been nominated for an Oscar for best foreign picture.

Director Fabio Barreto's "O Quatrilho" was filmed in the picturesque mountains of Rio Grande do Sul state. The title refers to a four-way card game in which partners must betray each other to win.

It is based on the true story of two struggling immigrant couples who dream of material success, trade spouses, endure the wrath of the parish priest, and go on to prosper economically.

If "O Quatrilho" wins the Oscar, it would be a major boost for Brazil. "It would give Brazilian society something to be proud of," says Bruno Barreto, Fabio's brother, and the director of "Que Isso, Companheiro." "But it would also mean more investment, and that's what we most need."

The Oscar nomination and the film's success at the box office have caused local producers to dream of a return to the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s, when the industry churned out 80 titles a year and drew 45 million viewers in its best single year.

"Sometimes, you have to die to be reborn," says Director Tizuka Yamasaki, whose acclaimed 1978 film "Gaijin" told the story of the first Japanese immigrants to Brazil. "And when it happens, it's often an explosion."

Industry experts say there are currently 45 productions in progress, more than twice the number in 1995. Most important, Brazilians are returning to theaters to see these new films.

Last year, 1.2 million saw "Carlota Joaquina, the Princess of Brazil," a story about the Portuguese royal family who took refuge in Brazil after Napoleon invaded the Iberian peninsula in 1808. Another 1 million watched "O Quatrilho." There were 3.2 million viewers in 1995, a 400-percent increase over the previous year.

This year's movies vary from the $10,000 black comedy "Incendiary Blond" to the $5 million "Tieta do Agreste," starring Sonia Braga, Brazil's international star.

The genres vary as much as the budgets. "Olga" is a political history about President Getulio Vargas's collaboration with Nazi Germany. "A Foreign Land" describes a 1990s generation in crisis who flees to Europe to escape Brazil's reeling economy. And "Jenipapo" - which has attracted 250,000 viewers since its three-city premiere last month - is a psychological thriller about an American reporter.

"These films reflect the kind of country Brazil is and who we are," says Jose Carlos Alevar, president of Riofilme production company, sponsored by Rio City Hall.