Brazil Holds Its Breath Until Eve of the Oscars

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

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

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.

Experts agree the reason for the boom is the 1993 Audio Visual Law signed by former President Itamar Franco. The law has generated millions of dollars by allowing investors to buy shares of movies on the stock exchange and receive tax breaks. The legislation also permits foreign firms to finance movies in exchange for hefty tax rebates. As a result, Columbia TriStar, a film distributor here, is financing four productions, including the $3.2 million "Que Isso, Companheiro."

"The Audio Visual Law is the Brazilian films' Magna Carta," says director Arnaldo Jabor.

These fiscal incentives were the government's response to the industry's continued pleas for help after President Fernando Collor withdrew support in 1990 for Embrafilme, the state-owned agency that had previously financed Brazilian movies.

"O Quatrilho" was the first film to test the law. Its producers sold $1.1 million in shares to 31 companies and scores of individuals out of a budget of $1.8 million.

In the 1960s, Cinema Novo, a Latin version of the Italian Neorealism style led by the late director Glauber Rocha, won international praise with poignant screenplays, hand-held cameras, and natural surroundings.

"Vidas Secas" (Barren Lives) showed the hard life of a peasant in the drought-stricken northeast. "O Pagador de Promessas" (The Promise Payer) depicted religious superstition and the Catholic Church. The latter is the only Brazilian film ever to win the Cannes festival's Golden Palm award and the first to capture an Oscar nomination for best foreign picture in 1962.

The most successful film, however, is Bruno Barreto's 1978 classic, "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands," a sensual fantasy based on a novel by Jorge Amado.

With 11.8 million viewers, it drew a larger audience here than "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." With the demise of Embrafilme, Mr. Barreto left Brazil for the US, where he directed Andy Garcia, Robert Duvall, and Vincent Price in "A Show of Force," "The Heart of Justice," and the soon-to-be-released "Carried Away," with his wife, Amy Irving, and Dennis Hopper.

Most directors, however, remained to direct "telenovelas," or soap operas, for TV Globo - the world's fourth-largest network.

" 'O Quatrilho' affirms that if you work hard, you win, and that Brazil is a country of opportunities," newspaper columnist Marcelo Coelho wrote.

Other critics point out that some of Brazil's new films are made for an international audience by featuring foreign actors who speak English rather than Portuguese.

"They translate our national culture, which is always in conflict, into an international language," wrote Otavio Frias Filho, a columnist for the daily Folha de Sao Paulo. "These are foreign films made by Brazilians."

Yet American actor Arkin, who is making his first film in Brazil, sees a sophisticated style of filmmaking. "The view of people is multilayered, full of ambiguities and irony," he says. "An American perspective is usually black and white, good and bad."

Barreto remains skeptical. He predicts most movies this year will be poorly made and unable to find an audience - even in Brazil.

"There's no Brazilian film industry, it's a joke," he says. "What there is, however, is great potential."

Barreto hopes that potential will result in quality big-budget movies. He dreams of a scenario in which Brazilian filmmakers are courted by the powerful as they are in the US.

"When I met President Clinton at a Hollywood Democratic party fund-raiser," he recalls, "I told him that I come from a country where filmmakers go to the president for money, and never the president to filmmakers."

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