Despite starting off in the far-flung future of 1975, Brazil’s first SF movie is primarily a domestic melodrama set in the year it was made, 1947. This poor man’s Citizen Kane is a stated amateur production, but not without merits. 5/10
Uma Aventura aos 40. 1947, Brazil. Written & directed by Silveira Sampaio. Starring: Flavio Cordeiro, Nilza Soutin, Ana Lúcia. Produced by Silvio Sampeiro. IMDb: 6.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Mexico, Argentina and Brazil were the three largest movie producers in Latin America during the first half of the 20th century. (yes, I know there is an ongoing debate on whether or not Brazil should be counted as Latin America, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to use the term to describe South + Central America). In 1947 Brazil added its name to the relatively short list of countries that had by that time released science fiction movies, with Uma Aventura aos 40, or “An Adventure at the Age of 40”.
The film opens in the futuristic year of 1975, with a television set in which a presenter opens a program aimed a presenting the life of famed doctor and physician Carlos de Miranda. In a reclining chair next to the TV set sits an elderly man in a reclining chair smoking a pipe. The presenter doesn’t get very far past Miranda’s birth in 1907 before the old man uses the futuristic TV set’s two-way function and calls in to interrupt the broadcast. His name, he says, is Carlos de Miranda, and the presenter is getting it all wrong by presenting a cleaned-up “official” version of his youth. “Let me set the record straight”, asks Miranda, and the movie then switches to a montage of the scientist’s childhood, narrated by Miranda himself. Despite the official biography describing Miranda as a good, dutiful boy who excelled in school, nothing could be farther from the truth, says Miranda. He was a nuisance who pulled pranks and got into fights, he was lazy, cheated in school and smoked with the boys at recesses.
This is the basic setup of the film. The life of Miranda is played out more or less like a narrated silent film, punctuated here and there by dialogue scenes between Miranda and the TV presenter, in which Miranda rebels against the way prominent figures of history are shown as flawless and angelic creatures, rather than as the flawed human beings they actually were and are. The “adventure at the age of 40” as advertised in the title is in fact Miranda’s extramarital affair which took place in 1947 (when the film was released). It is a rather sweet, if quite ordinary story of boy meets girl, impresses her with his magic tricks and they go to the amusement park montage scene, ride a car in the countryside, row a boat on a lake and apply sun tan lotion on the beach. The film goes on to portray Miranda’s feelings of guilt toward his wife — and his still lingering love for her, and climaxes in the moment the two women become aware of each other’s existence, as the wife catches Miranda and his lover together at a restaurant.
The focus on war and propaganda in Hollywood and Europe in the forties provided Latin American cinema a chance to grow its domestic audience with lighter fare. In Argentina the so-called tango film flourished, while in Mexico melodramas and especially comedies featuring the country’s two top stars, Cantinflas and Tin-Tan, were hugely popular. Comedy and light melodrama was, likewise, the dominating genres in Brazilian cinema. Brazil’s most lasting legacy to international cinema during the 40’s was probably singer and actress Carmen Miranda, perhaps best know to a modern audience as the “Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” from Busby Berkeley’s All the Gang’s Here (1943). Both Mexico and Argentina had previously dipped its toes in science fiction, in particular horror with SF trappings, largely inspired by the Universal horror movies and the classic old dark house films. Brazil, however, did not share this history, and it wasn’t really until the 50’s that the occasional SF movie started popping up, completely foregoing the horror genre, which didn’t get a foothold before the 60’s. Hence, Uma Aventura aos 40 is often cited as the first Brazilian science fiction film.
To be honest, it is a fringe case. While the framing story is set in the future, most of the actual story takes place in the then-current 1947 or before that. We don’t get any glimpse of a future society, apart from a few throwaway comments by Miranda about such-and-such that is “forbidden today”, such as alcohol or gambling, highlighting what may be interpreted as some sort of neo-puritanism, which has apparently also resulted in a white-washing of official biographies. The only image we get of a Brazil in 1975 is the interactive TV set, an idea that was hardly novel in 1947 — it had been around over 50 years. As such, the movie is basically a mix between a coming-of-age and a romance melodrama in contemporary settings. Unfortunately I’m not enough of an expert on Brazilian cinema to judge to what extent the content-matter differs, if at all, from similar melodramas produced in the country in the same era, however its moral conclusion, which reinforces the country’s Catholic family norms, would probably have been commonplace.
It is important to note that Uma Aventura aos 40 was not produced for any of the major studios in Brazil. In fact, it was more or less an amateur movie, produced, written and directed by playwright and theatre director Silveira Sampaio. Although two of his stories had been made into film previously, Sampaio had never written a film before, let alone directed or produced one. However, in 1947 he founded the independent company Cineastas Centauro along with João Souza, and it produced exactly one film in its short existence. Like the first Argentine SF movie, El hombre bestia (1934, review), Uma Aventura aos 40 is defined by its restrictions. The former was partly in sound, partly silent, and made by an amateur crew who were enthusiastically determined not to let any technicalities get in the way of their madly ambitious concept. The result was a magnificent train wreck. Sampaio plays it smarter, letting his technical restrictions form his storytelling. While it is in sound, most of the movie is filmed like a silent picture. Sampaio probably didn’t have the means or knowledge to record synchronic sound on location, and most of the film is made on location. This has probably led Sampaio to choose the narration format for the film – what little dialogue exists outside the framing scenes seem to be dubbed in post.
Apart from the narration, the dominant sound element is the music, which swells any time the narration ceases. The music is clearly stock, and does not always sit well with the action. Like in El hombre bestia, the score has a tendency to cut off abruptly with the switch from action to narration, but unlike the former, it is clear that the music was added to the finished film, and not fixed to the reels in the rough cut. Sampaio films with amateurish glee, which sometimes results in poor framing and lighting, but also in a fresh liberation from the conventions of cinema. The cinematography exhibits the freedom of movement of late-era silent cinema, rather than the sometimes stiff and static filming that came with the early talkies, when directors suddenly had to juggle between keeping the actors close to the microphone and the microphone out of frame. For an amateur filmmaker Sampaio is surprisingly good at switching between wide, middle and close-up shots, and makes very good use of inserts – there’s a running theme of slight of hand involving ping pong balls which is especially well handled, even if the tricks are given unnecessarily big symbolic weight in regards to storytelling. There are a few scenes which require an amount of technical skills that would not have been possessed by a happy amateur like Sampaio. These include the giddy amusement park montage with its overlays and crossfades, as well as a fun scene where three people are shown speaking on the phone in different locations, united on screen in irises against a black matte. Scenes like this should probably be credited to 71-year old cinematographer Antônio Leal, a veteran cameraman and former director and a pioneer of early Brazilian cinema. Leal had retired from movie making in 1918, and was probably happy to help out the young, enthusiastic crew. Sadly he passed away shortly after the film was finished.
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any character list, so I’m not sure who plays which character or even what the characters are called. However, the three main characters are Professor Miranda, his wife Daisy and his girlfriend Jane (I hope I’m not mixing them up). As far as I have been able to gather from online sources these three are played by Flàvio Cordeiro, Nilza Soutin and Ana Lúcia. Pretty much all of the cast were either amateurs or, one would assume, stage actors. And they’re all adequately up to the task, in my opinion, if somewhat theatrical, but since this is in essence a silent film, it does not hurt the impression too much.
As is always the case with more obscure non-US SF movies, it’s almost impossible to find any proper reviews of this movie, let alone any contemporary ones. I have found no records of how the film was received, or even how widely it was shown – however, the fact that it is considered a “forgotten film” indicates that, at least, it was no resounding hit. The film’s obscurity is confirmed by the fact that it only has 15 audience votes on IMDb (for a 6.3/10 rating). But there are a couple of well-written reviews of the film online, the first written by my namesake Sérgio Vaz at + De 50 Anos de Filmes, who gives it a glowing 4/4 star rating. Vaz calls the movie “intelligent, humorous, sarcastic, well done, well interpreted, brilliant insights, futuristic, with its own unique language, good music, all too good”. He praises Sampaio’s bravery to go against fashion and convention, making a film that looked like nothing in Brazilian cinema at the time, and makes much of the fact that he predicted “interactive TV” at a time when there was no TV in Brazil.
Another, slightly more balanced perhaps, review comes from daily newspaper Folha de Sao Paolo, labels the production “amateurism in its best sense”. Critic Inácio Araujo writes that the movie “collides head-on with the stilted artificiality of Brazilian professional films from the same period. For once, when we see people in front of the camera, we feel we are in front of people, not extras.” But he continues: “But it is also impossible not to notice its shortcomings. The lighting is atrocious, some actors are extremely incompetent.” He also notes that the movie “loses its momentum when it starts focusing on the Professor’s extramarital affair”. However, because it was made by “real” people in “real” environments, Araujo feels the Uma Aventura aos 40 has immense cultural-historical value: “a living document of a way of being and feeling, as well as an inventory of gestures, furniture and clothing from a period”.
At Letterboxd user Enzo Kruschewsky also notes the amateurishness of the film: “For the most part, Una Aventura aos 40 is somewhat ignorant of film language, preferring to express in words what could easily be shown by images alone, making Dr. Carlos very redundant. […] However, behind the amateur mistakes, there is potential. Moments that catch the eye and have strong expressive power, but which continue to become redundant due to the off-screen narration.”
I found the film surprisingly advanced and resourceful, despite its obvious amateurishness. Even though its form is shaped by its limitations, the style doesn’t feel forced. The narrated biography of the rise and times of a national icon is clearly inspired by 1941’s Citizen Kane, even if the movie itself falls far behind its inspiration in every aspect. Like CK, Uma Aventura aos 40 strives to present a portrait of a great man “behind the façade”, so to speak. For Orson Welles’ classic, the word “Rosebud” functioned as the MacGuffin keeping the audience invested in Kane’s mystery. In a way, Dr. Miranda’s repeated sleight-of-hand tricks with his ping pong balls serve a similar sort of thread throughout the story, but is not quite as effective. Neither does the film deal in any meaningful way with the themes that made Kane so gripping, the balancing between his ruthlessness as a businessman and his striving for power with his human relationships and his own humanity and humility. Sampaio is not quite able to work in Dr. Miranda’s work and fame into the narrative of his love life. In the end, the story of the rise and fall of Dr. Miranda comes across as a somewhat disappointing one, as the viewer is left with precious little to ponder in the way of human nature and/or fortune and fame and its human costs. It is also interesting that the film lets Miranda off with little consequences to his actions. The romantic “adventure” at the heart of the movie eventually doesn’t cost the main character more than a few sleepless nights. His wife happily has him back with no seeming ramifications, and one of his speeches, set up as the “moral lesson” of the film seems to promote the idea that a man is to live his life to the full — seemingly a justification for his extramarital affair. In this sense the movie heavily reinforces a patriarchal world view in which digressions should be tolerated as part of a natural course of nature. However, this view can be seen as a departure from the prevailing Catholic doctrine of the sacredness of marriage (interestingly, the church and religion are completely absent from the narrative).
There are a few things an audience most accustomed to American movies from the era may react to, such as the inclusion of black people in normal modern life, as well as the sometimes very sensual nature of some of the kisses — long takes which would have been cut by US censors. Other tropes from the era will be familiar: note for example that despite having been married for several years, Mr. and Mrs. Miranda sleep in separate beds, just like married couples in Hollywood films of the era.
Whether or not the extramarital affair itself was taken from the life of the author is unknown, but there is of the life of writer-director José Silveira Sampaio on display in Uma Aventura aos 40. Born in 1914 i Rio de Janeiro, Sampaio studied medicine, specialising in paediatrics. While still in medical school, he won an award for a satirical play he wrote, and after a few years as a practicing physician, he abandoned medicine for theatre, and also created a career as a satirical political commentator in a newspaper. Uma Aventura aos 40 was his first foray into cinema, and the same year started production on a second movie, As Sete Noivas do Barba Azul (“The Seven Wives of Bluebeard”), but the film remained unfinished, possibly because of the demise of cinematographer Leal. As a playwright, Sampaio was highly successful — almost every one of the close to 20 plays he wrote between 1947 and his death in 1964 were successes. Sampaio is credited with reforming the comedy of Brazil by promoting a new form of satire — one relying less on gags and witticisms and more on holding up a mirror to the grotesqueness in our society and our social interaction — but always with a certain kindness and lightness of touch.
In 1957 Silveira Sampaio took his fascination with the new medium of television to a new level, when he started the first Brazilian talk show, The SS Show. So popular was the show, that he was soon granted a second show, The Silvio Sampaio Show, which consisted of him calling up and interviewing politicians and celebrities over the phone, not unlike the show in Uma Aventura aos 40. In 1963 he was awarded the Roquette Pinto Award for best TV presenter. Several of his plays were also filmed, and in 1964, shortly after his death, one of his plays was produced in New York, translated to English.
Uma Aventura aos 40. 1947, Brazil. Written & directed by Silveira Sampaio. Starring: Flavio Cordeiro, Nilza Soutin, Ana Lúcia, Sérgio Vasconcelos, Aida Carmen. Cinematography: Antônio Leal, Lucien Mellinger. Editing: Sérgio Vasconcelos. Sound: Thomaz Olenewa. Produced by Silvio Sampeiro for Cineastas Centauro.