Blame It on the Bossa Nova
As Eydie Gorme sang, the bossa nova can make us do strange and unpredictable or uncharacteristic things; its seductive rhythms and playful beats entice, encouraging us to forget our troubles and fall in love. “Blame it on the bossa nova / With its magic spell… Blame it on the bossa nova / The dance of love.” Bruno Baretto’s Bossa Nova clearly concurs with Gorme’s estimation (although, as we shall see, it does complicate it in the end), and his film lacks none of the charms of the bossa nova described in Gorme’s song. More importantly, it is directly influenced by the sensuous crooning and musical stylings of Brazil’s most famous bossa nova artist, Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim, to whom, along with Francois Truffaut, the film is dedicated. Jobim’s music and the evocation of Truffaut’s straightforward, understated style make a lovely backdrop for this light-hearted romantic comedy, set within the seemingly impossible natural beauty of Rio de Janeiro.
The movie is centered around Mary Ann (Amy Irving), a 40-ish American widow and former airline flight attendant who has been living alone in Rio for the past two years, since the death of her Brazilian pilot husband. Feeling as if she will never find love like this again, Mary Ann lives largely in the past; she keeps her and her husband’s airline uniforms pressed and hanging in the closet, as if he might return home at any moment, and she spends her mornings swimming in the bay and talking with her dead spouse. Of course, Mary Ann’s sexual reawakening is precisely the film’s major concern; that is, it will not allow her to live on only in the past.
Mary Ann finds new love in Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundes), a middle-aged lawyer who is desolate amidst the lushness of Rio ever since his wife of seven years, Tania (Debora Bloch), has left him for a younger man. Mary Ann’s job as a teacher at an English language instruction center is the device that facilitates the many crossing paths necessary for the film’s romantic frolicking. Her office is in the same building as Pedro Paulo’s father’s exclusive tailor shop, a coincidence that precipitates the meeting of Mary Ann and Pedro Paulo on an elevator. Mary Ann has also developed a friendship with one of her students, Nadine (Drica Moraes), who has become involved in an internet romance with the American Gary, who is actually Trevor (Stephen Tobolowsky), a business client of Pedro Paulo’s and not the Soho artist he has claimed to be. And Mary Ann privately tutors Acacio (Alexandre Borges), Brazil’s best soccer player, who is in the midst of negotiating a lucrative contract with Manchester United, in England, when he falls for Pedro Paulo’s sassy young law intern, Sharon (Giovanna Antonelli), who has her own burgeoning romance with Pedro Paulo’s brother Roberto (Pedro Cardoso).
Following it all so far? Suffice it to say that, after many trials and tribulations, (almost) everyone ends up happy and with the “right” person. Screenwriters Alexandre Machado and Fernanda Young (working from Sergio Sant’Anna’s novel Miss Simpson) do an admirable job bringing all these disparate characters together: you imagine that, working with individuals whose lives intersect in so many different ways and so often, the writers must lose control of all these threads at some point. Watching the film, at least for me, was an extended anticipation of this breakdown. Amazingly, astonishingly, this collapse never comes. In its oddly cyclical narrative structure, in its convoluted story of missed connections, and misunderstandings, Bossa Nova seems to be much more influenced by the fast-paced comedies of Howard Hawks (like Bringing Up Baby or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), whom Baretto has also cited as an influence, than by Truffaut.
But the bossa nova makes us lose our heads, makes us forget or overlook things. What, then does Baretto’s film gloss over, or encourage us to forget? Well, quite simply, that there is a real Rio de Janeiro that lies behind this fantasy Rio of wealth and ease. Baretto has remarked that with Bossa Nova, he wanted to write a “love letter” to the city, to recall the “Rio of the ‘60s, a time of affable relations, in which the city’s landscapes were celebrated in popular music.” And indeed, the movie nourishes a distinct sense of nostalgia and a fantasy of Rio, evoking a kind of timelessness: with the exception of the subplot featuring Nadine’s internet romance, there are precious few details that might tie the film’s representation of the city to today.
Of course, in order to function, nostalgia must not only offer idealized, phantasmatic versions of the loved object, but must simultaneously deploy an aggressive will to forgetting that leaves out the messy details that would challenge this fantasy. Bossa Nova willfully forgets two temporal realities that would belie this “affable” Rio. First, in its invocation of a 60s Rio as somehow free from social and political strife, the movie ignores that the decade, in Brazil generally and in Rio specifically, was anything but calm, as the country made the difficult move towards democracy, ending years of military dictatorship. Second, in locating this unproblematized vision in contemporary Rio, the film also ignores the very real rise of poverty, disparities of wealth, and violence that have increasingly characterized the city since the end of the dictatorship and the real estate boom that followed. This dual forgetfulness is somewhat surprising, as Baretto has not shied from social and political realism in his films in the past. The remarkable Four Days in September directly indexes the political turmoil of the ‘60s in Rio, just as A Show of Force comments on questions of Puerto Rico’s international status and “independence.”
Or, read another way, Bossa Nova‘s apparently troubling nostalgia might be a gesture towards a nationalistic ideology. In this case, the gift of Baretto’s “love letter” is that his sanitized Rio offers an idea/l of the city that Cariocas and Brazilians more broadly might galvanize around, contrary to the representation of both in world media, that almost never reports anything but the destitution, violence, and economic woes of city and country. This question of national pride is directly signified in the character of Acacio, the soccer superstar and national treasure, who bemoans how much he will miss the city and its people, and who is clearly conflicted about his imminent departure for England. This love of city and country is not only found in Acacio himself, but in the public reaction to his “selling out.” In the mass demonstrations initiated by Acacio’s move to England, and in the public epithets of “traitor” flung at the soccer player, Baretto figures soccer as one site around which to build national pride, and delicately comments that Brazil must not allow its natural resources (in this case, Acacio) to be exploited by the West any longer. That Baretto raises this question of nationalism is one factor to mitigate the accusation that Bossa Nova is willfully ignorant or blind to the Rios’ very real problems. The other is that the film itself recognizes the futility of its own nostalgia, and recognizes that things can never go back to “the way they were,” if they ever were that way to begin with.
The film demonstrates the impossibility of its own nostalgia in the very failure of the bossa nova, and in the decline of style, or elegance. Contrary to Gorme’s song and, seemingly, Baretto’s own logic or love for the music, the bossa nova cannot just make us fall in love. While music plays a central role in the film, always setting the tone in the background, Jobim and bossa nova play a direct role in the failed romance of Roberto and Sharon. The relationship that begins to develop between the two is based on their mutual love of popular music. However, where Sharon prefers Euro-American techno and electronica, Roberto lives in the past, preferring the soulful rhythms of Jobim and traditional Brazilian pop music. Roberto hopes that Sharon will come to realize the superiority of bossa nova, and that she will fall in love with him as she falls in love with his music. Of course, this doesn’t happen. Sharon finds Roberto’s music boring and archaic, ultimately falling for Acacio and following him to the England that produces the contemporary music she so loves. In this failed musical relationship, Sharon clearly stands for the present/future, while Roberto represents the failure of a sentimental past.
The impossibility of nostalgia as the decline of and old-world grace is also figured in Pedro Paulo’s father Juan (Alberto de Mendoza), particularly his exquisite clothes. As he remarks, on the decline of his business, “What good is elegance in these days of jeans and T-shirts?” And so, when Juan loses his business in a divorce settlement to his fourth wife and Juan dies, we are to understand that the past and the way of life he represents are gone. And so, rather than remaining mired in history, the film is really an elegy for the past and a commentary on the impossibility of turning back time. Bossa Nova tries to move forward, to revitalize the present and future through its appeal to a sense of civic and national pride.