Bye Bye Brazil (1979)

Jessica Scarlata

A male voice from the US handing us over to a male Brazilian guide who will map the sultry, seductive, mysterious terrain of the beckoning feminine land – really, what more could film studies professors ask for?

Bye Bye Brazil

Director: Carlos Diegues
Cast: José Wilker, Betty Faria, Fábio Júnior, Zaira Zambelli, Príncipe Nabor
Distributor: New Yorker Video
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Carnaval
First date: 1979
US DVD Release Date: 2007-04-17

Early on in Carlos Diegues’ Bye Bye Brasil, Lorde Cigano, the leader of the Caravana Rolidei’s ragtag troupe of traveling performers, produces snowfall in a circus tent somewhere in Brazil’s arid Northeast region. “Like in Europe and the United States,” Lorde Cigano triumphantly declares, “like in all the civilized countries in the world, it snows in Brazil!” As Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” plays, spectators marvel at the miracle, and one character remarks that the snow tastes exactly like shaved coconut, thus putting a tropical(ist) spin on this typically northern product.

Lorde Cigano, a white Brazilian whose name (Lord Gypsy) resonates with similar Orientalist exoticism as his partner Salomé, associates civilization with the neocolonialist investors of the United States and Europe. And like them, he supports the old colonialist division between the industrious North (or “West”) and the languid tropics – snow comes to Brazil and with it the productive winds of Civilization.

But Lorde Cigano offers the snow with an ironic grandeur, and Diegues’ choice to set this magic trick in the Northeast is hardly random. This is the desolate setting, after all, of Vidas Secas (, 1963), Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s eloquent adaptation of Graciliano Ramos’s novel, an early example of Cinema Novo and a film credited with epitomizing an aesthetics of hunger even before Glauber Rocha’s famous essay (Randal Johnson and Robert Stam, Brazilian Cinema, Columbia University Press).

(Johnson and Stam). This moment encapsulates several of Bye Bye Brasil’s central concerns: Brazil’s place in relation to the multinational (but especially US-American) corporations fueling capitalist “development”, the tension between regional specificity and national standardization; and the film’s own position within the history of Brazilian cinema, at the tail-end of Cinema Novo, after Rocha’s aesthetics of hunger had given way to an equally compelling aesthetics of garbage.

Dedicated to “The Brazilian People of the 21st Century”, Diegues’s film represents the Brazilian nation of the late 20th century as seen through the eyes of the roving Caravana Rolidei, whose name is a phonetic spelling of the Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation of “Holiday” (Stam, Vieira, Xavier, 422).

Transnational (or “Americanized”) in their very name, the Caravana Rolidei performers – Lorde Cigano, Salomé, and Andorinha (Swallow), a mute African Brazilian strongman – travel throughout Brazil, transporting magic tricks, music, and erotic spectacle on a battered truck whose crackling loudspeakers and fading illuminated sign evoke a sense of run-down nostalgia, a visual suggestion that the caravan’s holidays are coming to an end.

The film rests comfortably within the genre of the road movie, which offers an ideal structure for addressing and questioning national culture and identity. While in the Northeast, Lorde Cigano and Salomé pick up Ciço and his pregnant wife, Dasdô, who remain with the Caravana for much of the film, becoming sources of tension for the couple.

As they move from the barren Northeast through the disappearing Amazon and onto the glossy high-rises (and outlying slums) of Brasilia, the characters’ fortunes change, and Salomé returns to prostitution (a move that irks Ciço, leaves Lorde Cigano nonplussed, and that the film itself refrains from judging). As the film progresses, the Rolidei truck accommodates Brazilians of varying ethnicities, classes, genders, histories and ages.

The familiar strangeness of these other and other members of the nation is set against the main characters and might encourage the audience to rethink the boundaries of national identity and national culture. Like many road movies, the film functions as a national allegory, where characters stand in for identity positions, and events that happen on screen resonate with national-historical significance.

The difficulty with national allegories for a general audience, though, is that they demand a working knowledge of the nation under scrutiny. By definition, allegory resists narrative and semantic transparency, and Bye Bye Brasil is by no means immediately accessible. In fact, without a sense of Brazilian geography, culture, and history, audiences may be frustrated by the film’s meandering pace.

Viewers interested but uninitiated should read up a little before engaging with Bye-Bye Brasil. The Latter-Day Allegories of Cinema Novo (Robert Stam, João Luiz Vieira and Ismail Xavier) offers a thorough, engaging, and largely celebratory analysis of the film’s key narrative and audio-visual aspects.

Stam, Vieira and Xavier point out that among Diegues’s main concerns in the film is the leveling of regional cultures through the imposition of national media and the international commodities of US Americanization, which infiltrate nearly every inch of the landscape. The television, too, is symbolized through waste -- whenever they enter a new town, Salomé and Lorde Cigano look for “fishbones” (TV antennae) in order to assess their chances of monetary success; invariably, the fishbones ensure that no other form of culture, including cinema, will take root.

But the film’s critique of national media, visualized in TV sets enshrined in town squares around which stone-faced local audiences sit, is somewhat reflexively subverted by the fact that José Wilker and Betty Faria were soap opera stars at the time (Stam, Vieira, Xavier).

But while Bye Bye Brasil tries to offer new ways of understanding the nation by critiquing right-wing capitalist nationalism and letting go of Marxist hopes for mass, popular resistance (ibid), the film ultimately leaves many of its characters out of the discussion by literally denying them the chance to speak.

As a mute strongman, Swallow is pure body, and he disappears into the night after communing with the moon (this type of objectification of African Brazilians is a recurring problem in Diegues’s films); the film’s indigenous characters remain somewhat de-humanized as well; and ultimately, Lorde Cigano dominates the story. That he is a magician / pimp / huckster, both sympathetic and flawed, speaks to the power of ambivalence.

The DVD’s extras consist of trailers for other New Yorker releases: Bolivia, Lost Embrace, Intimate Stories and Diegues’s own 1999 Orfeu, a remake of Orfeu Negro (Marcel Camus, 1959). The English-language trailer for Bye Bye Brasil is also included, and it offers a useful example of how marketing mavens can update colonialist and neo-colonialist representations of an exotic, hyper-sexual Latin America in order to sell a film to US art cinema audiences.

A male voice promises that Lord Gypsy will “Lead you through a land of mysterious beauty,” over a red-tinted shot of Salomé’s crotch, which then slowly dissolves to a seascape as our narrator continues, “a land of romance, a land of adventure . . . where the jungle meets the sea . . . where a magical mist fills the air . . . where love is not necessarily an affair of the heart.” A male voice from the US handing us over to a male Brazilian guide who will map the sultry, seductive, mysterious terrain of the beckoning feminine land – really, what more could film studies professors ask for?

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