By Rex P. Nielson
Brazil has enjoyed a rich and independent tradition of documentary filmmaking from at least the first decade of the 20th century; over the past fifteen years, the country has witnessed a veritable explosion of documentary production in the national market. In fact, in 2005, almost one of every three feature-length national movies released in Brazil were documentaries, according to Amir Labaki in The Documentary Film Makers Handbook (New York: Continuum International Publishing group, 2006).
At home and abroad, Brazilian documentary filmmakers are garnering well-deserved attention and praise. Among the beneficiaries of this increased attention are the hundreds of documentary curtas or short films flourishing in the shadow of their feature-length cousins. Often experimental in nature, these films challenge the clichéd images and themes of violence, poverty and corruption that often characterize Brazilian film, instead turning to the pleasures and pains of autobiography and daily life. While perhaps lacking the polish of the films of José Padilha and Eduardo Coutinho, Brazilian documentary shorts nonetheless often express a fresh and innovative approach to Brazil’s realities that, in its own right, serves to revitalize the national cinematic idiom.
Such is the case of Porr Gentileza, a 14-minute documentary directed and produced by Dado Amaral in 2002. the film explores the life of José Datrino, a fascinating individual known to most cariocas as o Profeta Gentileza, the Prophet Kindness (who always spells “por” with two r’s for emphasis). For nearly thirty years, until his death in 1996, the Prophet Kindness lived in Rio de Janeiro preaching a message of kindness, love and respect. Every day he walked the streets of Rio handing out flowers and teaching people not to say “muito obrigado” (I’m obliged) but rather “agradecido” (I’m grateful). Instead of saying “por favor” (as a favor), he insisted we say “por gentileza” (as a kindness). Often, he would stand in the median of busy roads holding a sign: “Gentileza gera gentileza” (Kindness begets kindness). though he was a humble and somewhat obscure figure, any visitor to the marvelous city’s main bus terminal is probably already familiar with the prophet’s best-known legacy: the fifty-five murals filled with messages of love that he painted on the pilasters of the viaduct between Caju and the Rodoviária Novo Rio. on a personal note, I confess that having come across these wonderful murals shortly after arriving in Rio for the first time, I long wondered about their origins.
In Porr Gentileza, director Dado Amaral spends a few brief days impersonating the Prophet Kindness, walking the streets previously frequented by the prophet, wearing a similar robe, passing out flowers, and recording on film the reactions of passersby. Amaral’s impersonation elicits smiles and recognition, and in these moments, the director captures various individuals’ personal memories of their own real-life encounters with the Prophet Kindness. Unlike a typical biopic, this film offers no fictional- ized representations of the prophet’s life but instead emphasizes in a self-reflective way the imitative nature of the filmmaker’s own actions. In doing so, the film subtly reveals that its concern is not so much the details of José Datrino’s biography as it is the legacy of the Prophet Kindness in Rio’s popular imagination. In a cinematic world that so frequently views Rio through the filter of vio- lence and poverty, Amaral’s Porr Gentileza reminds us all that a life of kindness need not exist only in memory but can live on through our own kind acts.
Rex P. Nielson is a doctoral cantidate in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University. He recently taught Images of Brazil: Contemporary Brazilian Cinema (Portuguese 44) at Harvard in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.
Amaral's film can be viewed online, along with many other varied and interesting short films, at the website: http://www.portacurtas.com/br/index.asp.