Some movies seem to travel better than others. From the point of view of teaching a class on Brazilian cinema in a U.S. university to students with a wide range of backgrounds, it is never clear how they will interpret the tone of a scene or what jokes and references will get lost in translation. In the case of Eduardo Coutinho’s Edifício Master (2002), it was as if certain students had seen a different film altogether. The documentary consists of interviews with the residents of crowded building in Copacabana: middle-aged couples, a prostitute, and a former soccer player, among others, tell their stories, dreams, and frustrations. Coutinho is one of those rare directors able to treat his subjects as neither heroes nor villains: he does not look at them from above or below, aware that his cameras can only capture the truth of a person’s reaction to being filmed.
Edifício Master, then refrains from editorial judgments, even when we discover holes in a story, or have enough reason to suspect embellishments. The only soundtrack is provided by singing, which Coutinho tends to encourage his interviewees to do. Yet to a fraction of my class, the film was sensationalist and exploitative. Having seen it several times and being familiar with the critical reception, I was surprised by their response. The lesson plan was tossed, students spent over an hour arguing the point back and forth, and I do not think I have learned so much in a classroom as I did then. I saw the movie again, as someone who had never spent time in Brazil or Latin America. Perhaps people do not open up so easily to a stranger elsewhere, unless prodded by the promise of appearing on television? A believer in the universal appeal of Coutinho’s documentaries, I had to concede there can be such a thing as culture shock.
Fall 2009, Volume VIII, Number 3
Bruno Carvalho received his Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University. He is an assistant professor at Princeton’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures.
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