Reading through these weblog’s archives, I have realized I owe apologies to those who have been reading it since 2002. I was astonished to see that this used to be far more interesting reading back then. I am sorry to see how less enthusiastic I have become over the years… It was curious to realize also that I used to be something of a Wagnerian then – and that this is really in the past now. Nota bene: I still find Wagner an absolute genius; only my spiritual connection with his music has decreased a lot. Not Lohengrin though – it will always remain one of my favourites – a perfect work of art.
It was curious to read my appreciation of Karajan’s Frau ohne Schatten – I’ve called it my desert-isle disc and the performance I would probably choose to see if allowed a one-time-only time voyage. I have used the same words some years later for Karajan’s Elektra!
I have written less and less about movies – but this is not an unconscious thing. I have noticed that my “reviews” tended to be more and more similar to each other. I was always saying the same things about very different movies and decided to restrain from posting about cinema. Curiously, I have written more and more about theatre (although I go more often to the movies than to the theatre – but I guess that’s the same with everyone else). But today I feel like writing about a movie.
João Moreira Salles is one of Brazil’s leading documentarists. His brother is Walter Salles, the director of Dark Water, The Motorcycle Diaries and Central Station. Their father was the late Walter Moreira Salles, a bank-owner who also happened to be a State minister and an ambassador, and their mother Elizinha was Rio de Janeiro’s Ur-socialite in the 50’s and 60’s. Their beautiful modern-architecture mansion in Rio is now a cultural center and used to be the setting of some unforgettable dinner-parties. When João Moreira Salles decided to cut his teeth as a documentarist, he chose to make a movie on the family’s butler, Santiago. That happened long after the mistress of the house had died and Santiago had retired in a tiny apartment filled with memorabilia and thousands of pages of appointments about History of Aristocracy (his hobby). The movie was never completed though.
Many years later the director had decided to check back at the “raw” material and decided to give it a second chance in metalinguistic approach. On trying to understand what made him give up his original ideas, the director made not only an analysis of his subject, the butler, but also on himself – and on understanding his choices from the past, he was able to give himself and the subject full justice in the present. It is an unforgettable experience. To start with, the black and white photography has a straight-jacket elegance with absolutely rigorous framing influenced by the Japanese film-maker Yasujiro Ozu (although the informed movie-goer could sense this, this is acknowledged in the movie itself). Then the director’s own analysis of his material is fascinating and nonobstrusive.
And then there is his subject – Santiago, an Argentinian of Italian ascent, is something of a more flamboyant and sophisticated version of Flaubert’s Felicité from Un coeur simple. In one moment, the director remembers as a child to listen to piano playing downstairs only to find the buttler playing the instrument in black tie. Asked why he was all dressed up, Santiago answered “Because of Beethoven’s music, my child”. Although Santiago was a sensitive man, he has spent his life as a servant and cultivated a reverent attitude towards beauty. He never tried to make something of it, but found it his duty to faithfully record it – hence the immense amount of typed pages with the history of aristocracy. In his old age in the lonely apartment, he sees the Florentine Medici, among others, as his only friends.
And then there is the young director who seems to be constantly refusing his subject a voice, editing obsessively his spoken testimonial, avoiding themes his “character” would like to address and subsconsciously still playing the boss to the old servant. The mature director’s acknowledge of all that makes the movie even more valuable and touching. As in his documentary about the incredibly shy Nelson Freire, Moreira Salles has earned the talent of showing in the screen what is not said, of letting silence speak. And that is what he was able to do in memoriam in his latest documentary.
In a particularly beautiful moment, Santiago tells about a treasured memory. His mistress asked him to postpone his vacations because of a particularly important dinner party. He obediently does so, although the party happened to be exactly in his birthday. While he was at the kitchen, he was summoned at the dining hall. His mistress gave him a glass of champagne and asked all the elegant and important guests to raise a toast to the butler’s birthday. After his death, his mistress’s son would eventualy serve the servant this beautiful work-of-art through which he will not be gone in oblivion. Not to be missed.