by William M. Drew
| The greatest director of the early Brazilian
cinema, Humberto Mauro was born on April 30, 1897, on a farm in Volta Grande
in the state of Minas Gerais. His father was an Italian immigrant and his
mother a native of Minas Gerais. In his early years, he had a particular
interest in both music and mechanics, playing the violin and the mandolin
and studying engineering at a school in the city of Belo Horizonte. He
left the school after one year to join his family in the town of Cataguases
where they now resided. With electricity then starting to spread into the
Brazilian interior, a technological revolution that attracted the interest
of the young Mauro, his first job was to install electricity in local farms.
He also built the first apparatus for radio reception in Cataguases. In
1916, he went to Rio de Janeiro where he worked for a time as an electrician,
returning to Cataguases in 1920. There he wed Dona Bebê (Maria Vilela
de Almeida) to whom he would remain married for the rest of his life.
Mauro became interested in photography, and in 1923 his acquisition of a Kodak camera brought him into contact with Pedro Cornello, an Italian immigrant who was the leading photographer in Cataguases. The two, who struck up a close friendship, also shared a passion for the cinema. Along with his fondness for American serial and adventure films, Mauro was a great admirer of D. W. Griffith, Henry King, and King Vidor. More and more, he began to think about the possibility of making films himself. In 1925, Mauro and Cornello purchased a "Pathé-Baby" 9.5mm. home movie camera with which they made Valadião, o Cratera, a five-minute adventure film with a comic element. By showing it to local businessmen, they hoped to convince them to invest in establishing a production company in Cataguases. With no large, centralized film industry in the country at that time, the early Brazilian cinema experienced rapid artistic growth in the 1920s through a proliferation of regional production centers. For example, there was a notable series of silent films produced from 1923 to 1931 by a company based in Recife. In this climate, Mauro and Cornello succeeded in obtaining financial backing for their venture from Homero Cortes Domingues, a well-to-do trader in Cataguases. Mauro and Cornello then purchased in Rio a 35mm. camera and hundreds of feet of film for shooting. In Cataguases, they began making a film called Os Três Irmãos (The Three Brothers) that was never completed. Towards the end of 1925, Mauro, Cornello, and Domingues, receiving additional backing from businessman Agenor Cortes de Barros, formally established their new Cataguases-based production company, Phebo Sul America Film. The first feature film Mauro directed for Phebo was Na Primavera da Vida (In the Spring of Life), starring Pedro Cornello’s daughter, Eva Nil. From the beginning, Mauro not only directed but frequently wrote or co-authored the scripts, acted small parts, served as his own cameraman, and contributed to the set design and lighting.
Following the release of Na Primavera da Vida in 1926, Mauro began working on his second feature, Thesouro Perdido (Lost Treasure). The film was first shown in Cataguases in August 1927 and, upon its presentation in Rio de Janeiro, won an award as the best Brazilian film of the year. With a cast that included Mauro’s wife billed as Lola Lys in her only screen appearance, Thesouro Perdido revealed the remarkable cinematic skills of the self-taught filmmaker. Inspired by American productions, the film is a melodramatic adventure story involving bandits in search of a treasure map. The scenes in which they kidnap the heroine and are confronted by the hero in a struggle to the death in a burning cabin as the hero’s brother and friend ride to the rescue on horseback demonstrate Mauro’s successful assimilation of his American contemporaries’ technique in creating heart-pounding excitement. The film, however, lacks the erotic lyricism that would become a marked feature of Mauro’s vision. At the same time, Mauro’s flair for staging dramatic scenes against a natural background foreshadows his subsequent films.
In late 1927, Phebo Sul America Film was reorganized into a larger company with many more backers and renamed Phebo Brasil Film. Mauro now had the resources to create films in which he could fully develop his personal vision. The first of these works was Braza Dormida (Sleeping Ember), a classic film that advanced cinema art in Brazil. The film stars Luiz Soroa and Nita Ney in the story of a young man from Rio who, down on his luck in the capital, takes a job as manager of a sugar mill in the country, where he finds love with the mill owner’s daughter. The former manager, who had been demoted for incompetence, becomes jealous and tries to sabotage the mill. The hero is moved to action and emerges victorious from their battle to the death. In developing his narrative, Mauro greatly expanded his range of expression and imagery. Shot by the outstanding cinematographer, Edgar Brazil, the film makes striking use of the forest landscape, a backdrop for the passionate romance of the hero and heroine. In a highly erotic scene, rich in symbolism, they are startled by a snake hanging from the branch of a tree while the villain covertly watches them. The struggle between the hero and the villain in the sugar mill makes for an explosive climax in a film of intense emotions. Through his mastery of cinematic technique, including close-ups, editing, and dramatic natural backgrounds, Mauro in Braza Dormida emerged as one of the foremost silent film directors in the world. Released in March 1929, Braza Dormida was distributed throughout Brazil by Universal Pictures and was an enormous success at the box office.
After making a short documentary, Symphonia de Cataguases (1929), Mauro directed his final production for Phebo, Sangue Mineiro (Blood of Minas Gerais), often ranked as the finest of his Cataguases films. It was first shown in Cataguases in July 1929 and was released throughout Brazil in the following year to critical and popular acclaim. For the first time, Mauro worked with Carmen Santos, the actress who both starred in Sangue Mineiro and helped produce it. Santos gives a brilliant performance as a millionaire’s beautiful young adoptive daughter who is driven to attempt suicide when the man she loves is unfaithful to her. She wanders into the countryside and tries to drown herself but is rescued by two young men who are cousins. They take her to the cottage on their family farm where she recovers. However, disillusioned by her bitter experience in love, Carmen at first rejects the advances of one of the young men who rescued her. The other also falls in love with her and comes to blows with his cousin, even contemplating killing his rival. But his conscience wins out and he never directly reveals to Carmen his true feelings for her. Carmen’s now-penitent first love seeks to rekindle their romance, but she instead chooses the rescuer who had declared his passion for her. As with Braza Dormida, Mauro created a work of extraordinary quality through a sophisticated film technique that included use of the moving camera and natural landscapes. But whereas in the earlier production Mauro had emphasized the struggle between the hero and the heavy, in Sangue Mineiro, a film with no villains, his narrative focus is on the conflicts of the human heart. With a story in which action is subordinate to character, he enriched the cinema immeasurably, presenting on the screen people whose lives and passions are intimately connected with their environment. Mauro accentuates his belief in the redemptive power of nature by showing the transformation of his heroine who, after fleeing her father’s mansion to die in the country, finds a new life and love amidst the rustic simplicity of the farm.
Despite the success of Mauro’s films for Phebo, the company did not have the resources to continue, with the technology of sound looming on the horizon. Another pioneer Brazilian filmmaker, Jota Soares, who directed for the Recife studio, years later characterized sound films as the guillotine of the kind of local production that had flourished in Brazil during the silent era. Fortunately for Mauro, a fresh opportunity quickly opened up when his friend, Adhemar Gonzaga, invited him to direct for Cinédia, a new production company in Rio de Janeiro he had formed. Gonzaga, whom Mauro had known since he was the editor of the journal Cinearte, put into practice his advocacy of a Brazilian national cinema when in 1929 he wrote and directed Barro Humano (Human Clay). The success of this film enabled Gonzaga to form Cinédia and to plan as its first production, Lábios sem Beijos (Lips Without Kisses). He began shooting the film with Carmen Santos as the star, but production was stopped due to Santos’s pregnancy. Gonzaga then turned the project over to Mauro who began filming in March 1930 with a new cast headed by the seductive Lelita Rosa and the dashing Paulo Morano. Mauro both directed and photographed Lábios sem Beijos, bringing his special magic to this silent film classic adapted from Gonzaga’s original script. Although by 1930 sound was ascendant in both the United States and Europe, Mauro, who was committed to the art of silent cinema, continued to explore the full creative possibilities of a visual language in the new film. This time, the mood of his film is quite different from his previous work. With the urban sophisticated setting of Rio de Janeiro as a backdrop, Lábios sem Beijos is a delightful romantic comedy, dealing with the relationship between a wealthy, vivacious society girl and a young man with the reputation of a Don Juan. The humorous complications that follow are finally happily resolved. Despite the shift to an urban setting, Mauro continues to emphasize the ties between man and the natural world, as in the opening scenes of Rio amidst the wind and rain and his many location shots of the city’s scenic beauties. In the director’s characteristic style, the intense love scene between the couple in a park is particularly sensuous. Throughout the film, Mauro experimented with unusual camera movements and angles. In a climax marked by dynamic editing, as the heroine races her car through the streets of Rio and into the country, Mauro includes low-angle shots of her driving and, to convey a feeling of rapid motion, employs what would appear to be a hand-held camera while filming in front of, and behind, the car. Expressing a vibrant, optimistic view of life, Lábios sem Beijos is a masterpiece of the climactic era of silent cinema. Upon its release in November 1930, it received an award from the Jornal do Brasil as the best Brazilian film of the year.
With the triumph of Lábios sem Beijos, Cinédia was launched as a major new studio, and their second production, Mulher (Woman), followed in 1931. A part-talkie, it was directed by Octavio Gabus Mendes with Mauro serving as the cinematographer. But Mauro soon returned to directing with what is generally considered his greatest work, Ganga Bruta (Brutal Gang), based on a story by Mendes, beginning production in September 1931. After many changes, including cast replacements, he completed the film in 1933. Ganga Bruta deals with a rich engineer, Dr. Marcos (Durval Bellini), in Rio who kills his wife on their wedding night when he learns of her infidelity. Acquitted for his crime of passion, he departs for the interior where he finds work managing the construction of a large factory. There, he is attracted to Sônia (Déa Selva), a lovely young girl who is engaged to another man (Décio Murillo). With no love of a woman to console him, he frequents a local bar and becomes involved in fights in which his strength easily bests his adversaries. Soon, his friendship with the girl develops into a mutual seduction. When Sônia’s fiancé learns of the affair, he forces himself on her and then storms out to kill his rival. He confronts Marcos and in an ensuing struggle over a waterfall is killed despite Marcos’s efforts to save him. No longer a brute but apparently redeemed by his love, Marcos marries Sônia and begins a new life. In all respects, the film is brilliant and with an unusual technique. Still unhappy with talkies, Mauro filmed Ganga Bruta silent and added synchronized sound recorded on Vitaphone discs. In effect, Mauro used sound technology to create a new approach to cinema that was neither the traditional silent film nor the now-established talkies. Along with a highly effective orchestral score, the sound accompaniment includes songs, sound effects, and intermittent, brief passages of dialogue. In addition, there are occasional written dialogue captions superimposed over scenes in the manner of foreign language subtitles rather than silent film intertitles. In this way, Mauro was able to create an uninterrupted flow of images and movement. An example occurs in the flashback sequence in which, without titles or dialogue, Marcos recalls his experiences with his wife in a series of brief scenes. The film’s use of phallic symbols and its sexual theme led Mauro to be called by a critic at the time "the Freud of Cascadura" (a Rio suburb). Indeed, the story is developed with considerable moral and psychological complexity. The protagonist, after all, is a killer and a drunkard. Yet the film suggests that his finding true love in the country may have redeemed him. His desperate attempts to save his rival and genuine anguish over his fate seem to indicate that he wants to shed his violent past stemming from his decadent, wealthy life in the city. The erotic scenes with the heroine in the beautiful natural settings are in Mauro's classic style, while the working-class bar and the scenes of the factory's construction are presented with documentary-like realism. The film's narrative structure, alternating motifs of life and death, is equally remarkable, beginning with Marcos's first wedding that is quickly succeeded by his wife's violent death; then coming full circle with his rival Décio's funeral followed by Marcos's wedding to Sônia as the film concludes. Ganga Bruta was released in May 1933. As with Mário Peixoto’s Limite two years before, Mauro’s technical and narrative experimentation was too advanced for its time, and the film failed to register with the public and critics of the day. Two decades later, however, Mauro’s film was rediscovered by a new generation in Brazil who recognized it as a masterpiece.
Mauro followed Ganga Bruta with his first full talkie, A Voz do Carnaval (The Voice of Carnival), a large-scale 1933 musical about Rio’s Carnaval co-directed by Adhemar Gonzaga, in which Carmen Miranda launched her screen career. He then left Cinédia and in 1934 joined Brasil Vita Filme, a studio established by Carmen Santos for whom he made several documentaries and two features starring the actress-producer, Favela dos Meus Amores (Slum of My Loves) in 1935 and Cidade Mulher (City of Women) in 1936. At the invitation of its founder, Edgar Roquette-Pinto, in 1936 Mauro joined Instituto de Nacional do Cinema Educativo (INCE) where for decades he directed hundreds of short documentaries on topics that included art, astronomy, agriculture, and music. He brought to these educational films the same kind of cinematic artistry that had marked his dramatic films. After joining INCE, he directed only three more features, all of them outstanding films: O Descobrimento do Brasil (The Discovery of Brazil) (1937), an impressive historical epic recreating Pedro Alvares Cabral’s voyage to the New World in 1500, with a score especially written by the renowned composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos; Argila (Clay) (1940), a romantic drama set in the countryside that stars Carmen Santos as a sophisticated woman whose interest in the art of ceramics grows into a passion for the artist; and O Canto da Saudade (The Song of Yearning) (1952), filmed in Volta Grande with Mauro himself playing a leading role as the heroine’s father in the tale of a musician who loses the woman he loves to another man. Mauro directed his final film in 1974, a documentary short entitled Carro de Bois (Ox Cart) he shot in Volta Grande.
During his later years, Mauro was the major inspiration for a new generation of Brazilian filmmakers, including Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, who hailed him as the precursor of Cinema Novo. He worked closely with the new directors, acting in David Neves’s Memória de Helena (1969); writing the Tupi-Guarani dialogue for Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês (1971) and Paulo Cesar Saraceni’s Anchieto, José do Brasil (1978); and co-authoring the story and script of Alex Vivany’s A Noiva da Cidade (1979). Although lack of overseas distribution had limited Mauro’s international recognition during much of his lifetime, he received increasing attention in France where in the last year of his life he was honored by the Cannes Film Festival as one of the world’s most outstanding filmmakers. He died on November 5, 1983, at the age of 86 in Volta Grande, the town where he was born.
The work of Humberto Mauro is an inspiring example of what one man with a need to express his passion for life was able to achieve in the cinema. In the Latin American countries during the silent era, the lack of an industrial structure for producing motion pictures favored individual artists who sought to explore the new medium in accord with their personal visions. Mauro’s creative genius sprang from the very soil and water of his native land. Indissolubly wedded to the Brazilian national consciousness, he has long been revered in his own country as the most Brazilian of filmmakers, the cinematic counterpart of Villa-Lobos. But his art is also universal in its themes. No one in the history of cinema has surpassed Mauro in the sensuous beauty of his images. They embody a deeper spiritual view, almost mystic in its intensity, uniting humanity to the life-sustaining forces of nature with their capacity to transform the individual. A sensitive director of his players, Mauro inspired them to give performances infused with both passion and restraint in roles which reflected his vision. His characteristic plot motif of sophisticated, urban individuals finding love amidst the splendor of flowers and trees resulted in a uniquely cinematic approach in which characterization and drama were shaped by the natural background. Expressing this lyricism throughout his work, Mauro was foremost among the silent filmmakers to use the medium to its fullest. The poet of a new art, Humberto Mauro dramatically reshaped cinema in his country in works of extraordinary beauty and eloquence.
REFERENCES: André Felippe Mauro, Humberto Mauro: o pai do
cinema brasileiro (Rio de Janeiro: IMF Editora, 1997); Humberto
Mauro:sua vida, sua arte, sua trajectoria no cinema, preface by Leandro
Tocatins (Rio de Janeiro, 1978); Randal Johnson and Robert Stam, Brazilian
Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); Timothy Barnard
and Peter Rist, eds., South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography,
1915-1994 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996); Georges Sadoul,
of Filmmakers (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1972);
Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons,
1979); Alice Gonzaga, "Cinédia: 50 Anos de Cinema," Rio de Janeiro,
1987; Randal Johnson, "Documentary Discourses and National Identity: Humberto
Mauro’s Brasiliana Series and Linduarte Noronha’s
Texto Critico, XI: 21/22, 1998.
A pictorial tribute to Humberto Mauro published during his 1997 centenary:
A gallery of Mauro photos from a website based in his native state of
The Brazilian cultural organization, Funarte, sells video cassettes
of films by Mauro and other early Latin American filmmakers:
Copyright © 2002 by William M. Drew. All rights reserved.
This site is intended for educational purposes
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