Mário Peixoto
Mário Peixoto (1908-1992)

by William M. Drew

     A Brazilian filmmaker who became a legend on the basis of one extraordinary film he made at the age of 22, the only one he would ever direct, Mário Peixoto was born on March 25, 1908. Over the years, Peixoto gave different responses as to the place of his birth, sometimes saying it was Brussels, Belgium, and other times that it was Tijuca, a section in Rio de Janeiro. This was the first of many mysteries in which he shrouded himself during his life. But his antecedents are clear enough, as he came from a wealthy Brazilian family long prominent in the nation. He had the advantage of a European education in the 1920s and was clearly receptive to the modernist, avant-garde artistic movements then sweeping the Continent and profoundly influencing its cinema. 

LIMITE (1931)     In 1929, Peixoto was visiting Paris when he was struck by a powerful illustration he saw on the cover of a French magazine, a woman’s face staring straight ahead with the handcuffed hands of a man in the foreground. This haunting image inspired Peixoto to write a scenario for a projected film in one night. Sometime after his return to Brazil in October 1929, he brought his scenario to the attention of a group of theatrical friends with ties to film circles in Rio de Janeiro. Most of them were uninterested, but one actor, Brutus Pedreira, was very enthusiastic about Peixoto’s scenario for the proposed film, Limite. With Pedreira’s encouragement, Peixoto tried to interest Adhemar Gonzaga and Humberto Mauro in directing the film for their company, Cinédia. However, Gonzaga was preoccupied with the organization of the new studio and Mauro was beginning to film Lábios sem Beijos. As a result, Peixoto decided to direct the film himself, and with Gonzaga’s support, his ambition was realized. Gonzaga recommended Peixoto choose as his cinematographer Edgar Brazil, the cameraman on Mauro’s classics, Braza Dormida and Sangue Mineiro. Gonzaga also obtained on loan the camera Brazil had used to shoot those films. Peixoto purchased a second camera for the production and began assembling his principal players: Raul Schnoor; Taciana Rey, an actress employed at Cinédia; Olga Breno, a recruit from the theatre; and Brutus Pedreira. 

     In May 1930, Peixoto and his cast and crew began shooting Limite on location on the Rio coast. During the filming, they stayed in Mangaratiba at the Santa Justina farm owned by Peixoto’s uncle, Victor Breves, whose support was crucial in completing Limite. The director detailed his plans for every take in his screenplay before shooting. Edgar Brazil’s brilliance as a cameraman enabled the 22-year-old director to realize the effects he envisioned. For example, Brazil built the special equipment Peixoto required for his elaborate use of camera movement. In order for the camera to follow the actors as they walked without swaying, it was placed on a kind of litter carried by four porters who synchronized their steps with those of the players. A wooden crane activated by ropes was also devised, enabling the camera to film from a lofty perch the action on the ground below. While Peixoto finished principal photography in October and began editing the film, he returned to the location for some additional takes between October 1930 and January 1931, including a scene in which the great actress, Carmen Santos, has a cameo as a prostitute. Brutus Pedreira, who played the role of a pianist in the film, was a musicologist offscreen as well and, under Peixoto’s supervision, prepared a musical score for the silent film using 78rpm. classical recordings of compositions by Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Alexander Borodin, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, César Franck, and Sergei Prokofiev, carefully selected to match the mood of the scenes. Sponsored by the Chaplin Club, a Brazilian film society, Limite was first shown to the public in Rio de Janeiro on May 17, 1931.

LIMITE (1931)    The theme of Limite is stated in its title--the limits faced by man in the struggle for existence. The narrative concerns three shipwrecked people, two women and a man adrift in a small boat on the open sea. In a series of flashbacks, they reveal to each other their stories and what they were trying to escape when they took flight on the ship. The first woman (Olga Breno) escaped from prison with the help of her jailer but her life remained unhappy in the new town where she was trapped in a monotonous job as a seamstress. The second woman (Taciana Rey) was unhappily married to a drunken silent film pianist (Brutus Pedreira), who is shown accompanying Chaplin’s The Adventurer in the town’s small theatre. The man (Raul Schnoor) was a widower who had a love affair with a married woman. When he visited his wife’s grave, he encountered his lover’s husband (played by Peixoto himself) who told him that she had leprosy. The life boat in which they have taken refuge begins leaking. When they see a cask in the distance that might aid them, the man jumps into the water to go after it but never comes back to the surface as the second woman watches helplessly. There is a storm at sea and when it quiets down, only the first woman remains clinging to the wreckage of the boat before she, too, is engulfed by the ocean.

     The technique Peixoto used to develop the narrative is highly inventive and experimental, requiring the kind of concentration one brings to a reading of Joyce or Faulkner to fully elucidate its meaning. Except for three dialogue titles closely spaced together (significantly, they are all spoken by the character enacted by Peixoto), there are no intertitles in the two-hour silent film. Continually, Peixoto focuses on huge close-ups of objects and faces, includes wide shots of landscapes and the sea, and utilizes throughout unusual compositions and camera movements. His approach is often abstract and surrealistic, evident from the second shot in the film recreating the image on the magazine cover of the staring woman and the man’s handcuffed hands. Peixoto’s technique was influenced by the legacy of French avant-garde films like Menilmontant (1926) by Dimitri Kirsanoff and Un Chien Andalou (1928) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, as well as such classics of French impressionism as Abel Gance’s La Roue and the works of Germaine Dulac and Marcel l’Herbier. German expressionist films with their strong emphasis on fate, along with the major examples of Soviet montage, were also part of the cultural background that foreshadowed Limite. Yet for all these clear technical antecedents, the ultimate source of Peixoto’s film is his own individual genius, shaped, too, by the cultural milieu of his country’s cinema. For while Limite is related to the work of the contemporary European avant-garde, it also has clear ties to other Brazilian silent films with their emphasis on regional production and natural backgrounds. In Cataguases, Humberto Mauro, aided by Peixoto’s cameraman, Edgar Brazil, had become the leading film artist in Brazil through a style that included dramatic photography of landscapes. Earlier, the Recife production company, with filmmakers such as Jota Soares and Gentil Roiz, had made major contributions to the development of Brazilian cinema. Roiz’s 1925 classic, Aitaré da Praia (Aitaré from the Beach), brought to the screen the poetry of the Brazilian seascape, depicting the lives of fishermen. Made entirely on location, Limite was thus heir to the Brazilian tradition of regional production, both in its striking use of beautiful natural settings and the informal, family-like atmosphere in which it was created. But Limite, reflecting the individual imagination of its auteur, broke entirely new ground in its thematics as well as in its elaborate, innovative symbolism and narrative construction. Produced when talkies had rendered the silent cinema an anachronism in the United States and Europe, Peixoto’s film appeared as a visual symphony, a consummation of the possibilities of silent film to realize a new, powerful language of images conveying complex ideas.

     With its avant-garde techniques and narrative approach, the somber majesty of its tragic theme, and its presentation at a time when talkies were all the rage, Limite was far from being a successful commercial venture. Indeed, the film’s premiere showing was coldly received by the mainstream critics, public and distributors alike. It was screened again in Rio in January 1932, but in spite of Adhemar Gonzaga’s best efforts, failed to find a distributor. The film disappeared from public view, but word of its qualities spread in experimental film circles, both in Brazil and Europe, where it developed a legendary reputation.

LIMITE (1931)     Peixoto himself would soon withdraw from the public gaze, never making another film. At the time Limite was first shown to the public in May 1931, he was starting to direct a second film, Onde a Terra Acaba (At the Edge of the Earth), when differences with the film’s star and producer, Carmen Santos, caused him to leave the production. Director Octavio Gabus Mendes inherited the project, completing the film for Cinédia in 1933. The year Limite was released, Peixoto also published Mundéu, his only book of poetry. In 1933, he privately published his only novel, O Inútil de Cada Um. He continued to write for the rest of his life, working on scripts for film projects that were never realized, essays on cinema, and fiction, including a greatly expanded version of his 1933 novel, part of which he published in later years. But he seems to have had little appetite to pursue the kind of career that would bring him popular appeal. Well-to-do, Peixoto in 1938 purchased a mansion on Ilha Grande, an island off the coast of Rio. The mansion, built by a Spanish pirate in 1629, was located on Morcego Beach. There, Peixoto lived for many years, spending a fortune refurbishing it and accumulating a large, valuable collection of colonial art works. Reportedly gay, Peixoto never married. While he gained the reputation of being reclusive, he did receive notable guests at his Morcego mansion over the years, including Brigitte Bardot.

     Meanwhile, Limite enjoyed a new lease on life, thanks to the efforts of Plinio Süssekind Rocha, a professor who periodically showed the film at the Faculdade Nacional de Filosofia. Saulo Pereira de Mello, a 19-year old student, first saw Limite in 1952 at one of Rocha’s screenings and was transfixed by the film. Like Rocha, de Mello later became a friend of Peixoto. In 1959, when the nitrate film began to show signs of deterioration resulting in the loss of a few feet, Rocha and de Mello took it upon themselves to preserve Peixoto’s work. With government support, the restoration of Limite was completed in 1977 and Peixoto’s place in film history was now secure. Limite received widespread acclaim and recognition from a new generation of Brazilian film devotees and from those who viewed it at international film festivals and archives. Despite these belated honors, however, Peixoto’s own fortunes began to decline. Due to illness, he was forced to sell his Morcego mansion with its art treasures, living for a time on a farm in the country. In his last years, he had very little money and lived in an apartment in Rio’s Copacabana district. He died in Rio de Janeiro on February 2, 1992, at the age of 83.

     The work of Mário Peixoto is absolutely unique in film history. Perhaps no other director has achieved such renown with only one film to his credit during the course of a long life. Yet that one film is an extraordinary masterpiece, a true work of genius. Part of the early avant-garde movement that began in Europe, Limite is very possibly its greatest single achievement in cinema. But, like the work of Mauro, Peixoto’s film is rooted in the Brazilian land and sea. In their thematics, the two artists have sharply divergent visions. Mauro’s perception of nature is as a life-sustaining source, positively nurturing the humans who unite with it by yielding to its beauty and abundance. In Peixoto’s darker vision, with its symbolic representations of death and despair, nature is indifferent if not deliberately hostile to man. The three protagonists in Limite are seeking to escape the tyranny of man-made society and, in a tragic irony, are defeated, not by their own flaws, but by the natural forces that they cannot control. Yet for all of its portrayal of the futility of human struggle against inexorable fate, Limite possesses a strange exaltation, a sense of wonder and mystery in its view of the world. Near the end of the film, for example, the sequence of the turbulent sea, with its uplifting musical accompaniment, conveys a feeling of joyous abandon as the waves crash and dance across the screen. Limite is thus an artist’s contemplative vision, a cathartic approach to human tragedy, a work filled with awe at the power and terrifying beauty of the infinite. In bringing his vision to the screen, Mário Peixoto achieved cinematic immortality as he infused the language of film with a new poetic and philosophical consciousness. 

REFERENCES: Saulo Pereira de Mello, Mário Peixoto: Escritos Sobre Cinema, (Rio de Janieiro: Editora Codice, 2000); Emil de Castro, Jogos de Armar: a Vida do Solitário Mário Peixoto (Rio de Janeiro: Lacerda Editores, 2000; Limite (Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1996); Alice Gonzaga, "Cinedia: 50 Anos de Cinema," Rio de Janeiro, Record, 1987; Norma Couri, "Olga Breno, ou Alzirinha, morre sem homenagens," obituary 21/10/00, O Estado de S. Paulo.


The Brazilian cultural organization, Funarte, sells video cassettes of Limite and other Latin American silent film classics:

Copyright © 2002 by William M. Drew.  All rights reserved.

Published August 10, 2002 by Gilda Tabarez at GTabarez@aol.com

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