Although his name may be generally unknown, Nelson
Pereira dos Santos is one of the great filmmakers
of our time .
In 1964, his "Vidas Secas" (Barren Lives),
a stark, poetic portrayal of two inarticulate peasants
in Brazil's drought-and-poverty-stricken northeast
, was greeted as a genuine discovery at the Cannes
Film Festival. It brought international attention
to the emergence of a new cinema in Brazil that was
as exciting and innovative as France's New Wave.
During the next 20 years, however, Brazil's creative
voice was stifled by a succession of military regimes,
and dos Santos struggled to find new forms and themes
to circumvent censorship.
Finally, with Brazil's "opening" to democracy
in 1963, dos Santos was able to realize a long-held
dream and make "Memories of Prison," a
masterly metaphor for his nation's struggle for freedom
Marked by vigorous humor and a vibrant, mature style,
it is a powerful treatment of the autobiographical
memoir by Graciliano Ramos, a novelist (author of "Vidas
Secas") and educator who was imprisoned for
a year in 1936-37 during the dictatorial regime of
Ramos, a towering figure in Brazilian letters, was
secretary of education for the northeast state of
Alagoas when he was among thousands arrested following
an unsuccessful one-day insurrection by leftist military
officers against the Vargas dictatorship.
Although Ramos was never informed of the charges
against him, he had enraged right-wing forces when
he forbade school children from singing the national
anthem on the ground that they couldn't understand
the complicated Portuguese lyrics. Ironically, the
anthem is transformed from a symbol of repression
to one of hope in the musical score for the film.
Ramos is portrayed as neither an idealized nor a
heroic figure as he undergoes months in a maximum
security institution with a wide variety of political
prisoners and then an even more agonizing time at
a humid island penal colony with petty criminals.
Played with polite, self-effacing skepticism by
Carlos Vereza, Ramos is simply a writer intent on
being a witness to the personalities of the men around
him and their ordeals. When he is arrested, he seems
more interested in the fate of his latest manuscript
than of his young wife Heloisa and their children.
He is, in fact, nervously glad to be out of the "prison"
Heloisa's jealousy has erected.
Yet his imprisonment frees her from the role of
nagging dependent. As Ramos grows thinner and weaker,
Heloisa (engagingly played by Gloria Pires) becomes
a sturdy activist on his behalf, seeing to the publication
of his novel and enlisting support for his release.
What is remarkable and compelling is the way dos
Santos indicates Ramos' subtle but growing involvement
with the other inmates while maintaining his role
as a detached observer. There is nothing stereotyped
in the presentation of either the prisoners, guards,
or trusties. The range is wide and the personalities
given their measure of complexity.
There is the dashing Captain Mota, a policeman by
profession and a poet by vocation, who has been imprisoned,
he feels, by mistake. The wealthy politician Emanuel,
who has a black servant carry his bags to prison,
is always trying to pay for special privileges and
is outraged by his imprisonment alongside people
he considers riff-raff and/or Communists.
The prisoners' Radio Liberty greets all the new
inmates, while an anarchist crows his mocking "cock-a-doodle-doo" at
the announcer's revolutionary fervor. A Jewish doctor
worries about the forthcoming deportation of two
women prisoners to Germany, while observing them
keep up their morale in a lively song and dance.
Particularly in the concluding penal colony scenes,
dos Santos makes us feel the dehumanizing effect
of an incarceration deliberately aimed at killing
the prisoners' spirits. In the pathetic hope that
their stories will appear in Ramos' book, they tell
him anecdotes and smuggle paper to him as though
they sense that they can continue to live through
Although dos Santos has taken some dramatic liberties
with Ramos' book, his superb recreation of the writer's
experience is a quietly eloquent and enduring testimony
on behalf of all the insulted and injured, not only
San Francisco Chronicle August 7, 1987