! Critic Judy Stone
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Vidas Secas

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 and justice.

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 Getulio Vargas.

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 his words.

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 in Brazil.

San Francisco Chronicle August 7, 1987