(The children of Aniki-Bóbó )
Aniki-Bóbó (1942) is something else. It is a precocious film about ingenuous grade-school children in a world of adults. Yet even their organized game, in which cops and robbers are identified by a count-out rhyme, the children play at night in a world seemingly devoid of grownups. Indeed, there are very few visible adults in this film: a mother, a schoolmaster, a shopkeeper, a sailor, a policeman. Only two of these figures are central, although all five of them are there to exercise authority over the children: the policeman, whose role is entirely emblematic (the one time he tries to intervene, in a fistfight, the boys escape him, one by swimming away) and the shopkeeper, who, because the inciting incident of the narrative is the theft of a doll from his store, becomes the embodiment of authority. In fact, this film very cleverly displaces not the symbol of authority but the way in which authority is exercised. The policeman remains the symbol, a tower over the children whenever they encounter him or even set eyes on him at a distance. He is, undoubtedly, the embodiment of the state: always nearby, clearly a resource, but one-and this is most important in the message of this film-that is not invoked.
Ostracized by his peers and plagued by remorse, the boy who steals the doll and who has been accused of causing his rival’s injury hides on a ship that he hopes will take him away from his friends, the authorities, and his sea of troubles. He is found out and kicked off the ship, his attempt to exile himself aborted. It is of no small interest, moreover, that even the ship is prison-like, for, as a closely focused shot reveals, it is called Alcatraz and below that legend appears boldly the word Portugal. The choice of this name, innocuous in Portuguese (or perhaps not), speaks volumes to anyone knowing the United States, particularly the American gangster films of the 1930s. Since the most famous American high-security prison of the era was called Alcatraz, it takes no great effort to see the allegorical import of the legend adorning the Portuguese ship’s prow.
The wayward boy is finally brought back into the fold, however. And it is the shopkeeper, initially presented as a harsh master (he rather freely buffets around his adolescent employee) and a stern businessman, who emerges as the consoling reconciler of the contretemps that plague the child. As the adult voice of reason, he clears up the misunderstanding over the manner in which one of the boys is injured and he establishes guilt and motivation for the theft of the doll. In a radical displacement, he becomes the vessel of all authority. He witnesses, he testifies, he probes, he judges, he sympathizes, he hears confessions, he shrives, he reconciles, he metes out sentences, and he rewards. Because of his authoritative wisdom all the children are now on the right road, reflecting the legend adorning the tote bag carried by one of the children: to follow good paths. The rosy message sent forth in Aniki-Bóbó is that the possibility of order and the exercise of morality are adult matters. Adults are guardians, teachers and benevolent enforcers of ethics and morality. If at times the schoolmaster is rather arbitrary, if the policeman stands around too obviously menacingly, if the shopkeeper behaves sternly, in a crisis the adult-in this case the shopkeeper-will behave civilly, expeditiously, and charitably. These are the benefits of authority. What is pernicious here is precisely the extent to which the state’s authority has been displaced, from the policeman to the shopkeeper. If the shopkeeper can handle it all by himself, then the policeman, who stands behind him, is nothing more than a symbol, and if he is only a symbol, then he really exercises no authority. But the message can be interpreted differently: it’s a good thing that there is a civilian around to stand between the miscreant and the uniformed guarda civil.(police). As the saying goes, recited not-so-innocently early in the film, “undo the school cord and the sparrow will leave the cage” (abre a corda da escola sai o pardal da gaiola). Aniki-Bóbó is a beautifully realized rose nurturing its own special canker. In its final effects Ala-Arriba (1942) shows something of a family resemblance to Aniki-Bó-bó. Yet, reflecting its original impulse, it cannot decide visually whether it is a documentary of simple fisher-folk with a thin story line or a secular morality play buttressed by rather stunning footage of boats and men, and shore and seas. There is a National Geographic sense in which men are seen as fish-gatherers and net-menders and women as housewives (donas de casa), living in simple rooms with low benches for sitting and high beds built into alcoves. As quasi-documentary, this film succeeds admirably. As a morality play it tries to walk the line between sentimentality and-well, something else. That something else defies definition or even satisfactory description. It’s the presentation of folk values, however, that stays beyond the film. Unlike so many of the other films of this era, there are no policemen here, either uniformed patrols or investigatory plainclothesmen. But there is authority. Indeed it is almost as if there is at crucial times nothing but authority. Yet it is not the authority vested in institutions. It is the authority of the family, the clan, the occupational community, male elders, the “others.” A case in point: when a gypsy bilks a woman out of her golden earrings, it is not the police who are called in. Rather the victim bruits about her shameful loss until a male, the son, is moved to vindicate her by recovering them. The gypsy thief, a handsome young woman, is known to everyone. But it is the young man who must restore the victim’s honor. No matter that he recovers the earrings, however. What matters is that it becomes known that in the process he has been enticed into making love to the gypsy. We can skip the details of this entanglement and its rather somber consequences for the young man and the community. Suffice it to say that the “others” ostracize him and his father banishes him. Only the commission of an act of ocean bravery, to rush this matter of plot, restores him to favor and honor, bringing him to the marriage that means even more to the community, it seems, than it does to the young couple.
The message is pernicious-this statement of clear judgment and condemnation, social expiation in occupational action (not through the church, mind you), and communal order only on the terms established by the “others.” Everywhere personality is effaced and character is group defined. The life of these people is both brutish (they kill for a living) and dignified (their wants are few but their demands from each other are hard and unalterable). Their sense of morality is stern, brooking no questions, no challenges. Just how far one can go in interpreting Ala-Arriba as an allegory of Salazarist Portugal, though of great interest, cannot be definitively answered. Indeed, the film can be read broadly (and contradictorily) as supportive of the corporate elements of the state, as emblematic of the possibilities of a moral Portugal needing no political policing, and as a paean to the simple notion of folk-in-community as the ultimate strength of the nation. Only considerable distancing from this clever film-and then the angle, direction and extent of that distancing will be of subtle importance-will enable a logical interpretation with attendant judgment of this not-entirely blank check of a play.
An even more direct italicizing of homely, down-to-earth clan values (this time of in the Alfama) emerges from Fado (1948). There the rise of the fadista comes at the expense of the local bairro virtues of simplicity and loyalty. The star even loses her ability to sing the fado as it should be sung-that is to say, from the depths of her being-as she begins to relish and wallow in the decadence of furs and jewels and maids and telephones and five p.m. wake-up calls. That at the eleventh-hour she comes to her senses is of small import. (Her bairro lover should have set her down hard, she complains, when she was flying around like “an insane fly” (uma mosca doida), a simple slap in the face and one push into the gutter not being enough apparently.) Where it happens is predictable, though. She returns to the bairro, to the same small familial public hall where she breaks into song to join her estranged lover, her estranged accompanist. She sings a fado, not a flamenco song as she did at the ambassador’s house-the nadir of her reputation in the neighborhood (bairro). All’s right with the world. A puzzling thought occurs, though. How is music employed in these films? It is said that Antonio Salazar preferred the northern vira to the fado because the former was rugged, vibrant, energetic-all qualities he would have his nation embody. But there are no viras in these films, mainly fados. In fact, one scene actually serves to coach the viewer in how to listen to the way the singer of fados stylizes and conveys the emotional content of her song. The role of music and song in Portuguese political life and culture, especially during the Salazarist decades, invites serious investigation. One need recall only the way in which the military signaled the beginning of the revolution of the 25th of April-by playing over the radio a specific, hitherto-agreed upon piece of music-to suspect that there is fire under that smoke.
In only one of these films, A Vizinha do Lado (The Next-door Neighbor) (1945), is a policeman presented comically. Brought in to settle a squabble among neighbors over a fried-egg attack, this uniformed, bearded member of the guarda civil is abused by the maid-she even spits in his face and all over his uniform-who has her own dislike for policemen. This policeman, though, is just happy to get out alive. If the policeman is of no help in this domestic dispute, then neither, it can be inferred, is he intimidating or obtrusive. This particular image of authority is reinforced when an aging caller, a rather bumbling teacher (professor de liceu-of “morals,” to be sure) is taken for a plainclothesman, a member of the local police.
Yet there is more to this film of the forties. Its setting is urban, its principals witty, sophisticated bourgeoisie and free-living actor types, its sentimental accommodations extra-marital. No one escapes whipping in this light-hearted satire including, of course, the would-be philanderer (he’s unmarried)-the professor of morals. Even the final promise of the dual marriages will not undermine the satire-as the chopping up of the husband’s bouquet by an angry wife scorned provides a boutonniere (admittedly a rather sorry one) for the aged lover on the landing below, thereby turning the satire back on itself. It should be noted that this piece of contemporary criticism is set not in the Portugal of 1940 but that of 1912, with even a flashback to 1880 showing the professor’s sexual transgressions as a young man. The costuming, incidentally-except, conspicuously, for some top hats and a waistcoat or two-is largely contemporary, that is to say, anachronistically of the 1940s.
Camões (1946), a costume drama, drips with clichés of every sort, from the cinematic overlays to establish everything from the crossing of space and the passing of time, to deep emotion and the swashbuckling sword fights in the halls and stairways at court. Add to these a clichéd treatment of the poet’s life, already encrusted with the barnacles of rather banal legendry and you have a film sure to please the censors, to gain the condoning of the Government (if not its aesthetic approval) and to appeal to the hoi polloi. Here’s entertainment that looks back to the Portuguese historical past familiar to every single person. There’s no possible offense here, not one unit of the land’s legend of its greatest poet displaced or distorted. The young Camões, Coimbra student, makes poems and love with equal facility, as well as attracting the enduring, vindictive hatred of rivals in love and poetry. The criticism “Camões is the one who studies the least” (o Camões é que estuda menos) is answered by “and he’s the most knowledgeable of them all” (e é o que sabe mais“). Betrayed into a courtly entanglement engineered by a lover whose love is unrequited, he battles seemingly hordes of guards and retainers. Later, returning from exile in India, he survives shipwreck with his manuscript held over his head, free from the elemental waves that have already taken the life of his young slave lover.
The clichés of the film’s narrative are, if would seem, true to the romantic life as historically received (but now seriously questioned). Camões’s life was one of betrayal, punishment and exile. The poet of his time, he was not forgiven his trespasses-of satirizing nobility and of loving beyond his station and birthright-because he wrote well, nor was he forgiven by his enemies and rivals for having written well. Indeed, his story is one of harassment, imprisonment, and long exile. He loses the king’s permission to live in his homeland, he loses an eye in the service of his country in Ceuta, and he loses his health, youth and virility during his Indian exile. But through it all, his loyalty to his homeland does not abate.
In the course of the film there are two prison scenes, one of which centers on Camões, whose release depends on his going into exile in India. The key to what is implied by this harassment of the poet comes in a statement made, ironically, by a treacherous opponent, wounded by Camões, who is pressured into dropping charges against the poet when he is himself threatened with imprisonment: “So the guilty will go free and the innocent go to prison.” Indeed, that sums up exactly what the average viewer has seen as Camões’s fate throughout. And that the state-that is to say the constituted authorities-will succeed in doing just this over the long haul, despite the king’s official recognition of Os Lusíadas, is clear. King Sebastian, so fired up with the poem (which had passed the censors with flying colors, the film takes pains to demonstrate), goes off to his African death; and the message is clear. Camões, old and debilitated, sits out his days in an institutional room of some sort (it is never identified exactly as a prison, a hospital, a poorhouse, or anything else) and tells everyone (or the walls-there is no one there but, possibly, the ancient jailer’s daughter), that the nation will survive all, even as the film presents us with a concluding series of dates ending with a display of the great celebratory year of 1940.
Much is made at several points of Camões’s poem, composed to order, on the motive “The partridge has lost his quill/ There is no harm that will not befall him” (Perdigão perdeu a pena/ Não ha mal que lhe não venha“): “The partridge whose thought/ has placed him in high places,/ loses his feathers in the flight,/ gaining only the pain in torment./ Not in air or wind/ does he have the wing that can sustain him:/ There is no harm that will not befall him./ He wished to soar to a towering height/ But finding himself wingless/ without his feathers/ he dies of sheer pain./ If he resorts to complaint/ he but adds wood to the flames: there’s no harm that will not befall him.” (Perdigão, que o pensamento/ subiu em alto lugar,/ perde a pena do voar,/ ganha a pena do tormento./ Não tem no ar nem no vento/ asas com que se sutenha:/ não há mal que lhe não venha./ Quis voar a ữa alta torre/ mas achou-se desasado;/ e, vendo-se dependado,/ de puro penado morre./ Se a queixumes se socorre,/ lança no fogo mais lenha: não mal que lhe não venha).
This redondilha, which turns on the homologue pena (quill)/ pena (pain), makes dramatic appearances in the narrative: first when Camões, in courtly triumph, composes it on the spot to warm admiration and general approval; second, when years later, having fallen on the protractedly evil days that would last out his life, he recites the poem to himself; and still another time, when an enemy threatens him, ominously and surreptitiously, by reciting the line “throws more logs on the fire” (lança no fogo mais lenha). At first, the poem is unconsciously prophetic, for Camões does not know that he himself will act out the partridge’s fate. Later, he fits the poem to himself like a threadbare costume, having had every ill possible befall him. But beneath this personal application runs a more profound allegory that has to do with what nations do to their writers and what happens to both nations and writers as a consequence. If the partridge loses its feathers and his capability to fly, so too will a nation take away a writer’s pen-through the censor’s office, be it handmaiden of the church or state, and, finding that inadequate, through exile. If, as Camões in the film (as well as historically, we are told) identifies with the sparrow (perdigão) of his poem, can we not see in the analogical possibilities of Camões in 1946, a text for Salazarist Portugal with its various modes of censorship and forms of imprisonment as the fate of many talented and creative beings, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s? Fortunately for filmmakers the clichés of Camões’s life, dating from the late Renaissance, could always be rehearsed without arousing the censor’s suspicions and therefore with full impunity. It is what the film insists on, without misrepresenting, that matters. Never honored by the authorities (except briefly, for Os Lusíadas), the poet finds his true appreciators among the common folk of the “Malcosido” (Badly Cooked), a tavern in the Rossio.
George Monteiro is a lifelong student and teacher of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, contributing to the scholarship on numerous writers, including Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Adams, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot and Bob Dylan. His latest book is Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A Poetic Career Transformed (McFarland, 2012).