Screened January 23 2009 at the MoMA Education Center, New York NY
The current wave of art cinema in Latin America – featuring the likes of Carlos Reygadas, Lucretia Martel, Lisandro Alsonso et al – boasts as much boldness of vision and cinematic lyricism as the region has ever seen. But even the best of these films can’t match the breathtaking audacity of one of the earliest films from Brazil. Limite existed for decades as apocrypha, its only surviving print sequestered during a 20-plus-year restoration process interrupted by confiscation by the nation’s military dictatorship. The only film by novelist Mario Peixoto looks like a summation of 1920s silent avant garde techniques that Peixoto absorbed while in Europe, but launches into new dimensions of synthesis that carries the viewer aloft on the feverish velocity of its inspiration. Peixoto practically exhausts the lexicon of silent cinematography with every shot conceivable from the era, but arranges them in a cascading visual pattern of sharp angles, deceptively vast vistas and sumptuous close-ups of worldly surfaces. I can’t think of another film that savors its shots as much as this one, taking each one in long enough that even mundane images (train engines, spools of thread, telephone poles, a woman’s silk stockinged calves) ooze with sinister energies. It’s a world turned upside down: a woman set atop an endless hilltop view of the Brazillian shoreline swoons, the camera spinning wildly in vertiginous ecstasy; a roomful of cinemagoers laughing at a Charlie Chaplin movie achieves a nightmarish lunacy. Each shot hangs in the air before evaporating into the next; the ghostly traces of each image build a sinuous path resisting the limits of worldly logic with the assured intuition of a dream. I desperately need to see this film again, but upon first glance, comparisons to Sunrise [TSPDT #12] are not unwarranted.
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ANALYSIS OF OPENING SEQUENCE
It was with one single image – the opening image of the film – of the face of a woman seen between cuffed hands, that the dream of Limite began. As Peixoto said in an interview recorded in 1983: ‘The idea for Limite came about by chance. I was in Paris, having come over from England where I was studying, and I was passing by a newspaper stand when I saw a magazine with a photograph of a woman on the cover, with arms wrapped around her chest, handcuffed. A man’s arms. And the magazine was called Vu (no. 74, 14 August 1929)… I carried on walking and I could not get the image out of my mind. And right after that, I saw this sea of fire and a woman clinging to the remnants of a sinking ship.’
The second image – the detail of the cuffed hands – grew out of the first; the third – the eyes – from the hands;
the sea of flames, from out of the eyes;
the eyes from out of the sea; the face of the woman with her eyes closed, from out of the wide open eyes; and the woman sitting on the edge of the boat, from out of the woman with her eyes closed. All these images are bound together in a series of fusions or visual links, that mirror how the idea for the film evolved in the mind of the director and how the film itself, as it emerges on the screen, must pass through the mind of the spectator. One image transforms into another through this extraordinary process of fusion. The eyes that emerge from the clinging hands sink into the sea of flames and return to the surface only to disappear and close in the face of the woman. Everything is designed to be seen, but seen by eyes that arise from between cuffed hands, and are consumed in a sea of flames. Everything, from the lines of composition to the texture of the image, reminds us that cinema does not open the eyes. On the contrary, it closes, narrows and limits them. Too little light – the murky darkness behind the face and the cuffed hands, focusing the eye on the foreground – and nothing else can be seen. Too much – the fierce sunlight sparkling on the waves – and the viewer is almost blinded and forced to close their eyes. A still shot, the focus is narrowed to one point: a section of measuring tape, cotton reel, scissors, An open shot and there is too much movement: the camera abandonging the woman on the rocks to career from one section of landscape to another, unable to settle on anything. The image conceals more than it reveals…
…In reality, cinema offers us a limited vision of the world. It causes us to see less, and less well. And this is its strength. Cinema, the film suggests, makes the visible invisible. It blurs and obscures. Everything in films begins with a cut, as if the cry ‘Cut!’ normally used to interrupt filming, here serves to begin the process; and the cry of ‘Action!’ to end it. The action belongs to the spectator.
- Jose Carlos Avellar, The Cinema of Latin America. Edited by Alberto Elena, Marina Díaz López. Wallflower Press, 2003. Pages 17-18
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Limite among the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They? list of the 1000 Greatest Films:
Carlos Alberto De Mattos -Epoca (2000)
Nelson Pereira Dos Santos- Balaio (1996)
Nicole Brenez – Kevin B. Lee Poll (2008)
Paulo Betti – Epoca (2000)
Pedro Butcher – Epoca (2000)
Rogerio Sganzerla – Epoca (2000)
Rubens Ewald Filho – Epoca (2000)
Walter Salles – Epoca (2000)
Kazakh Cinematheque World Poll – 100 Best Films (2006)
Limite: a hypnotic tale spun by a silent sphinx; the one and only film Mario Peixoto ever made; and one of the greatest expressions of the silent cinema, beyond borders, beyond time.
- Pacze Moj, Critical Culture, who offers an astounding scene by scene illustrated account of the film
Sometimes cited as the greatest of all Brazilian films, this silent experimental feature (1931) by novelist Mario Peixoto, who never completed another film, was seen by Orson Welles and won the admiration of everyone from Sergei Eisenstein to Walter Salles. But its status as a poetic narrative–about a man and two women lost at sea in a rowboat, whose pasts are conveyed in flashbacks–has kept it in the margins of most film histories, where it’s been known mainly as a provocative and legendary cult item. The remarkably luscious and mobile cinematography (for which cameraman Edgar Brazil had to build special equipment) alone makes it well worth seeing.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
The restorer of the film, Sãulo Pereira de Mello, defines the film: “Limite is a cosmic tragedy, a cry of anguish, a piercing meditation on human limitations, a painful and icy acknowledgment of human defeat. It is a tragic film, a glacial tragedy.”
More than a mere vehicle for one or three stories, Limite expresses defeat and desolation, and the impotence of the three characters, adrift forever, at outs with the forces of nature. This defeat is shown through the careful editing, paced and rhythmical, replete with dissolving images (such as the wheel of a train which becomes the wheel of a sewing machine) or the alternating close-ups which reshape parts of the body (feet, eyes, neck, mouths, hair) and inanimate objects (the magnificent sequence of the sewing accessories—buttons, cotton reels, scissors). Another example of skillful editing which produces a highly impactful scene takes place in a cinema, during a Chaplin screening. Mario Peixoto rapidly alternates clips from the film with shots of the cackling mouths of the audience, producing a sequence of high drama.
A young man’s only film, in no manner does Limite appear to be the work of a novice. At every level the high standards and confidence of a director who had fully honed the tools of his trade are evident, as are his existentialist convictions. Today, Limite, available in video and shown at several international festivals, is exposed to fresh scrutiny which renews its impact and mystery. But the riddle of its creator, perhaps an unwitting victim of having reached his creative limits with his first film, persists; Mario Peixoto spent the next 60 years of his life as a voluntary castaway from his time, reliving the isolation of the characters of his first and only film.
—Susana Schild, Film Reference.com
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.
For a theoretical approach on Limite, one may think of fluidity and continuity as two central terms, not so much in regard to the structural concept which is based on visual and rhythmic variations and not continuation as the main filmic principle, but in regard to the underlying philosophical ambition: the oscillation between a fluid memory stream and solid, concrete objects and episodes, which emerge as fixed points in the continuity of time. This proposal is quite clearly formulated in the article by Peixoto A movie from South America – formerly attributed to Eisenstein – which I understand as one of his few theoretical statements. Here, Peixoto first emphasizes the role of the “camera-brain” and the “instinctive rhythmic film-structure” of Limite, and then defines the film as somewhere between a singular , outstanding work of art and a completely anonymous item, “unidentifiable in the inexpressive crowds” and which’s “poetic evasion is built on a vigorous plan of adaptation to the real” (Mello 2000: 85).
For Peixoto, the experience offered by Limite cannot be adequately captured by language, but was made to be felt. Therefore, the spectator should subjugate himself to the images as to “anguished cords of a synthetic and pure language of cinema” (88). According to the director, his film is “meticulously precise as invisible wheels of a clock”, where long shots are surrounded and linked by shorter ones as in a “planetary system” (88). Peixoto characterizes Limite as a “desperate scream” aiming for resonance instead of comprehension. “The movie does not want to analyze. It shows. It projects itself as a tuning fork, a pitch, a resonance of time itself” (88), capturing the flow between past and present, object details and contingence as if it had always “existed in the living and in the inanimate”, or detaching itself tacitly from them. Since Limiteis more of a state than an analysis, characters and narrative lines emerge, followed by a probing camera exploring angels, details, possibilities of access and fixation, only then to fade out back into the unknown, a visual stream with certain densifications or illustrations within the continues flow of time. According to Peixoto, all these poetic transpositions find “despair and impossibilities”; a “luminous pain” which unfolds in rhythm and coordinates the “images of rare precision and structure” (91). The oscillation between the fluid and the solid, the outstanding and the unidentifiable, the concrete object and the abstraction is a basic principle not only for this film but also for his literary work.
If we follow these outlines, we may see Limite as a film with a clear, elaborate and recognizable concept, maybe difficult to identify at first sight but emerging fuller at each screening one assists. This may explain Peixoto’s dislike for surrealistic movies, specifically those of Buñuel and the rejection of chance as an artistic principle as we find in Man Ray or Dada.
- Michael Korfmann, MarioPeixoto.com
“Limite” doesn’t exactly belong in the Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors/New Films series, because it was first released almost 50 years ago and was directed by a Brazilian, Mario Peixoto, who is now almost 70 years old. However, its inclusion in the series can be explained by its relative obscurity, the praise it received from Sergei Eisenstein and its extraordinarily youthful energies. “Limite” is feverishly beautiful and desperately ambitious, even when it isn’t clear.
Mr. Peixoto, who is reportedly at work on something new, anticipated in “Limite” a great many camera movements that have since become commonplace, and the air of discovery is one of the things that keeps “Limite” exciting. His camera zooms in on a subject even if that means zooming out of focus, or executes a dizzyingly precarious 360-degree whirl. He shoots up at his actors from such a low angle that a telephone pole appears to hover over them, or devotes long sections of the film exclusively to the players’ feet. His choices are flashy, impetuous and never less than interesting.
However, “Limite” is of more technical than dramatic importance. Beginning with two women and a man adrift in an open boat, and following each of them through more-or-less imaginary adventures on land, the narrative is elusive at best. Despair is evidently meant to be the overriding sentiment, but despair is easily upstaged by the glorious Brazilian scenery. It’s hard to share the misery of a woman contemplating suicide when the bay into which she may jump shimmers exquisitely and is bounded by a spectacular mountainside.
Mr. Peixoto appears briefly near the end of the film, sitting mysteriously in a graveyard and announcing something — on one of the few title cards — about leprosy. He is gaunt, intense-looking and faintly diabolical, as befits the author of so solemn and furious a first effort.
Janet Maslin, The New York Times, April 21 1979
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.
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.
The reception given to Limite has been partially influenced by certain myths surrounding the movie… Due to the lengthy restoration process, it disappeared for almost 20 years, and there was speculation that the film had actually never existed. The fact is that, in 1959, the nitrate film began to deteriorate and two dedicated admirers, Plinio Süssekind and Saulo Pereira de Mello, started a frame-by-frame restoration of the last existing negative. Limite only returned to festivals and screenings in 1978. Even though hardly anybody could see the movie between 1959 and 1978 – as in the case of Sadoul and his unsuccessful trip to Rio de Janeiro in 1960 – it still served as a reference for controversial discussions and statements. In 1963, Glauber Rocha, a leading figure within the “new cinema”, the Cinema Novo, described Peixoto as “far from reality and history” and the unseen movie as “unable to comprehend the contradictions of bourgeois society”, and a “contradiction historically overcome”, only to confirm his judgement of Limite as a product of the intellectually decadent bourgeoisie again in 1978, after finally having seen it. Even though Cinema Novo and Limite do share common grounds with regard to low-cost production, financed partially by the actors, directors and producers involved in the respective project, and similar concepts of camera movements and angles can even be found overall, with regard to the use of a “untied” free-moving handheld camera as an important filmic element, Rocha and his colleagues did not merely have the intention of creating an æsthetic revolution within the national film scene. In his manifesto, “Aesthetics of hunger”, from 1965, he made it clear that the rejection of colonial, exotic and primitive views about Brazil that misinterpreted the social reality and contributed towards its present-day misery was the main objective of his artistic production. Cinema Novo “intended to show the violence of hunger through appropriate aesthetics of violence”, thereby replacing tropical clichés by images of poverty in all its aspects: landscapes, dialogues and lightning, or showing “people eating dirt, people killing to eat, people running away to eat, and dirty ugly filthy characters”.
- Michael Korfmann, “On Brazilian Cinema: From Mario Peixoto’s Limite to Walter Salles,” Senses of Cinema
Saulo Pereira de Mello, who dedicated his life to the film; who persevered, studied and restored it, and who realised his dream as no other spectator ever has.
To see Limite today is to see the film through Saulo’s eyes. Seventy years after the first screening and fifty after Saulo first saw it, it is impossible to separate the film from the myth that has grown up around it; to separate it from the spectator who never tired of repeating that ‘no film is more beautiful, intense, pognant and powerful,’ and that the experience of seeing it is ‘an unforgettable experience… and intense, transcendent pleasure because it is a work of art of enormous stature.’
Saulo’s story begins in the early 1950s. A physics student with a vague interest in dating a literature student accepts an invitation from the would-be girlfriend to stay on campus and see a film due to be screened later that evening. Saulo remembers accepting the invitation more out of a desire to spend some time with the girl than because he wanted to watch a silent Brazilian movie. The prospective girlfriend remained exactly that but since that screening, Saulo – seduced by the images projected before him – spurned physics in order to dedicate himself to cinema. More specifically, silent cinema and the film that first aroused his passion for the medium. Not only did he see the film countless times, he kept the only existing nitrate copy at his home until he was able to make another negative. The restoration completed, he threw himself into studying the creative process behind the film.
Saulo has said that all his work on the film has been inspired by ‘feelings experienced during its projection.’ The session was one of those organized every year by Professor Plinio Sussekind Rocha at the National Faculty of Philosophy. One of the founders of the Chaplin Club, created in June 1928, the professor helped organize the first screening of Limite, in May 1931.
‘Do you think there’s a chance Limite might be lost? Is there anything you can do with this film? This was asked in 1954 after a screening without the second reel, the nitrate print having deteriorated to the point where it could no longer be passed through a projector. Professor Rocha – at this time the sole guardian of the film – contacted Saulo and pleaded with him to help him save the film. The original negative had long since been lost and Edgar Brazil, the film’s cinematographer, who had been responsible for preserving the only existing copy, had recently died. The print was then kept at the National Faculty of Philosophy until 1966 when it was impounded by the order of Federal Police under the military dictatorship, together with Mat (Mother, 1926) by Vsevolod Pudovkin and Segei Eisenstein’s Bronienosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1926).
Released by the police, the film ended up in the hands of Saulo, who stepped up the fight against decomposition and hardly managed to raise funds for its restoration. At the end of the 1970s, a new negative was taken of the nitrate copy and the restoration was almost complete, but as Saulo writes ‘it was no possible to save the section where the First Man helps the Second Woman, and so in the version in circulation today this section has been replaced by a caption.’ Saulo then decided that in order to better understand the film, he should photograph ‘the only nitrate copy still in existence, made under the supervision of Edgar Brazil.’ He erected a special table in his apartment, with spools and a rough back-lit screen. He placed his camera in front of the table and photographed every scene of the film, frame by frame, taking many pictures of each scene to capture the internal movement of the image.
- Jose Carlos Avellar, The Cinema of Latin America. Edited by Alberto Elena, Marina Díaz López. Wallflower Press, 2003. 15-17
ABOUT MARIO PEIXOTO
For many, the first genius of Brazilian cinema and its most individual and daring author. Born in 1910 in Rio de Janeiro, he spent part of his youth in London and Paris, where he came into contact with the European vanguard, the Soviet revolutionary cinema and German expressionism. Poet, romantic writer and author of one single film, Limite, Mário Peixoto spent most of his life as a recluse in the region of Angra dos Reis, on the south coast of Rio de Janeiro. Before its restoration in the 70s, Limite had been little seen but much admired, including abroad, where it gained the admiration of the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisentein, amongst others. Mysterious, accursed, obscure, sublime – these were the adjectives most used to describe Limite since its début in 1930. Peixoto left two films unfinished in 1931 (Onde a Terra Acaba – Where the Land Ends, and Maré – Tide) and collaborated anonymously on the script of Estrela da Manhã (Morning Star, by Jornal, 1950). In the 50s he was not able to carry on with a project titled A Alma Segundo Salustre (The Soul According to Salustre), whose script had been published in book form in 1953. Peixoto died in 1991.