Born in Bahia, Brazil in 1942, Caetano has since released 41 albums (his latest, the Grammy-winning zii e zie, was released in the U.S. in 2010). Today Caetano is known worldwide both as a great songwriter and as an artist unafraid of challenging the status quo. For 50 years, he has used his celebrity platform to project visions for a better world, “looking,” as Pareles writes, “beyond matters of melody, harmony and rhythm, to reflect on the paradoxes and possibilities of history.”
Caetano rose to prominence in the 1960s, at first drawing on Bossa Nova for his songs but quickly developing his own distinctive style. He transmuted diverse forms of expression—British and American rock and roll, 50s art movements, avant-garde and traditional poetry and 60s global resistance movements—into a new, wholly Brazilian sound, while proving himself enormously gifted as a performer. Along with a loosely affiliated group of young poets, writers, intellectuals and musicians (foremost among them Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Maria Bethania), Caetano initiated and led an explosive artistic movement known as Tropicalismo, which energized Brazil’s resistance movement against the military dictatorship that, in the late 60s, had begun dominating—and terrorizing—the country.
Arrested and then exiled, Caetano and Gil returned to Brazil in 1972 to hero status. In the years since, Caetano has continually expanded his artistic boundaries, embracing new forms of music and writing ever-more moving and poetic lyrics. His career also has been long entwined with cinema. He found inspiration in the French New Wave as a teenager, and has since worked with Pedro Almodóvar and Carlos Diegues. His memoir, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil (Knopf, 2002), details the moment when he discovered Cinema Nova, the radical Brazilian film movement that impacted filmmaking worldwide.
He spoke with Telluride curator Peter Sellars, a longtime friend, by phone about four of the films he is bringing: Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil (1964), René Clair’s Les grandes manoeuvres (1955), Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) and Leonardo Favio’s Aniceto (2008).
PETER SELLARS: Caetano! Great man! Beautiful being! (Laughing)
CAETANO VELOSO: This must be Peter! (Laughing) A big hug.
SELLARS: I can’t believe I’ll be seeing you in the Rocky Mountains! I just read your beautiful Telluride program. First, thank you for bringing Glauber Rocha back.
VELOSO: It’s a great movie, that one. Really incredible.
SELLARS: We’re in an era where no one will dare to speak politically the way this movie does.
VELOSO: Well, that was characteristic of that period. It was a hard way of looking at the world. It’s coming back, in hard, strange and difficult ways. It has been too cool lately. That’s why the world has become so dangerous. But it is getting hotter.
SELLARS: The film is so shattering, and takes no prisoners, and refuses compromise. It’s really inspiring. It’s not leftist intellectual discussion. You feel people put their bodies on the line.
VELOSO: The very beginning of the movie, with very precise images of a man with his hat waving, is so pure and so strong. It fills us with a strange hope. It’s really something. It’s a unique visual experience. The images are so powerful that they even fight with the ideas. Sometimes Glauber’s ideas seem to be straightforward, but the images that he photographed and looked at speak louder and in a different way. He seems to bewilder himself.
SELLARS: The film has an incredible ability to keep so much anger and lyricism together.
VELOSO: That’s very Brazilian. It’s definitely a poetical film. It’s a film of poetry, instead of most films, which are prose films.
SELLARS: I haven’t seen it for decades on the big screen. Thank you for bringing it and letting it roar and shake the way it needs to. I never saw this René Clair film.
: It’s a film I love dearly. It’s a film I loved as an adolescent. When I saw it as a teenager, I was so impressed. It fits the idea of perfection. And when I was a mature man in the 1990s, I saw it again, and I was amazed to see my teenage impressions confirmed. It is a comedy, a sad comedy, but light and very respectful of the characters. And the rhythm, the way people move around and say their lines: Everything feels like a dance. Everything is so fluid. I was in love with it. I never again heard anybody say it was important, or interesting, or exciting. But I kept the image I had of it. It is really a masterpiece, a very quiet, almost modest masterpiece
SELLARS: Is it a perfect bourgeois world?
VELOSO: No, it’s a very subtle criticism of the whole bourgeois possibilities of grace and happiness. It’s a very delicate work of art, filtered by artistic sensibilities. It’s naturally refined, a work that makes the art of film deserve respect and attention. You must see it.
SELLARS: You have totally prepared my appetite.
VELOSO: Let’s see it together.
SELLARS: For me, Vivre sa vie was the film that started my entire consciousness of film. In my first year of college, my freshman year, I took a class which spent 15 weeks only on this film. One scene per week. Back and forth on the Steenbeck, following every reference, tracing every edit. It’s such an incredible masterpiece.
VELOSO: Yeah, and that time was worthwhile. You couldn’t have a better beginning. This is one of the most brilliant experiments in filmmaking. It’s really a work of art (comparable) to any in literature, poetry, painting, theater or music.
SELLARS: Godard really makes you have to deal with prostitution, not in some romantic way. He refuses to do the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold thing. He refuses to do the, “Oh, my God, these are the oppressed.” You get nothing but a really raw, quiet experience. Nothing is exaggerated. It hits you so hard.
VELOSO: It’s true, it’s true. When you see her dying in the end, it’s a complete, total, unique experience, as every death truly is. It’s powerful because it’s not stressed. She goes alone to the cinema, and sees Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. The juxtaposition of Dreyer’s images and Anna Karina’s face crying in the cinema … it’s so understated. Every element looks necessary.
SELLARS: It doesn’t feel like an idea, it feels like an experience. He was imagining Brecht’s Mother Courage and the life of a heroic woman. But he made something so much more beautiful than Brecht.
VELOSO: Yes, it’s true. That’s not something that happens often.
SELLARS: Is there something I should know about this Argentinean film?
Veloso: You mean Aniceto? It’s an incredible film by this man who is unique in movie history. He’s an Argentinean, a half naive, half experimental creator. He also is a musician. He made very sentimental songs that were very popular but not very respected in Argentina. Some of his movies have a kitsch aspect to them. Even the most kitsch of his films are not subdued or oppressed by their naiveté. In this case, he made a very radical film, with just dancing. It’s a remake of a big success, his second movie, with the same story and characters. But instead of the dialogue and realism, it’s now all danced, really danced. The images are powerful, and he is so free. That’s why it is very impressive, because his taste is entirely his. It’s the only film I chose from the 21st century. He’s an original.
SELLARS: So it updates René Clair completely?
VELOSO: René Clair’s movie only feels like it’s all danced. This movie is all danced. And they are both poetic.
Peter Sellars, a Resident Curator at the Telluride Film Festival, is a theater director. His Desdemona, starring Rokia Traore, from an original script by Toni Morrison, premieres in six cities this fall.