March 6, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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Sometimes, before we can really accept and deal with a problem, we need to be hit over the head with the very reality of that problem’s existence. In cases like this, subtle social commentary or satire just won’t do — that’s why we can just laugh nervously at the quick wit of Doonesbury, but Michael Moore is a lot harder to brush off. Like Moore, Brazilian director Sergio Bianchi isn’t exactly subtle in his commentary. His film Chronically Unfeasible is a dark, angry, hard-hitting look at the conditions in his native country. Rather than going for a straight documentary approach or attempting to bury his themes within a traditional narrative structure, Bianchi synthesizes the two styles, adding a unique theatricality all his own, to create what could be an entirely new genre.

Each scene within the film is carefully — and very obviously — staged; this is a meta-film in the truest sense of the word. In many respects, the film feels more like a stage play. Each scene has a GRAND SOCIAL POINT embedded rather explicitly in the action, a fact which the director himself cleverly points out (in case you didn’t get it yet) by rewinding a scene and replaying it, a narrator proclaims, so the commentary would be less obvious.

In some cases, this commentary is verbally explicit, as when it’s delivered in voiceover by an aging author or bandied about as dinner conversation by a group of vapid upper-class socialites. In these cases, the director seems to be casting a knowing wink at his audience; these scenes are constructed to hit us over the head so that we can’t possibly escape or ignore the points being made. At the same time, though, Bianchi is more subtly poking fun at even these central characters; for all the solutions and designations of blame made in the film by various characters, no one seems to be able to actually do anything to fix the problems they’re complaining about. As a waiter points out to his continually whining rich clientele, they are the oppressors, not the oppressed.

This thread of blame and responsibility runs throughout the film, and is one of Bianchi’s crucial concerns. Every character and group in Unfeasible has a theory about Brazil’s social dilemmas, and most of these theories, unsurprisingly, revolve around shifting the blame to someone else. Ultimately, no one is willing to accept the responsibility, a fact Bianchi hammers home with a series of metaphors. Most tellingly, the film is bookended by two car crashes; in both cases, the driver of the car vociferously denies blame for killing a street kid. The blame is passed off to everyone else — other cars, irresponsible parents, the government — as long as nobody has to take on personal accountability. As a result of this prevailing mentality, the masses of Brazil remain oppressed and miserable, the victims of a government that pacifies them with hollow entertainment, loud music, and a blind sense of national pride.

Though in some sense Unfeasible is simply a vehicle for Bianchi’s social messages (as powerful and relevant as his ideas are), it also happens to be a stunningly executed film. The film’s narrative structure is loose and highly stylized, focusing on a handful of anecdotes about a few different characters who are somewhat linked to one another. The movie frequently takes unexpected detours, jumping around in time and even taking the liberty of creating alternate realities for some of the characters. In the process, Bianchi takes us on a geographical and socio-political trip around Brazil, covering the viewpoints of people from every region and socio-economic group.

Unfeasible boldly dissects the modern situation in Brazil. Issues of national character, economic strife, internal conflict, the class struggle, democracy, and ethnic discrimination are all woven into a film that is both abstract and realistic. Bianchi juggles all these concepts as well as addressing the relevance of his own art and the role of art in general in social change, and comes up with a film of such rich, startling sincerity and ingenuity that it is impossible to ignore.

Archived article by Ed Howard