By Erica Abeel
The abiding humanism we’ve come to expect from Walter Salles is abundantly present in “Linha de Passe,” his luminous competition entry in this year’s Cannes. Co-directed with Daniela Thomas, the film explores the Brazilian underclass through the lives of four brothers who live with their mother on the outskirts of teeming SÃ£o Paulo. But though the family leads a hardscrabble life in an unforgiving milieu, “Linha” is no “City of God.” The brothers may skirt violence and crime, yet they struggle to reinvent themselves, continuing to search, however misguidedly, for a way to rise above their circumstances.
One son (VinÃcius de Oliveira from Salles’s “Central Station,” sole actor in a cast of non-pros) hopes to use soccer as his ticket out. A second braves the mockery of friends and family to embrace religion and assist a local pastor. Touchingly, the youngest boy, fathered by a black bus-driver, becomes obsessed with learning to drive a city bus. The matriarch a sort of Latin Mother Courage is middle-aged, worn, and, shockingly, pregnant, yet she manages to support the family as a housekeeper and hews to her own brand of morality.
Shot in a breathless quasi-documentary style and often indifferently lit, “Linha” alternates close-ups with rocketing rides down SÃ£o Paulo’s jammed roadways. There’s a sometimes uneasy mix of lyricism conveyed through the repeated motif of raised hands and gritty realism. Unlikely to do the boffo business of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Linha” is nonetheless an inspiriting installment in Salles’s ongoing examination of Brazil.
To what extent are the characters in “Linha de Passe” drawn from real life?
Generally, the film’s based on real stories that we’ve integrated into a single story. For instance, Reginaldo [the youngest son] was inspired by a real life story in Brazil: a fourteen-year-old boy went searching for his father, knowing only that he was a bus driver. The boy ended up driving a bus for three hours before getting stopped.
How did you share the directing with Daniela Thomas?
We just did it, I can’t really define how. Because we’re two, we become ten or twenty. The film is a team effort. There’s also lots of discussion with the crew and actors things are up for grabs. We’ve tried to return to the concept of film as a collective adventure, enriched by different perspectives. When I shoot with Daniela the result is harsher, grittier than if I were alone. It becomes more immediate with her on board. There’s a dialectic, everything’s shared, made with four hands. What I like about making a four-handed film is that it fosters the possibility of destabilization.
How much of “Linha de Passe” was improvised?
We didn’t block the actors the camera serves them. And there was constant improvisation at least twenty percent was not written. The actors had a lot of freedom in their gestures, action and language, which is very interesting.
Elsewhere you’ve stated that through film, you’d like to periodically take the pulse of life in Brazil. Is there a recurring theme?
Yes, there’s a chronic absence of the father in Brazil 25 percent are absent from the family. Women who run the family are a moral force. In the film there are ersatz fathers: the pastor, the bus driver, the trainer. But the mother in “Linha” says something very telling to her son: “I’m both the father and mother of all of you.” That’s also true for me and Daniela!
It seems as if SÃ£o Paulo is almost a 6th character in “Linha de Passe.” Could you explain how the city is used in the film?
SÃ£o Paulo is huge. There’s no escape from it, like in Rio, where there’s the sea. SÃ£o Paulo is overwhelming its streets, underpasses, new neighborhoods and constant growth. It’s like a city at the end of the world. We dove into the city’s outskirts. We knew where the family lived, which buses they took. The characters lived together in the house where we shot the film
There are many intersecting stories in the film. What was your organizing principle?
We saw the script not only as a single dramatic structure, but as about characters who dive into each other. In the editing room we tried different ways of breaking up the scenes, but in the final montage we returned to our original vision. It’s a dysfunctional family, a family in collision. But there’s also a deep connection between them. This film goes in search of that connection, in search of that fraternity. You can’t romanticize Brazil. What you can do is make a film that includes violence, yet rejects it. The fact is 90 percent of Brazilians try to surmount violence. I wanted to make a film, for once, that portrays Brazil as a place where people want to find a way out.
[Photos: “Linha de Passe”; director Walter Salles – PathÃ© Pictures International, 2008]