By Ela Bittencourt
Translated from Portuguese by Ela Bittencourt
Davi Pretto’s debut feature-length film, Castanha, dubbed as a chronicle in the Art of the Real series at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, is an intimate portrait of a cross-dressing performer from Porto Alegre, Brazil. João Pedro Castanha plays himself in a film where performance scenes mingle with daily routines and gestures, and in which the separation between stage and life, fantasy and reality, becomes increasingly blurred.
In his everyday life, Castanha slips through many roles: a devoted son who lives with his ailing mother and tries to shield her from his nefarious, crack-addicted nephew, Marcelo; a performer of radio plays; an extra in a movie. But most of all, Castanha lives for the stage—for the moment when the glamorous, decadent women that he portrays in clubs and cabarets taunt the audience with their transgressive gestures and jokes, rendering Castanha’s own inconspicuous physique grander than life.
In an inversion of reality and stage, it is in his performances that Castanha’s “real life” seems to really lie, whereas his actual daily routines are at times rendered with a sluggish pulse, as if they’re taking place in a state of semi-consciousness. The shabby glamour of show biz also hides the haunting memories of lovers and friends that Castanha has lost to AIDS, a sadness that’s deepened by the suffocating, lonely aura of Porto Alegre, which also hints at violence. These painful aspects of Castanha’s life emerge in casual conversations offstage, and then in dream sequences. Pretto, who previously worked with Castanha on a short film in 2008, uses somber interiors to draw us into Castanha’s at once incandescent and shadowy psyche, which ultimately remains mysterious.
—Ela Bittencourt for Guernica
Guernica: Castanha is your first full-length film. What challenges did you encounter while making it?
Davi Pretto: Similar to the ones I faced with my shorts. They were mainly financial, since in Brazil it’s not easy to finance movies. Castanha was made with 60,000 reais (around 25,000 dollars). In Brazil, that’s roughly enough for a low-budget short. It’s quite hard to mount a production that requires a team working for a long time on that amount. Luckily, we had a dedicated crew that had worked with me on my shorts. I always work with the same people, and this made it possible to shoot on a shoestring budget. Aside from that, making this film happen was pleasurable and fun.
Guernica: I loved the sense of place that you convey in the film—the city’s traffic and clubs, the feeling of the desolate urban areas overshadowed by concrete, especially at night. To what extent were you conscious of making a portrait of Porto Alegre—and to some extent, of urban Brazil—as much as telling João’s story?
Davi Pretto: That’s a great question. No one has ever asked me that, but I do love the city’s presence in the film. I find that it has lots of locations that are very expressive, cinematic, such as the condominium where João lives, and which represents much of the lower middle class in Brazil that’s being threatened by violence. Hence the high walls, the gates and the electric fences. I’m a big fan of the book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino and like to think that cities reflect the habits, problems, and peculiarities of the people who inhabit them.
Guernica: At one point, when João watches television, you show the protests that took place in São Paulo in 2013. João doesn’t react or comment, but does his story have anything to do with the bigger story of the ills that continue to plague Brazil, particularly with violence and homophobia?
The film looks the way it does because I don’t believe in the division between fiction and documentaries. Cinema has to flow freely, the way life does.
Davi Pretto: I believe it has a lot to do with it, even if the connections that I’ve made are subtle. Brazil is extremely conservative, homophobic, macho, and racist. Even more so in Porto Alegre [in the South of Brazil]. But the Brazilian middle class likes to mask its prejudices and to pay lip service to liberal ideas. We’re going through an economic boom, even though it’s often superficial. The current optimism belies the fact that a lot of important issues aren’t being addressed. And that’s what the protests were about. I wanted to frame the film in this context, because even though João didn’t participate in the protests, he’s definitely one of the people who are being affected by discrimination.
Guernica: I wonder if you saw Karim Aïnouz’s Madame Satã about a cross-dressing performer from the 1930s, also inspired by a true story, and were in any way influenced by it?
Davi Pretto: I did see the film a long time ago. But I must say that I wasn’t thinking of it. My references come to a much greater extent from John Cassavetes, Jean Pierre Melville, Miguel Gomes and John Carpenter. These influences might not be very apparent in Castanha, but they have been very important to me.
Guernica: Your film has been described as a “hybrid” between fiction and documentary. Did you always know that’s what you wanted it be?
Davi Pretto: I did. The film looks the way it does because I don’t believe in the division between fiction and documentaries. Cinema has to flow freely, the way life does. I don’t live my life based on any preset limits, and it’s the same thing with the movies. In early cinema, a train coming your way was just that, you saw a train coming. It was both fiction and a document. When I studied film, my teachers tried to teach me the difference between the two, but I think I simply refused to learn it. That’s why Castanha is difficult to classify, and ends up being called a hybrid. For me, it’s simply a film.
Guernica: What was your process like? Are you against writing scripts for documentaries?
Davi Pretto: I’m up for anything that helps me make a film. I wrote a script for Castanha, which was about forty-pages—ninety scenes long. We filmed following it, but we also had time to shoot other things. Some things as they were actually happening during the shoot, others invented on the spot, still others happening by accident. It was a mix of different approaches and ways of filming. The important thing for me was to discover how to be honest in each situation, while searching to define the essence of João and Celina.
In the end, only the fictions can heal us. Only fiction shows us a way of dealing with the strange and absurd reality in which we are presently living.
Guernica: With João’s dreams, we go deeper into his psychology, and the film keeps shifting from reality to fantasy, from life to performance. Were the dreams your idea, did João talk about them, or both?
Davi Pretto: Both. João told me about a lot of things that he had dreamed and felt, or others that he had lived through. For example, the scene with the ghost of his ex-lover in the bedroom is based on a story that João told me, which he also retells in the film to a friend backstage at the bar where he performs. And the opening scene, where you see João naked and covered in blood, was a dream that I had, while in I was in the middle of writing the script and was talking to João in pre-production. So the dreams and the nightmares that our characters have on the screen mix with our own.
Guernica: What else was invented? For example, the story of Marcelo’s addiction to crack and João paying to get him beaten up—are these parts of João’s personal life?
Davi Pretto: Everything is an invention, if you think of it in the sense that even the real things that end up happening to us may seem surreal beforehand. But at the same time, it all feels real the minute it happens, even if somehow it isn’t. Technically speaking, though, the film has many invented parts, and others that are “real.” It would be quite hard to parse them out, unless we did it scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot. Even our team on the shoot didn’t know exactly if certain scenes that we were filming were “real” or “fictional.” I’m quite happy to leave this line between reality and fiction so blurry. Leaving it abstract allows us to think about the mystery of our own lives. But getting back to your question, a good portion of the plot with Marcelo is real; he did have a problem with crack, and he did turn violent. The ending of the story, where João arranges to have him killed, is fictive.
Guernica: To what extent then is João’s life just another role that he plays, or is there a clear distinction between real life and the stage?
Davi Pretto: I don’t know. The film explores precisely this fine line. Our lives are marvelous constructs, caught between the real and fiction. We are always inventing fictions. We create our own roles and stories that we then interpret to our friends and colleagues. And I’m not the one who came up with this idea; it’s been around for a long time. In Jung, for example. But in the end, only the fictions can heal us. Only fiction shows us a way of dealing with the strange and absurd reality in which we are presently living.
Castanha plays in the Art of the Real series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York on April 19 and April 23.
Ela Bittencourt is a writer, critic, and translator. Her essays and interviews have been published in various publications, including Cineaste, Artforum, Frieze Magazine and The Brooklyn Rail. She can be found on Twitter @Ela_Bittencourt.