Brazilian Suzana Amaral's impressive debut feature (made when she was 52, having enrolled at NYU Film School after raising nine children) is a stark portrait of Macabéa, a young office typist surviving in the slums of Sao Paolo. At first Macabéa's ignorance and nose-picking lack of social graces test the audience's sympathies, seemingly as gratuitous as a Farrelly Brothers gross-out. But it's a tough kind of empathy Amaral is striving for, not flinching from the piss-pot details of Macabéa's life while teetering on the brink of dunking the audience's faces in it. Making great use of the expressive deadpan of unglamorous lead actress Marcelia Cartaxo, Amaral is able to convey a rich interior landscape of thought and desire in her protagonist with even the most unadorned camerawork (unassuming even during a couple of fantasy sequences). Amaral also exudes Macabéa's stream of consciousness through a dense soundtrack of radio programs spewing useless trivia (which Macabéa later regurgitates to her chauvinistic loser boyfriend) and an electronic score whose chintzy tinniness seems oddly suitable to the heroine's aesthetic disposition. Blessed with a densely descriptive novel by Clarice Lispector as its source text, the script and art direction impart volumes of incidental information about life as an urban Brazilian girl working barely above the poverty line. But extending beyond social realist reportage, the dreamy sequences where Macabéa rides the subway (the scent of men's exposed armpits inciting dreams of love) or dances with a bedsheet on her head as a bride in waiting, complement the sordid mundane existence that surrounds these lyrical oases.
Cited for the 1000 Greatest Films by the following lists:
Anneke Smelik, Sight & Sound (2002) B. Ruby Rich, Sight & Sound (1992) Lourdes Portillo, Sight & Sound (1992)
Nineteen-year-old Macabéa works as a typist in Brasilia. With little money, less grace or beauty, and almost no education, she leads a wretched life: her roommates say she smells, her only pal calls her ugly, and her boyfriend Olimpico - no great shakes himself - tells her she's an idiot. Unusually, the director places this plain Jane nonentity centre-screen to present a beguilingly unsentimental portrait of ignorance, cultural poverty, and stunted emotions. Nothing much happens: the girl avoids being sacked, eats like a pig, rides the Metro, and takes aimless walks with her not exactly beloved Olimpico. But Amaral's precise and never condescending direction ensures that we follow this most unsympathetic of heroines to the end of the line, forestalling bathos by means of a stark, robust humour. Only Bresson's Mouchette suggests a precedent for this film's determination to reveal, rather than dignify, a life of utter banality; but what the comparison fails to evoke is Amaral's ability to uplift without Catholic contrivance.
Hour of the Star is the eighth of twelve Brazilian films included in the TSPDT 1000. In contrast, the film is ranked #38 among the 50 greatest Brazilian films of the 20th century, a 1998 poll of Brazilian film experts conducted by Manchete magazine. Interestingly, only four of the top ten on the Brazilian list are mentioned in the TSPDT 1000. Glauber Rocha, who has four titles in the TSPDT 1000, has only one title on this list.
Background on director/film: Amaral has a comfortably professional background, as a member of an artistic Sao Paulo family. She made this first feature in her 50s, because she spent the first part of her life bearing and raising nine children. Her child-rearing completed, her marriage over, she proceeded to film school first in Sao Paulo and then at New York University.
Production context: The film participates in several traditions. Masterfully manipulating the classic and international personal narrative mode, it also draws on the tradition of Brazilian cinema novo. This tradition itself was influenced by the Italian neorealists. Beginning in the late '50s, Brazilian filmmakers struggled to find an authentic film vocabulary for an authentic Brazilian experience: a way, in a culture labelled "underdeveloped" and under the heel of Hollywood, to be truly popular, both in the sense of appealing to an audience and striking a chord with fundamental themes in their culture. Filmmakers like Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Ruy Guerra and Glauber Rocha took different stylistic paths, but they all created a legacy on which Amaral and others today build. In Brazil a few women, not only Amaral but people like Tizuka Yamasaki (Dearly Beloved Country) and Ana Carolina (Sea of Roses) have enriched the central question, one of cultural autonomy in mass and international art, with perspectives on daily habits and women's lives.
Importance: Hour of the Star is one of the most successful of recent Latin American films to carry out the mandate to be popular in both senses. It was a well-respected art house film in Brazil, and was highly regarded at international festivals. It had a moderately successful commercial release in the U.S. It works most profoundly by its contrast between the subjective and objective views of Macabea, and by its establishing of links between the two. It is a poetic rendering of the alienation of industrial society for the poor.
For a useful contextualization of Hour of the Star within the decline and resurgence of Brazilian national cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, refer to this account by Ana Del Santo and Abril Trigo for Film Reference.com
This blog entry offers several interesting points of consideration concerning the main character Macabea in the context of class and gender identity.
Contemporary American Reviews
A lot of the scenes don't quite work, but something numinous happens when you watch this first feature by the Brazilian Suzana Amaral, the mother of nine, who, at the age of 52, shot it in four weeks on a budget of $150,000. It's as if the characters' souls became magically visible. Working from a script adapted from the novella by Clarice Lispector, Amaral tells the story of Macabéa (Marcelia Cartaxo), a 19-year-old orphan from the Northeast, a girl without skills or education or even training in keeping herself clean, who comes south to São Paulo, a city of 14 million. Macabéa smiles serenely as she celebrates her Sunday by taking a ride on the subway, and her terrible aloneness gets to you. Like De Sica's UMBERTO D., this film has moments of uncanny humor and painful intuition, but it goes from neorealism to magic realism. The hallucinatory effect seems somewhat alien to Amaral's temperament; she's better at the plain, level scenes-they have a truer magic. Still, this Latin-American mash of dreams and reality and American advertising art and images from the movies has an awkward, mystic sanctity. It's contrived, yet affecting.
- Pauline Kael - for a longer review refer to her book Hooked
''The Hour of the Star,'' directed by Suzana Amaral, is based on the novella of the same name by Clarice Lispector, the Ukrainian-born writer who spent much of her life in Brazil. The book's heroine, named Macabea, is the creation of a meddlesome male narrator named Rodrigo S. M., who gives the book its philosophical dimension but also intrudes incorrigibly upon her story (in order to better understand Macabea, he announces, he will sleep less, dress more shabbily, and give up sex, football and all human contact).
This narrator is able to consider Macabea's plight from a variety of perspectives, analyzing her life even as he invents and describes it. On film, this is more difficult to do, and in any case Miss Amaral barely attempts it. So she is left with Macabea's sketchy story alone. Though its heroine can be captivating in her innocence and melancholy, Miss Amaral's film never regards her from any illuminating perspective. It chooses the easier path of simply pitying Macabea for her wretchedness and romanticizing her for the same reason...
Is Macabea's destiny wholly determined by her poverty and ignorance? Are there really, as Miss Lispector writes, ''thousands of girls like this girl from the Northeast to be found in the slums of Rio de Janeiro,'' girls who ''aren't even aware of the fact that they are superfluous and that nobody cares a damn about their existence?'' Is Macabea's story simply ''the unremarkable adventures of a girl living in a hostile city'' and nothing more? Miss Lispector's book struggles more successfully with these questions. But in Miss Amaral's intriguing and finally frustrating film, Macabea, for all her uniqueness, is allowed to become the bland embodiment of a socioeconomic stereotype.
- Janet Maslin, The New York Times, January 21 1987
Most movies are about people who are more interesting than average. This one is about people who are incredibly shallow, ignorant and boring - until their very lack of information, wit and intelligence makes them interesting... Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. "Hour of the Star" is a title that suggests a similar idea, that this woman deserves one moment in her life when all of her dreams seem to come true. She receives that moment, in a way, but the movie's melodramatic surprise ending does not really do justice to what has gone before. Some of the images in the film - Macabea in her lonely bed, her former lover walking the streets with an absurd stuffed yellow bird, the lover savagely whirling her over his head - have a life of their own. The ending seems to represent the ideas of the director, an ironic commentary on what has gone before. The perfect ending for this film would be a closeup of Macabea alone in bed, staring at the ceiling.
- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, March 13 1987
The story is almost too precious, with harsh urban reality grinding provincial innocence to dust, though to her credit Amaral eventually moves beyond dreary third-world stereotypes to meet underdevelopment on something like equal terms. Her (literally) unwashed heroine isn't always miserable (only sometimes) and resists the ideological obligation to be nobly oppressed: she entertains regressive fantasies of movie stardom, consults fortune tellers, and acquires a bizarre education by listening to the radio and watching TV soaps (she tries to impress her boyfriend with her knowledge of houseflies, but he just tunes her out). None of this is especially fresh, though it does open out in formally arresting ways, and Amaral's clean, precisely structured images (remarkably controlled for a first-time director) show that she's learned her Akerman lessons well.
- Pat Graham, The Chicago Reader
In September 2001, revered film critic Michael Sicinski walked out of this film in its 49th minute. What makes this remarkable is that this was one of only seven walk-outs he experienced out of almost 800 screenings that year.
Taken from a very shabby-looking source, Kino's DVD transfer suffers from rampant dirt, vertical lines, and speckling. The colors look okay for the most part, and the full-screen transfer otherwise is watchable, if rather ugly. White, burned-in English subtitles are on occasion a bit hard to read, but they are legible and free of errors.
- Jeff Wilson for Digitally Obsessed
About the Novel and Clarice Lispector
Lispector is best known for moving Brazilian fiction away from regional preoccupations. Like her Argentine contemporary, Jorge Luis Borges, she was more concerned as a writer with such major twentieth-century literary preoccupations as Existentialism, the nouveau roman and linguistic experimentation. Her prose is highly imagistic, and her protagonists develop more through their interaction with everyday objects than through the action of the plot. In rhythmically developed epiphanies, reminiscent of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, her characters gradually come to an awareness of the isolation and ephemerality of their individual existences. Lispector is one of the early voices of female consciousness in Latin American literature; her protagonists are generally middle-class urban women attempting to find a place in the contemporary world.
- From an Introduction of the novel by Jane Anderson Jones
In less than a hundred pages, Lispector delves inside the heart and brain of her character, ostensibly through the eyes of a male narrator, and finds little more than a series of negatives and absences. Macabéa becomes, for the author, a kind of mirror, and the two of them teeter on the edge of a merging. We are never allowed to forget that Macabéa is the creation of Lispector and we are prompted to ask ourselves who is Clarice Lispector, the writer, and who is this other ‘I’, I the reader.
In The Hour of the Star, which is Lispector’s last novel, the author is concerned with the emotional and intellectual fragmentation of our time. Without some degree of self-knowledge or at least the questions that would lead to it, we are imprisoned within an entropy of our own making. Like Macabéa, we prove unable to change and are confined to a vegetative state, unable to transmute our own limitations.
Review on Babelguides: "Hour of the Star is quite possibly the best Brazilian book ever translated into English, appalling, delightful, accessible but also radical and accomplished."
Review on AllReaders.com
Clarice Lispector tribute page with timeline and copious quotes and testimonials
Lispector Wikipedia page