Friday, November 15, 2013

A conversation with Brazilian film critic Franthiesco Ballerini (part two)

Posted By on 11.15.13 at 03:37 PM

According to Ballerini, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey played on 75 percent of Brazils multiplex screens during its opening weekend.
  • According to Ballerini, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey played on 75 percent of Brazil's multiplex screens during its opening weekend.
Yesterday I posted the first part of my conversation with Sao Paulo-based critic and historian Franthiesco Ballerini, who recently came to Chicago as a guest of the MOSTRA Brazilian film series. In that part of the discussion, Ballerini gave me a crash course in Brazilian film history and the current state of film exhibition in his home country. In the second part, we discuss our experiences as film critics, the influence of Hollywood studios on film journalism, and the differences between film reporting in print and on television.

Franthiesco Ballerini: I often criticize the Brazilian government for not regulating television. We have the third-biggest television company in the world, Teleglobo. TV is huge in Brazil, but our stations aren't obligated to show films or educational programs during prime time, like they are in France or England. Sure, their TV is more "boring" than ours. But over the years, French and British viewers have gotten into the habit of watching documentaries and things like that, of thinking about important issues when they watch TV. We don't have that in Brazil.

Ben Sachs: We don't have that in the U.S. either—our network television also skews towards entertainment during primetime. Speaking of which, I'm curious as to how U.S. movies are received in Brazil. You say that they're unavoidable, but which ones are most popular with Brazilian moviegoers? And are these the same ones admired by Brazilian critics and historians?

The public and the critics have completely different tastes when it comes to American movies. The public in general loves whatever you guys show us. Like, if you have a multiplex with four screens and three of them are showing The Hobbit, most people will go to The Hobbit. The popular opinion is if it's playing on 75 percent of the screens, then it must be good.

As for people writing about films in Brazil . . . the problem is that we have critics and we have journalists, who report on movies that people already want to watch. Sometimes critics and journalists like the same filmmakers, in which case the critics have lots of room to write about them. Some examples would be Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Woody Allen, though his reception has had ups and downs.

Their films are widely distributed in Brazil?

When they cast big Hollywood actors, yes. Earlier on, when they didn't use such name actors, their movies were seen only in art cinemas in Rio and Sao Paulo. The same goes for the European directors who are respected by Brazilian critics, like Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke. The general public has no idea who they are.

I love Haneke and von Trier. My favorite filmmaker of all time, though, is Stanley Kubrick. In Sao Paulo we had a retrospective of Kubrick's films a few weeks ago. His widow, Christiane Kubrick, was there, and the theater exhibited items from Kubrick's archives besides showing the films. It was a popular event, in terms of media coverage. I was interviewed about Kubrick by a few different outlets.

When I say "popular," I mean for a retrospective of older films. The general public wants new comedies and action films.

I assume people go to see movies based on which Hollywood stars are in them, just like they do here.

Yes. Tom Cruise, Jennifer Aniston, they're very popular. Same with franchises like The Hangover or The Hobbit. All these movies receive lots of media coverage even if the critics aren't really into them.

Could you tell me more about working as a critic in Sao Paulo? I'm curious as to what degree of creative freedom you enjoyed.

I worked for O Estado de Sao Paulo, which is the city's state newspaper and the second largest paper in the country. I don't know if it's the same way here, but if you write about films for major paper in Brazil, you are not only a critic—you're expected to write special reports. That's a very different task. I was often invited to L.A. to cover films like The Hangover for Brazilian readers, and I'd interview the actors and other people involved with the movie. I always had the freedom to tell my editors I didn't want to review the movies I reported on if I saw a conflict of interest.

We don't have pressure from our editors. I had the freedom to write about what I wanted, even if I wanted to criticize the government. We have a free press. The strongest pressure I ever felt was from American distributors. I'll tell you a story about that. In 2005, I was invited to do an exclusive phone interview with the director of V for Vendetta [James McTeigue], and I did. But instead of publishing this interview on the Friday the film was released, I published a review that day and published the interview on Sunday. Because of that, I was put on "standby" for three months. I was not allowed to interview anyone associated with a new Warner Brothers release.

That sort of thing is very common here.

The studios pressuring you to publish certain content at certain times?

It's typical, yes. I'm lucky in that I write for the alternative press, so if my colleagues or I don't care for a Hollywood movie we're reviewing, we aren't pressured to devote more than a few sentences to it. But in certain mainstream newspapers and in lots of TV coverage, it can be hard to distinguish criticism from promotion.

It's true. I was watching a TV news program here last night, and the [newscaster] was talking about the typhoon in the Philippines, then a minute later he was talking about a new product. I was, like, "What?!" I mean, this happens in Brazil too, and when it does, you don't feel like you're watching the news.

I'm glad I had the freedom not to sign certain reports I wrote for the newspaper. If my editors rearranged the information in a way I would not want to publish it, I could take my name off the article. So I loved working for this newspaper.

We've talked about the reception of Hollywood movies in Brazil. How much American independent or art cinema gets distributed there?

Very little. If a theater gets the chance to show independent or art movies, it'll often choose things from Europe or Asia. For American art movies, you have to go to the Internet.

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