Speaking of experimental movies made by Brazilian directors in the 20s and 30s, one can name three productions: Rien Que Les Heures (1926), filmed in Paris by Alberto Cavalcanti; São Paulo- Sinfonia da metrópole (1929), directed by Rodolfo Lustig & Adalberto Kemeny; and Limite (1930), directed and written by Mário Peixoto, which has become a legendary cult movie and has been voted as one of the best Brazilian movies ever made.
How Limite came about
When Mário Peixoto returned from Europe in October 1929, he offered his hand-written scenario to director friends Humberto Mauro and Adhemar Gonzaga. But both declined. They advised him to make the film himself and to hire cameraman Edgar Brazil. It was cameraman Brazil’s brilliance that enabled the director to realize the effects he envisioned.
Edgar Brazil was born in Hamburg/Germany as Edgar Hauschild and of similar importance in Brazil as Karl Freund was, for instance, in Germany. He built the special equipment Peixoto required for his elaborate movements of the camera, such as a wooden crane activated by ropes enabling a vertical camera shift or a litter carried by four porters used to follow the steps of a couple on the beach.
Limite in Peixoto’s own words
Peixoto emphasizes the role of the “camera-brain” and the “instinctive rhythmic film-structure” of Limite, defining the film as somewhere between a singular, outstanding work of art and a completely anonymous item, “unidentifiable in the inexpressive crowds” and which’s “poetic evasion is built on a vigorous plan of adaptation to the real.”
For Peixoto, the experience offered by Limite cannot be adequately captured by language, but was made to be felt. Therefore, the spectator should subjugate himself to the images as to “anguished cords of a synthetic and pure language of cinema.” According to the director, his film is “meticulously precise as invisible wheels of a clock”, where long shots are surrounded and linked by shorter ones as in a “planetary system.”
Peixoto characterizes Limite as a “desperate scream” aiming for resonance instead of comprehension. “The movie does not want to analyze. It shows. It projects itself as a tuning fork, a pitch, a resonance of time itself,” capturing the flow between past and present, object details and contingence as if it had always “existed in the living and in the inanimate”, or detaching itself tacitly from them.
Since Limite is more of a state than an analysis, characters and narrative lines emerge, followed by a probing camera exploring angels, details, possibilities of access and fixation, only then to fade out back into the unknown, a visual stream with certain densifications or illustrations within the continues flow of time. According to Peixoto, all these poetic transpositions find “despair and impossibilities”; a “luminous pain” which unfolds in rhythm and coordinates the “images of rare precision and structure.”
We may see Limite as a film with a clear, elaborate and recognizable concept, maybe difficult to identify at first sight but emerging fuller at each screening. This may explain Peixoto’s dislike for surrealistic movies, specifically those of Buñuel and the rejection of chance as an artistic principle as we find in Man Ray or Dada.
Limite starts off with the image of a woman embraced by a man in handcuffs, a prototype image to be varied and diversified throughout the film. The proto-image in the beginning, based on the photography he saw in Paris in 1929, introducing the leitmotiv of imprisonment, of being trapped, gives way to a long, almost hypnotic boat scene that is to transport us into the continuum of time, a rather fluid amorphous state where the camera-brain then moves into the past, tracing certain memory lines, episodes and associated details, objects, movements and images, visual flashes of limitation, that reflect themselves in other images and thus escape a fixed, limited and solid status, only to disappear or fade out without further explanation. The wrecking in the storm then leads us back to the original proto-image, the initial theme, now extended and enriched by the visual and rhythmic variations we experienced.
Even though English-speaking critics have frequently translated the title as “boundary”, I would like to keep the term Limite or Limit since, in my view, it does have a certain programmatic quality.
First, I would like to point out the iconic quality of the “I” as a structural conception that characterizes the permanent visual lines throughout the film, as in wires, roads, bare trees, branches and plants, stakes and posts, roofs, walls, grades, bars, fences, legs or even stockings-ladders. It is not by chance that after the opening sequence the camera focuses on the boat plank as the initial line which will then lead us down the first memory lane.
These visual lines, at times running out into the open and at others forming limited spaces such as triangles or crosses, serve as a band, a connecting string for the different flashes of the past as well as indicating their limitations, giving the whole movie a very geometrical structure, counterbalanced by moving details such as wheels, handles and the movements of the camera itself.
Secondly, Limite may be seen as on the historical limit between silent movies and talkies, a movie with a certain ambition to summon up many of the esthetic and technical possibilities developed in the 10s and 20s.
From a retrospective point of view, one may link the repetition of camera shots or the close-up of details to Man Ray, find the same music score by Satie in Limite as in Man Ray’s Les Mystères du Château des Dés (1928), a very rhythm oriented structure as for instance in Vertov‘s Man with a movie camera (1929) or in the Berlin Symphony (1927). The boat scenes in Limite might evoke parallels to Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and the shouting scenes in both also bare some similarities. The moving fields and plants we may find on Earth (1930) by Alexander.
Limite can therefore be seen as an effort to explore the visual possibilities, the experimental techniques and the rhythmic variations of the filmic medium in the context of a sometimes melancholic and sometimes somewhat aggressive statement about the limitation and the futility of human existence.
Peixoto’s original plan to underline his film with natural noise as wind, rustling leaves or breaking waves was abandoned due to technical difficulties and substituted by a record-soundtrack chosen by Brutus Pedreira, who played the pianist in Limite and had actually been a musician in real life.
The chosen musical themes –among others, from Satie, Debussy, Borodin, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Cesar Franck – were then played on two alternating record players during the screening, frequently operated by Peixoto and Pedreira themselves.
Due to this procedure, in later exhibitions, the film had been frequently shown without any musical accompany and only with the editing of the video, images and music have been definitely integrated.
Knowing Peixoto’s obsession with details concerning his film, arranging even the plants to bow in a certain angle, one may look at the relation between sound and picture of Limite as a elaborated, frequently contrapuntal conception, an intentional rhythmic discrepancy where sound and image often diverge, opening a third temporal and resonant dimension between the actual scene and a potential, wider space beyond the limitations imposed by the “framed” vision and the sequentially of film itself.
1. Journal headlines: “Escape from prison. The prison guard’s complicity.”
2. Comment: This intertitle corresponds to a lost part of the film where man number 1 helps woman number 2.
3. Graveyard: Man on the left (Mário Peixoto): “You come from the house of a woman, who is not yours, supposing she is mine, just like this one here was yours. And if I told you that she is leprous?”
In 1959, the nitrate film began to deteriorate and Plinio Süssekind and Saulo Pereira de Mello started a frame-by-frame restoration. Limite only returned to festivals and screenings in 1978. Even though nobody could see the movie between 1959 and 1978, it still served as a reference for controversial discussions and statements while others even doubted that the film really existed. Glauber Rocha, leading figure of the new cinema, the cinema novo, classified in 1963 the director as “far from reality and history” and the unseen movie as “unable to comprehend the contradictions of bourgeois society,” a “contradiction historically overcome” and confirmed his judgment of Limite as a product of the intellectual decadent bourgeoisie again in 1978 after finally having seen it.
Limite (Mário Peixoto, Brasil, 1931, 115 min)
Music: Satie, Debussy, Borodin, Stravinsky, Prokofiev & Cesar Franck. Scenario & direction: Mário Peixoto. Director of photography: Edgar Brazil. Cast: Taciana Rei, Olga Breno, Raul Schnoor, Brutus Pedreira, Carmen Santos, Mário Peixoto.