Brazilian silent 'Braza Dormida' screens with live accompaniment, thanks to a fan's efforts.

'Sleeping Ember' Reignites

Matt Sussman April 14, 2011

The Bay Area may be home to one of the most varied and supportive communities for film preservation and exhibition, but sometimes a fan's just gotta do it for themselves. Such is the case with this week's screening of the 1929 Brazilian silent film Braza Dormida (Sleeping Ember). Organized by Rielle Navitski, a graduate student in Film and Media at UC Berkeley (full disclosure: she's a personal acquaintance), the April 18 event offers not only the rare chance to see Braza on film, in a print on loan from the Cinemateca Brasileira, but to see it with live piano accompaniment specially composed and performed by jazz musician Fabian Almazan, composer and pianist for the Grammy-winning and Golden Globe-nominated Terence Blanchard Group.

Directed by Humberto Mauro, Braza follows a dissipated youth living in Rio de Janeiro who discovers a new lease on life when he starts working at a rural sugar factory, eventually winning the heart of the owner's daughter. The urban-rural divide bridged by the film's melodramatic plot also resonates with its unique production history. Made in the small city of Cataguases, in the interior state of Minas Gerais, which was Mauro's base of operations at the time, Braza nonetheless displays a visual sophistication and understanding of the medium that belies its isolated origins.

Given the clamor that greeted the recent restoration of another lost classic of Brazilian silent cinema, Mario Peixoto's experimental 1930 film Limite, Navitski's reintroduction of Braza to non-Brazilian and non-scholarly audiences couldn't be more timely. I recently spoke with her on the phone about what sparked her interest in Mauro, and asked Almazan questions over email about the challenges of composing music for a film that's almost a century old.

SF360: What got you interested in this film?

Rielle Navitski: I became interested in silent films that were being produced across Brazil in the 1920s, beyond Rio and São Paulo, which were the main economic and cultural powerhouses of the country. Braza is this really simple melodrama but, at the same time, it is just so visually beautiful, and it’s all the more amazing given that it was made not in a center of production. It's really anomalous.

SF360: Could you talk more about the film's production and, more generally, about Mauro's career?

Navitski: Mauro was an engineer by training working in a rapidly growing city in the interior. He was helping to electrify many of the factories and sugar refineries in the area, and then became interested in the technology of the cinema. Part of the reason he was able to make these films and gain some notoriety at the time was his friendship with Adhemar Gonzaga, an entrepreneur of Brazilian cinema, as well as a critic and founder of the influential journal Cineart. What's also interesting is how at the time they were recreating some of the same institutions that fed the film industry in Hollywood: Cineart came up with an award and Gonzaga gave Mauro publicity magazines; they actually tried to turn the films' actors into big stars. There is a kind of utopian impulse to all this, a desire to be modern even when it is absurd, that I find fascinating.

SF360: What was your approach to working with Fabian?

Navitski: Often people do research on music of the period, but we were less interested in something historically based and wanted something that would give contemporary life to a film.

SF360: Fabian, you've worked on several film scores. Was the composition process at all different scoring a silent film?

Fabian Almazan: It was. Rather than pre recording a soundtrack to then mix into the film, I will be performing live as the film plays simultaneously. In addition to that, there will be improvising on my part during the viewing of the film. But most of the music will be based on musical kernels—textures and motifs—that I've come up with beforehand and will interweave throughout the performance. I made myself a storyboard of the whole film and that is what I will be ‘reading’ rather than music. I have a separate sheet of manuscript with all of the music notation for the various textures/motifs but at this point, I have all of that memorized. For timing purposes, it is more efficient to have a storyboard to make sure that I know what shot/scene is coming up next to musically prepare ahead of time.

SF360: What attracted you to this project?

Almazan: What mainly attracted me to this project was that it combines the two musical worlds I'm coming from, as a jazz pianist and composer and a film composer. To have the opportunity to use both these crafts together, live, was very attractive to me. Also, I've been to Brazil a couple of times and being Cuban myself, I've always felt like I'm at home when I'm in Rio or São Paulo. I absolutely love Brazil. But I wasn't familiar with the film and it is my first time working with a silent film.

SF360: You only have room left on your iPod for three original film scores. What are they?

Almazan: Well, I'd get a bigger iPod. Ha! There's way too much music out there! I'd take out a loan if I couldn't afford to have an iPod big enough to hold all my music. But I will say these three: Bodysong, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Inside Man.

Braza Dormida (Sleeping Ember), a Brazilian Silent Film Classic with Original Accompaniment by Fabian Almazan, screens April 18, 2011, 7:00 pm at Pacific Film Archive Theater, UC Berkeley (2725 Durant Ave.), is free and open to the public. Tickets (required for entry) available at PFA Box Office starting 45 minutes before showtime.

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