Brazil’s Ruling Family of Film
Chad Batka for The New York Times
By LARRY ROHTER
Published: January 18, 2012
SOMETIMES they limit themselves simply to producing movies, though on many other occasions they have also written, directed or actually filmed them. But by any standard the Barretos — Luiz Carlos and Lucy and their children, Bruno, Fábio and Paula — are the first family of cinema in Brazil.
Since the founding of the family production company, LCBarreto, 50 years ago, the Barretos have, in one capacity or another, helped make more than 80 films, the latest of which,“Lula, Son of Brazil,” opened in the United States this month. Those films — in a variety of styles and genres ranging from romantic comedies like“Bossa Nova” to political dramas like “Memoirs of Prison”— have won prizes at Cannes, been nominated for Academy Awards, jump-started the careers of actors and directors and set box-office records.
In the history of Brazilian cinema, “there is before the Barretos and after,” said the actress Sonia Braga, who first came to international prominence in the mid-1970s in“Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” directed by Bruno Barreto and produced by his parents. “They are people who live, breathe and eat cinema, and the result is that they’ve built up a patrimony that continues to endure.”
Born in Brazil’s arid northeast, the family patriarch, Luiz Carlos Barreto, now 83, was raised in the coastal city Fortaleza. He has a boyhood memory of watching Orson Welles filming the never-released “Four Men on a Raft” at a beach there and being “fascinated by all that equipment.” But when he moved to Rio de Janeiro at the age of 17, it was to play soccer semiprofessionally and work as a journalist.
From the late 1940s on he worked for Cruzeiro magazine, similar to Life or Look, first as a reporter and then also as a photographer. He met Lucy, then a music student, while on an assignment, and they married in 1954.
Crucially, Mr. Barreto covered movie stories and got to know directors like Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Glauber Rocha and Carlos Diegues, associated with what by the early 1960s was evolving into the Cinema Novo movement. That eventually led to an invitation to write the screenplay of “Assault on the Pay Train,” a commercial success in 1962 and one of the first films of the gritty, socially engaged Cinema Novo to win attention and awards at international festivals.
“From the beginning the Cinema Novo was a movement that was as much political and ideological as cinematic,” Mr. Barreto, his bushy eyebrows rising and falling, said during an interview this month at the family’s New York apartment on the Upper West Side. “When ‘Assault on the Pay Train,’ which had all those elements, exploded at the box office, that gave us credibility.”
He was then enlisted as the cinematographer on Mr. Pereira dos Santos’s “Barren Lives”and as cinematographer and producer of Mr. Rocha’s “Earth Entranced,” both of which won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. True to the Cinema Novo’s motto that all that is necessary to make a film is “an idea in the head and a camera in the hand,” both of those influential works, as well as many others that went on to great success in Brazil and abroad, were edited in the small guest house behind the Barretos’ home in Rio.
“Luiz Carlos was 10 or 12 years older than most of the rest of us, which meant he was one of the few to have a home and wife, the normal life of a married man,” Mr. Diegues recalled. “So his house became a home away from home for all of us, a place where we not only worked, but plotted and planned on behalf of Brazilian cinema.”
Attentively observing all this were the Barretos’ children. Bruno, the oldest, born in 1955, has vivid memories of afternoons like one when he was 10 and sitting in the backyard listening to a conversation between the Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini, in Rio for a film festival, and Glauber Rocha and other leading figures of the Cinema Novo.
“It was very exciting, like a seminar on film, to hear them discussing Eisenstein’s films and all of that,” Bruno Barreto said of those days during a telephone interview from Rio. “They were always very encouraging to me and gave me tips. Glauber in particular would always stop and explain things to me, like the dialectic of editing, perhaps because that was a way of explaining things to himself.”
By the mid-1960s Lucy Barreto, now 78, was also getting involved in the production company, which eventually also set up a distribution arm. Directors and actors who have worked with the Barretos describe her as the most pragmatic member of the team, a characterization she embraces.
“For me everything is a question of cost and benefit,” she said emphatically, shaking her head and her flaming red hair. “I’m a details person. If you think a film is going to gross X, then its cost can’t exceed Y. This is a risky business, and you can’t be guessing.”
Both Luiz Carlos and Lucy Barreto have also tried their hand at directing, he with a documentary, “This Is Pelé,” and she with “Grupo Corpo: A Brazilian Family,” about the dance troupe of that name. But both say they prefer producing.
“I don’t have the temperament to be a director,” he said. “I don’t have that obsession, that neurosis you have to have. I don’t want to define the temperament of a director —— ” His daughter, Paula, laughingly broke in to say, “so as not to complicate things with your sons.” But, Mr. Barreto continued, being a director “creates a deformity in people’s souls. You become the inventor of lives, situations. You become an alchemist.”
His shift from cinematographer and screenwriter to producer was more the result of circumstance than design. During his years as a reporter, he had come to know many politicians and bankers — the people who held the key to obtaining the money needed to make films — and so was able to “open doors for the rest of us,” as Mr. Diegues put it.
When the Cinema Novo period ended, its finish hastened by political repression, some of the movement’s leading figures, like Glauber Rocha, had difficulty adapting. But not the Barretos: in the 1970s and 1980s their production company had global hits like “Dona Flor” and Mr. Diegues’s “Bye Bye Brazil,” and in the 1990s they twice won Oscar nominations for best foreign-language film, for Fábio Barreto’s “O Quatrilho” and Bruno Barreto’s “Four Days in September” (1997).
“The boys are both very fine directors, and sweethearts to work with, but they are very different in their approach,” Ms. Braga, who has filmed with both brothers, said of them. “Fábio is more intuitive, while Bruno is more cerebral in his approach to cinema. He has an incredible technical knowledge, and even when he was 20, when we were making ‘Dona Flor,’ he had the bearing of a person who was older.”
For “Lula,” a biopic about Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former president of Brazil, Fábio Barreto took pains to give the actress Glória Pires a more intense scene with her real-life daughter. Ms. Pires, who plays Lula’s mother, recalled that she was scheduled to be in scenes with her daughter Cléo, a rising star who plays Lula’s first wife, but they had no dialogue — until Fábio Barreto revised the script.
“He gave that scene to me as a gift, created it so we could be together, and I was touched by that,” Glória Pires said. “As the director he has so many details to attend to, so many things to keep in mind. So only somebody with a big heart would have paid such close attention and thought of a detail like that.”
But in December 2009, less than a month before “Lula” had its premiere in Brazil, Fábio Barreto, who is two years younger than his brother, was in a serious car accident that left him in a coma. Though he now responds to some external stimuli, after installation of a brain pacemaker in May 2011, he remains incapacitated. “I’m religious, so I have a lot of hope and faith,” his mother said. “I think that if he survived the trauma, which was so severe, it was so that he can return to us.”
Though Luiz Carlos and Lucy have been giving more authority to Paula in recent years, both remain active. He wants to move the company into animated films and has been seeking partners for one that would take place in the Amazon; Lucy and Paula are at work on a film about the American poet Elizabeth Bishop’s 16-year sojourn in Brazil, with Bruno Barreto as the director.
Ms. Pires has already signed on to play the aristocratic landscape architect Carlota de Macedo Soares, Bishop’s lover, in the film, which is scheduled to begin shooting in May. This will be Ms. Pires’s fifth movie with the Barretos, so by now she knows what to expect.
“They speak frankly to each other, without subterfuge,” she said. “There’s always a clarity that I think ends up improving the film, which is, after all, their common point of interest. When there are divergences, they seek a consensus. But they never stop being a family, so at times it’s mother talking to sons, husband talking to wife. That aspect is always there, and in the end, you get caught up in their passion.”