There was a time – not so long ago – when they used to call Rio de Janeiro the “Cidade Maravilhosa.” And it wasn’t just thanks to the success of André Filho´s Carnival composition. No! It was thanks to an image built by stunning scenery set to beautiful songs, singing of the sun and the sea, love, smiles and flowers. What seemed to be the bad part became a quality: the poor, forced to climb the hillsides to erect wobbly homes where they would live in hardship, were in fact living “closer to heaven.” This mindset – long ago dubbed in jest as “hocus-pocus for tourists” by the poet Oswald de Andrade – is symbolized by the film “Orfeu do Carnaval” (Black Orpheus) by the French director Marcel Camus.
Today, even with favela tourism commonplace in Rio, this mindset is out of fashion. Rio is no longer marvelous and the hillsides have become transformed, suddenly, into the very gates of hell – now that drug traffickers run them. Contrary to the good old days when it stood as a symbol of charm and beauty, of health and pleasure, the former capital has come to symbolize danger and pain.
Neither is the right image. The Rio of the “golden years” wasn’t a seaside Eden transplanted to the tropics; nor has the city now been transformed into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hell. Just as half-a-century ago ugliness stood stark along the stinking margins of Guanabara Bay, there remain today preserves of peace, beauty and harmony in a city held siege by violence. Director Isabel Valladares demonstrates this with charm, sensitivity and skill in the documentary film “Paulinho da Viola: Meu Tempo é Hoje” (Paulinho da Viola: My Time is Now) .
The film depicts, both with enthusiasm and restraint, the life of a true prince. Paulo César Batista de Faria is a model Carioca. The son of César Faria, guitarist of Época de Ouro, a band that made choro history under the direction of Jocob do Bandolim, Paulinho composed and performed sambas and other songs that strolled right through the front door and into the sanctuaries of the History of our popular music. His smooth voice mesmerizes audiences. And, with his persona of a responsible citizen who fulfills his duties, he serves as an ethical role model in a society corrupted by the drive for social climbing at all costs via no-holds-barred competition and the permanent seduction of vulgar appeals to effortless gratification via narcissistic masturbation. With his pool cue, his skill as a cabinetmaker and his obsession with the gears of old cars, Paulinho da Viola transports anyone watching the documentary about his life and work into a serene world where the key values are tranquility and solidarity – a counterpoint to the surrounding egocentric rush.
A hardnosed film critic might call attention to oversights such as, for example, the failure to highlight the role of an important collaborator like the poet and producer Hermínio Bello de Carvalho. But these minor defects are overcome by the camera’s discovery of a village hidden behind the cloud of blood that blocks the view of the old “Cidade Maravilhosa.” The abandoned suburbs of the northern districts, isolated and marginalized by the cream of society with its parties on the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, lend their sympathetic and generous souls to the film in scenes where the sambista gets together with his artistic colleagues and family around the dinner table and at samba jam sessions – whether at the Portela Samba School clubhouse, Zeca Pagodinho’s country house in Xerém, or in the intimacy of the musician’s own home. His soul “sings” in the spirit of the inspired “Samba do Avião” by master Tom Jobim, but it also cries and makes others cry (albeit softly and tenderly) in the spirit of Pixinguinha, idol of the nation and especially of the mulatto Prince featured in the film.
When Paulinho da Viola allowed his heart to drift in the river that passed through his life and that of his fans, the São Sebastião neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro was a beautiful bride that presented its charms to an entire country. In the difficult times in which we live, this kid comes along to tell us to follow the lead of the old sailor who steers the course steadily in the face of a storm. As a performer, he learned from the lyrics of the samba by Wilson Moreira, which gives the film its title. His time is always now. Or better, as he says in a timeless lesson on change and the ephemeral in life: “I don’t live in the past. The past lives in me.”
José Nêumanne, journalist and writer, is a columnist of the Brazilian daily newspaper “Jornal da Tarde.”
Order the DVD of Paulinho da Viola: Meu Tempo É Hoje from Livraria Cultura.
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Rio For Partiers - a guidebook with attitude.