Limite: Memory in the Present Tense

Paris, August 1929: a twenty-one-year-old aspiring poet from Brazil stands transfixed in front of a newsstand. That moment during his summer break from his studies in England wasn’t for any fait divers—not Babe Ruth’s five hundredth home run, not the parade of sixty thousand opening the fourth Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg—but for an image, more precisely the cover of issue 74 of the French pictorial weekly Vu. The photograph, by André Kertész, showed two male hands handcuffed around the neck of a woman gazing into the camera. The spellbound poet was Mário Peixoto, and the encounter produced what screenwriting manuals would come to call the “generative image,” a kernel for an entire movie script—though Saulo Pereira de Mello, head of the Mário Peixoto Archives and the individual most decisive to the survival, study, and recognition of Peixoto’s work, prefers the term “protean image,” alluding to the Greek god Proteus’s ability to morph into different forms and remain omnipresent.

Then came the title: Limite—literally “limit,” following no article, a word as polysemic in Portuguese as in English. The remaining “scenario”—more a collection of visual reminders to the director than an actual script—was finished in no time. Peixoto wanted to play the lead and pitched the project to two of Brazil’s best filmmakers, Humberto Mauro and Adhemar Gonzaga, but both thought it was too personal to be directed by anyone other than him. He reluctantly decided to direct the film and paid for the production with family funds, hosting a small crew throughout the following year on the coast of Mangaratiba, a village about fifty miles away from Rio de Janeiro where his cousin owned a farm.

The film had three public screenings in Rio between May 1931 and January 1932, and was met with cold indifference by the general public and distributors alike. Yet it made some important fans, who would host occasional private screenings over the coming years. Vinicius de Moraes—then a film critic, who would later cowrite “The Girl from Ipanema” with Antônio Carlos Jobim and become one of the most prominent poets and lyricists in Brazil—put together a special presentation for Orson Welles, when the director was in the country in 1942 to shoot one of the segments of It’s All True. Film critic Pedro Lima and intellectuals Otávio de Faria and Plínio Sussekind Rocha—founders of the early film society Chaplin Club and friends of Peixoto’s—promoted yearly screenings of the film at the Faculdade Nacional de Filosofia (National School of Philosophy), where Rocha taught physics. Pereira de Mello, one of his students, saw the film for the first time there, where it played alongside Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926) as an exemplary masterpiece of silent cinema. By 1959, the single nitrate print was severely deteriorated due to poor storage conditions—especially deadly when combined with the high salinity of Rio’s air—and Limite could no longer be screened. The print was stored at the school until 1966, when it, along with the two Soviet cinema classics, was confiscated by the police during the military dictatorship. Once Mello managed to retrieve the print, later that same year, a long process of restoration began—starting with photographic reproductions of every single frame of the film, which at that point was already missing the section it still misses now—making the movie wholly inaccessible until the process was finished, in 1978. Limite the commercial flop turned into a forbidden object of desire for the next few generations of cinephiles.

A number of factors contributed to making the film a sort of movie lover’s dream, besides its evident singularity. Peixoto wouldn’t finish another film for the rest of his life. He died in 1992, at the age of eighty-three, leaving a substantial body of literary work, unproduced screenplays and plays, and a stunning fragment of his second feature, Onde a terra acaba, never finished and mostly lost in a fire. Despite this discontinuity, the director actively contributed to Limite’s mythology in ways that often challenged historical reality. Even before the film premiered, Peixoto sent production stills to the press, identifying them as promotional material for a new Pudovkin film, in a strategy to generate buzz. He would later go out of his way to make his already precocious feature seem even more exceptional, saying he was as young as fifteen when he wrote the script (most researchers agree that he was actually twenty-one), and purposefully concealing such basic biographical information as his place of birth (it was likely Brussels). During the years the movie was inaccessible, his accounts of it would mention shots that were not featured in the original scenario and were likely never filmed; when the first restoration was finally released on VHS in the late eighties—with scarce distribution—he claimed that the transfer looked nothing like the original film, as can be seen in Reginaldo Gontijo’s great documentary O mar de Mário (2010).

In many ways, Limite benefited from its invisibility, as the myth was thickened by hearsay. In 1963, in his book Revisão crítica do cinema brasileiro, Brazilian Cinema Novo mastermind Glauber Rocha accused Peixoto of having made a movie that was “unable to comprehend the contradictions of bourgeois society”—even though, as he freely admitted, he hadn’t seen it by then. That same year, French film historian Georges Sadoul claimed, in the expanded edition of his Histoire du cinéma mondial, to have flown to Rio de Janeiro exclusively to watch Peixoto’s “unknown masterpiece,” only to find that the surviving print was in no condition to be screened. Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes, Brazil’s most important film critic, wondered whether Limite existed at all or was only a collective dream. Both Gomes and Sadoul died before the first restoration was complete, yet the myth lived on.

In 1965, Peixoto publicized an article, allegedly written by Eisenstein, praising the film’s “luminous pain, which unfolds as rhythm, coordinated to images of rare precision and ingenuity.” When Mello asked him for the original article, Peixoto handed him a translation in his own handwriting, hiding the original source behind a cloud of contradictory information—at first, he said it had been published in Tatler, a British fashion magazine not known for articles on cinema; later, he said it was from an unidentified German magazine. Mello would later state that, due to the lack of primary sources and of historical evidence that Eisenstein could have attended a screening of the film, as well as stylistic particularities of the text, the article could’ve been written only by Peixoto himself—probably as much an attempt to keep the mythology of the film alive as a gesture of poetic justice on the part of an artist who knew that reality had failed to welcome the grandeur of his own work. When the magazine Filme cultura conducted a poll in 1968 on the best Brazilian films of all time, Limite ranked tenth, even though the film had been out of circulation for over thirty-five years and completely inaccessible for almost a decade. Limite was long consigned to a game of telephone, yet it was precisely that trajectory that granted it a fate most Brazilian silent films never had. Like Greed (1924), Citizen Kane (1941), A Brighter Summer Day (1991), or Hard to Be a God (2013), it is a rare cult film that lives up to its mythology, a singular work born out of peculiar insularity. When seen today, the film still seems to open doors to cinematic territories that remain vastly unexplored. This historical missing link can really be understood only through this prism, a legacy of decay, missed connections, and passionate reinvention.

Such peculiarity poses a methodological problem: where does the film end and its mythology begin? At the same time, how can one remain immune to the unique artistry displayed in this new restoration—completed with the support of the World Cinema Project in 2010, using materials preserved by Cinemateca Brasileira, VideoFilmes, and the Mário Peixoto Archives, and which Mello has diligently made sure is as close as can be to the film he has devoted his life to? The answer—or at least an attempt at one—is offered by the film itself, starting with its very first image. The title appears in big, bold letters that tremble and melt under the forthcoming sun, hinting at a feeling that is present in every aspect of the film: limits are both a hindrance and an invitation to transgression, a chance for expression.

The narrative is sparse: a man and two women are in a rowboat adrift in the Atlantic. The vessel is not wrecked, but none of the characters row, as if paralyzed by an invisible circumstance. The film then branches out into individual flashback narratives, clearly demarcated by music, that show us where each of them came from before they ended up here: one woman has escaped from prison; the other feels imprisoned by her failed marriage; and the man is in love with someone else’s wife. Yet the eyes in extreme close-up, facing the shimmering sea, tucked between dissolves after the protean shot of the handcuffs, open the possibility that the journey here is as internal as it is external. The film is neither here nor there but precisely in between, inhabiting the very limit, embracing the porosity of its position. From that vantage point, Limite incorporates its surroundings. And while this may seem like language one would use to discuss contemporary experimental cinema, this 1931 film embodies it with remarkable purpose.

Peixoto’s synthesis of the many different schools of silent cinema has been rightfully emphasized throughout the years. His unique style collides a sophisticated understanding of Griffith’s decoupage with Soviet montage, existential motifs sipped from the waters of French impressionism, and expressive camera work inspired by German cinema. The cinematography is taken to unforeseen extremes by the extraordinarily inventive work of director of photography Edgar Brasil—himself German-born—who built camera cranes and dollies to fulfill and expand the director’s vision, and stretched the film’s latitude to capture the tropical sun in its ravishing fury. Yet what could seem like a superficial stylistic collage is only the loose thread leading to the deep pattern of contrasts and heterogeneity that makes this such a singular film.

Limite is both poetry and prose; a metaphor about the inexorability of the human condition as much as it is an experience of tactile memories, salty wind and sunburnt skin. The film reveals depth by adhering to the surface, finding common ground for Robert Flaherty’s direct approach (the near absence of makeup, the fraying costumes, the merciless glow of the sun) and Man Ray’s exploration of film as a flat canvas (of fabric, of sand, of newspaper headlines). The shots alternate between perspectives, using the camera as a polyphonic narrator: it can “see” as a character, as the wind, as the wheel of a train, creating a rhythmic experience that aspires to transcend physicality yet is always pulled back to the physical world, much like the stranded boat.

This contradiction is expressed through an orchestration of long durations and staccato cuts that strobe in carefully placed interferences. In the stillness of a lifeboat adrift, the arrows of time are shot in different directions, reverberating the past as memory in the present tense, spread out in multiple locations and personal stories that refuse conclusion but capture an emotional state in their open-endedness. The film’s structure is both narrative and digressive, linear and circular.

At the end of the first act, after the flashback narrative returns us to the boat from the opening, a close-up of a fish out of water, struggling to breathe, feels like a metaphorical coda before the inevitable fade-out. Yet the second act begins and that figurative boat gives way to a real fishing boat, and the dying fish reacquires its literal meaning and is folded back into the narrative, as the unhappy wife takes a fish home in her grocery basket . . . until she sees her drunken husband on the stairs of her house, and the suffocating fish regains symbolic weight. In Limite, no shot seems to mean only one thing, and no event is completely detached from the others.

That multiple nature is emphasized in the visual construction of the film, out of clashing straight lines and circular shapes that allude to the curious form of the narrative itself: a journey toward its place of departure, given the vultures that bookend the film. The same contrast of shapes builds up the tension between masculine and feminine, as Limite is rich in both phallic imagery (the scissors, the crosses, the cigarettes, the branches and logs) and allusive intervals (the windows, the doors, the ocean, as well as the ellipses in the narrative structure itself). This fundamental tension that drives the film is literalized in its archetypal approach to the characters, identified in the credits exclusively by gender and number. Edgar Brasil’s impossible camera explores the expansive landscape to describe the interior complexity of unnamed characters and the objects that surround them, breaking the limits between inside and outside to sustain a drama that is both personal and universal: the tension between the impermanence of faces and the resistant Brazilian colonial architecture, the fluidity of the ocean and the splinters of the damned boat.

At a time when filmmakers like Eisenstein, F. W. Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Jean Epstein attempted to distill cinema to its own specificity, affirming its independence from other art forms, Mário Peixoto embraced a surprising level of impurity and a liberating disregard for cinema’s apparent limits. No wonder the only moment of relief takes place in a movie theater, expressively with an escape scene from a Chaplin film. The fundamental questions resound: Is cinema’s vocation poetry or prose? Character pieces or existential allegories? Narrative or visual abstraction? Limite makes every “or” an anachronistic conjunction. The combination of the rigorous sensibility of the artist with an unrestricted and eclectic creativity is what makes the film such a precious object for today, revealing a cinema that could have been and that still is yet to come.

You have no items in your shopping cart