A keynote of Brazilian cinema at this year’s Rio Festival was its ambition. Few movies are more ambitious than Heitor Dhalia’s “Serra Pelada,” the fest closer which world premiered in Rio Wednesday night. A fast-moving, fast-cut epic punctuated by narrative voice-over, “Serra Pelada” is a tale of friendship, tested by the greed, power-play, gang violence, everyday murder, sex and solitude at the biggest hell-on earth open pit mine in modern history, set in the Amazon jungle.
“Serra Pelada” marks yet another change of direction for director Heitor Dhalia, after his English-language abduction thriller “Gone,” with Amanda Seyfried, daughter-father relationship “Adrift,” with Vincent Cassel, which played at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2009, and his debut, “Drained,” a dramedy of obsession, with Selton Mello. Produced by Dhalia and Tatiana Quintella at their label Paranoid Films, and co-produced by Brazilian broadcaster Globo and Warner Bros., the epic marks WB’s latest play for the mass Brazilian market with a movie which is decidedly not a comedy, but features big stars. Julio Andrade (“Gonzaguinha”) and Juliano Cazarre (“A Wolf at the Door,” now a telenovela lead) play two friends from childhood who leave Sao Paulo in 1980 to find gold at Serra Pelada. Almost unrecognizable, “Elite Squad” star Wagner Moura, who recently featured in “Elysium,” limns a short-fused, trigger-happy gangster. Hengameh Panahi’s Celluloid Dreams reps rights for Europe.
At the Rio Festival, Dhalia and co-screenwriter Vera Egito sat down to talk about the film’s massive undertaking, its status as a Brazilian Western, Dhalia’s experience in Hollywood, and Brazil’s contemporary zeitgeist.
After “Gone,” your first film in Hollywood, what compelled you to come back to Brazil to make “Serra Pelada”?
Heitor Dhalia: I always joke that before I made the movie, I asked myself: “Why hasn’t anybody had this idea before?” And then when I started the film, I understood.
It’s a big event in recent Brazilian history. The scope is epic. Photos taken at the time by Sebastian Salgado made the men living there look like they were living on an ant-hill. The ladders up the sude of the mine were called “Goodbye Mother” because so many people slipped off them and fell to their death. In terms of scale, “Serra Pelada” is a huge film about the largest gold rush in modern history set at a mine the size of two soccer stadiums and featuring the biggest work of human labor since the Pyramids. Maybe you could make a film about it in Hollywood with $100 million, but to make a movie of that scope and size in Brazil was a kind of obsession.
You’ve called it your ‘Apocalypse Now’….
Heitor Dhalia: We announced “Serra Pelada” at Cannes in 2009. We’re in the middle of the Amazon, building hotels for the crew, when we stop production after the film fell apart. Then we had to put together again. Warner Brothers came in to co-produce and distribute in Brazil and Latin America and then Globo, the Brazilian broadcaster, came on board, because of “Serra Pelada’s” mass appeal.
Vera Egito: The screenplay also evolved, becoming action-driven and less character-driven, though we retain two very strong characters. But we needed more action, visuals, emotion. When people think about Serra Pelada,” they imagine something big.
Heitor Dhalia: I shot “Serra Pelada” with a lot of energy. The film langusge is pretty aggressive. I’m quite satisfied with that.
You talk of “Serra Pelada” as a film about friendship and also that it’s a Brazilian Western.
Vera Egito: When we were writing, we watched “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and it was inspiring, about two friends who are very different. “Serra Pelada” is a bit like that: Two friends who are very different, trying to survive in this environment, in two different ways.
Heitor Dhalia: Brazil’s own lawless frontier was the Amazon rain forest. At Serra Pelada you had 100,000 men, but women, liquor and guns were forbidden. But you could get all three of these 30 kilometers from the mine at a village called, literally, 30.
Many classic Hollywood Westerns talk, ultimately, about carving out a civilization in the desert. That’s isn’t the case in “Serra Pelada.”
Vera Egito: “Serra Pelada” is Latin American, it reflects Portuguese-Spanish culture. The place was more chaotic, vibrant, in a sense. The men who went there didn’t go to build a civilization, just get rich. Some lost everything in one night.
The film is your follow-up to the Lakeshore-Sidney Kimmel production, “Gone,” your English-language debut, a thriller about a young woman who’s escaped a serial killer. What did you learn, if anything from Hollywood?
Heitor Dhalia: I learned a lot in Hollywood, not only about shooting a film, but the whole process of dealing with the industry. I met a lot of agents, writers, producers, and I understood the logic of a live industry, that the notion of dramaturgy, of storytelling, is the core of the Hollywood film industry. They are totally right about that. Everything comes from the script. Money, technique, they all came after.
What kind of similarity does “Serra Pelada” bear to other of Heitor Dhalia films?
Vera Egito: “What’s similar is the characters. He has a character that he likes, this guy or girl who’s not comfortable in the place they’re in, has a huge inner conflict, is a fish out of water. On the other hand, Heitor is always going for such different scenarios and genre of films,. In Brazil there are filmmakers makers who always make the style of film they know how to do. Heitor is always trying to do things that he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to do, which I think is marvelous, and trying to dig deeper into dramaturgy, the theory of how to tell a good story, which has been written about since the Greeks.
How can Serra Pelada resonate in Brazil? Is it a symbol of a Brazil that a modern Brazil is trying to escape from, the violence, chaos, lack of regulation? And do you think it’s part of the past?
Heitor Dhalia: Serra Pelada connects with our dream of Brazil as a nation. Europeans went to the New World to found a new country. The Portuguese came here to strike natural resources. There was a huge gold rush in Minas Gerais in the 1700s. We’re still a big country with natural resources. But Serra Pelada was a total devastation. It exported a lot of gold, but few people at Serra Pelada benefitted in the long-run. It’s a model we’re trying to escape.
Vera Egito: When I saw “Senna,” I was shocked by Brazilian people saying “Senna was the only good thing we had,” “he was our only hero.” I remember thinking: “We are so different now, we’ll never say that again.” We’re more proud and hopeful about the country. We’re not perfect, we have a lot to do in the country to get better, but the mood of Brazil has changed for the better.