An exemplary postmodern documentary that considers the limits and potential of film to convey ideas, Joao Moreira Salles’ “Santiago” is a deeply human work of art. First shot in 1992 and then aborted by Salles (maker of doc “Jorge Amado” and brother of Walter), pic manages to incorporate that initial artistic failure into this reconsidered look at the brilliant if unlikely life of his family butler, as told in his own words. Ingenious pic has enjoyed a fine fest run and theatrical play in Brazil, and deserves attention from theatrical and tube buyers in all markets.
Three still photographs (black-and-white, like the film itself) mark a humble start for a work that becomes almost dizzying in its visual, cultural and filmic reference points. Salles launched the project as a personal effort to reconstruct the generally happy three decades his wealthy family spent in a now-abandoned home, with butler Santiago (retired and living alone in a small apartment in ’92) the only living adult able to describe those years.
Like a critic of his own filmmaking, Salles (via narrator Fernando Pinto) explains that his elaborate conception on paper fell apart in the editing room. In 2005, 11 years after Santiago’s death, Salles decided to save his stillborn vision.
Part of the final film’s cleverness is how Salles withholds information from the viewer until it delivers just the right impact — for instance, how his love of Japanese film master Yasujiro Ozu influenced his camera position for filming Santiago, low to the ground and at a distance. But this also makes him wonder, in retrospect, if this was a way of maintaining a traditional separation from one of his family’s employees, and what it says about himself.
“Santiago” spills over with such thoughts, which soon no longer seem random or impressionistic, but build to a peak that compels auds to ponder the meaning and purpose of their own lives. For this magnificently erudite butler — fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, English, a Piedmont region dialect of Italian, and, for good measure, Latin — the grand project of his life was to compile a typewritten, 30,000-page encyclopedia of 6,000 years of the world’s aristocracies, from ancient Babylon to native American tribal leaders to Hollywood movie stars.
For the latter, he devoted an entire page to his fave dancer, Fred Astaire, as well as Cyd Charisse. But rather than have Santiago speak about them, Salles unexpectedly inserts the most magical moment from “The Band Wagon,” in which the actors walk through a park and spontaneously launch into a dance, which Salles considers as a metaphor for shifting from adolescence into adulthood. How the making of an amateur historiography dissolves into a consideration of the meaning behind an Astaire-Charisse dance number is part of the charm of “Santiago,” and part of its mystery.
Few recent docs have depicted such an improbable and unforgettable character as Salles’ butler, whose death two years after initial lensing only reinforces pic’s sense of the elusiveness of life and memories. Santiago becomes the living embodiment of a cultured Everyman: He waxes poetic about the elaborate flower arrangements he would create around the home, plays maracas in tandem with a Vivaldi record and, as recounted by Salles, played a Beethoven sonata at the family piano in his tuxedo and tails. “Why are you dressed like that, Santiago?” the boy asked. “Because it’s Beethoven, my boy.”
Grainy black-and-white shooting by Alberto Bellezia and Walter Carvalho is magnificent, but the key to why the new film trumps the aborted one is in the fluid, ever-imaginative editing by Eduardo Escorel and Livia Serpa.