Limite (Brazilian Portuguese: meaning “Limit” or “Border”) is a 120-minute silent film by Brazilian director and writer Mário Peixoto (1908–92), filmed in 1930 and first screened in 1931, and cited by some as the greatest of all Brazilian films.[1]

In August 1929, Peixoto was in Paris, on a summer break from his studies in England, when he saw a photograph by André Kertész in the 74th issue of the French magazine, VU, a magazine that other famous photographers like Man Ray had also been working for. The picture of two handcuffed male hands around the neck of a woman who was gazing at the camera became the ‘generative’ or ‘Protean’ image for Limite and led to the writing of the scenario, in which a man and two women are lost at sea in a rowboat. The histories of the three leads are conveyed in flashbacks throughout the film, clearly denoted by music. One woman has escaped from prison; another has left an oppressive and unhappy marriage; the man is in love with someone else’s wife.

In comparison with the scenarios of other silent avant-garde movies of the 1920s, for instance Man Ray’s manuscript for L’étoile de mer (1928), or even the script by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz for Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), it must be said that Peixoto’s text does not tell a story, nor does it give insights into any kind of psychological state of mind among the three main characters. Rather, it “thinks” in pictures, movements and angles, trying to intertwine the diverse visual fields by using certain symbolic themes and variations. From the outset, the filmic style of Limite is part of the scenario and not a result of an interpretation or transformation of the textual outline by subsequent shooting. The metaphor of the “camera brain” – a frequent term used by many avant-garde filmmakers – is also present in Peixoto’s scenario, in which the use of intertitles is avoided, with one short exception, and reliance is placed overall on the camera and its movements. Limite therefore accomplishes what Germaine Dulac had demanded in 1927: the “real” filmmaker should “divest cinema of all elements not particular to it, to seek its true essence in the consciousness of movement and visual rhythms” [2]

The unusual structure has kept the film in the margins of most film histories, where it has been known mainly as a provocative and legendary cult film.[1]

Taking in account the scenario as well as the actual movie, Limite must be seen as a film with a clear, elaborated and recognisable concept… Limite starts off with the image of a woman embraced by a man in handcuffs, a prototype image that goes on being modified throughout the film. The opening proto-image, from the photograph he saw in Paris in 1929, introduces the leitmotiv of imprisonment, of being trapped, and gives way to a long, almost hypnotic boat scene that is to transport us into the continuum of time, a rather fluid amorphous state in which the camera then moves into the past, tracing certain memory lines, episodes and associated details, objects, movements and images. These visual flashes of limitations are reflected in other images and thus escape from their fixed, limited and solid status, only to disappear or fade out without further explanation. The wrecking in the storm at the end then leads us back to the original proto-image, the initial theme, now extended and enriched by the visual and rhythmic variations that have been experienced. The scenario and film can therefore best be characterised as a visual cinematic poem that explores the medium for its poetic capacities, instead of using it for transporting non-visual conceptions and narratives.[2]

Peixoto pitched the film to his friends, Brazilian directors Humberto Mauro and Adhemar Gonzaga, both of them declined and advised him to make the film himself and to hire the cameraman Edgar Brazil, who would have the necessary experience to ensure completion of the project. Peixoto decided to proceed, and paid for the production using family funds. Shooting began in mid-1930, using imported panchromatic film material with a high sensitivity for grey scales. He filmed in 1930, on the coast of Mangaratiba, a village about fifty miles from Rio de Janeiro, and where his cousin owned a farm.[1][2]

Peixoto’s cinematic tone poem, set to musical themes by Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, and other European composers, was inspired by the Soviet montage theorists, the visual “impressionism” of the French avant-garde, the plastic arts of Brazilian modernism…[3]

Peixoto characterised Limite as a desperate scream aiming for resonance instead of comprehension. “The movie does not intend to analyse. It shows. It projects itself as a tuning fork, a pitch, a resonance of time itself”, thereby capturing the flow between past and present, object details and contingence.[2]

Limite had three public screenings in Rio de Janeiro between May 1931 and January 1932, receiving favourable reviews from the critics, who saw the film as an original Brazilian avant-garde production, but it was also rejected by part of the audience and never made it into commercial circuits. Its reputation built slowly: Vinicius de Moraes, who later became a prominent Brazilian poet and lyricist, showed the film to Orson Welles when he visited Brazil in 1942. Other screenings took place in private film societies, alongside works by Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, during the 1940s and early 1950s.[1][2]

Peixoto died in 1992, aged 83, leaving a substantial body of literary work, alongside unproduced screenplays and scenarios, and a fragment of a planned second feature film which was never completed and mostly lost in a fire. Peixoto continued to promote Limite throughout his life.[1]

By 1959, the single nitrate print of Limite had deteriorated due to poor storage conditions, and could no longer be screened – a situation that contributed to its near-mythical status in Brazilian film history. It was stored at the Faculdade Nacional de Filosofia (FNF) until 1966, when the military dictatorship’s police force confiscated it, along with works by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and other Soviet directors. Former FNF student Pereira de Mello managed to retrieve the print, later that year; the restoration process began with photographic reproductions of every single frame – the basis for the most recent version, made with the assistance of the Mário Peixoto Archives and Cinemateca Brasileira, which had its American premiere in Brooklyn, New York on 17 November 2010, although a crucial scene remains missing. In 2017, the Criterion Collection issued Limite on DVD and Blu-Ray, as one of Martin Scorsese’s selections for their World Cinema Project.[1]

A film that was very easy to watch but harder to make any sense of. Whilst it wore the obvious hallmarks of European cinema of the 1920s, the French and Russian aesthetics, it also looked incredibly modern in some shots. At times it felt like Peixoto just didn’t grasp the moving image and instead had montaged sequences of still photography, and yet the use of hand-held cameras and movement contradicted this – and the publication of his original Scenario in the 90s, made it clear that these were all definite stylistic intentions.

Curiously, with the selection of European classical pieces compiled as the soundtrack by the director at the time of release, the soundtrack still seems to fall prey to the same irritations I get from modern soundtracks for old silent films, the music over eggs the climactic moments making you anticipate something dramatic that never occurs, and taking you out of the moment.

[1] Limite (film). Retrieved 27 November 2017.
[2] On Brazilian Cinema: From Mário Peixoto’s Limite to Walter Salles. By Michael Korfmann, July 2006. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
[3] The Museum of Modern Art. Limite. 1931. Written and directed by Mário Peixoto. Retrieved 27 November 2017.

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