The derelict movie palace of the Filipino film Serbis

  • The derelict movie palace of the Filipino film Serbis

Later this week I plan to post an interview I recently conducted with Brazilian film critic and professor Franthiesco Ballerini, who’s currently in town as a guest of the Mostra Brazilian Film Series. In addition to giving me an overview of Brazil’s film history, Ballerini also indulged my curiosity about what it’s like to go to the movies there. I was fascinated to learn that, for a while, moviegoing was considered déclassé in Brazil. During the country’s period of dictatorship (1964-1985), the film industry went into decline. In the 1970s, much of the national output consisted of what we’d call exploitation films, lurid stories marked by racy (though not flat-out pornographic) content. The movie palaces of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo—many designed to hold over a thousand spectators—were chronically underpopulated, attended mainly by single men sitting far apart from one another.

I instantly thought of the New York grindhouse cinemas that Martin Scorsese immortalized in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, as well as the empty old movie palaces of Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and the fine Filipino feature Serbis (2008)—theaters characterized as hiding places for down-and-out types. Their glamor having decayed and given way to squalor, these places function as metaphors for alienation, depression (both economic and emotional), and disillusionment. I wonder how many Brazilians associate them with life under dictatorship.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.