Limite was the only film completed by writer and director Mário Peixoto. Perhaps it could only have been made by someone who had never attempted a movie before: someone like the twenty-two-year-old Peixoto who wanted to create something entirely new, to push beyond the limit—the final, utmost, or furthest boundary—of cinema.
There are many boundaries in the film: between land and sea, present and past, life and death, and between one image and the next. Meaning resides not so much within individual images as in the relationships between them. Sometimes the connection is a neat visual rhyme: the churning wheels of a train become the wheel of a sewing machine; a palm tree is matched with an electric pole radiating power lines; a close-up of the neck and shoulder of a man slumped over in despair gives way to the gaping gills of a fish drowning in air. At other times, as in the opening sequence, the leaps between the images are bigger: from a dark huddle of vultures on a rock to a woman gazing at the camera with a man’s handcuffed fists encircling her neck. Another woman’s eyes fill the screen and dissolve into an expanse of water that dances with flakes of fire.
In the second, cryptic image of the face and handcuffs lies the seed of the movie. Here Peixoto restages a picture by the great Hungarian photographer André Kertész that he had seen on the cover of the pictorial magazine Vu in a Paris newsstand. From this germ he had written a scenario that he presented to Brazilian filmmakers Humberto Mauro and Adhemar Gonzaga, initially hoping to play the lead role. They declined the project and urged him to direct it himself, which he did, using his own family money (he came from a wealthy Brazilian clan but had been raised in Europe). It is easy to see why the established directors might have considered the scenario too idiosyncratic for anyone to make except the man who had dreamed it up. It is an intensely strange, and strangely intense, movie, impossible to describe without employing reference to dreams. A man and two women are adrift in a small rowboat; we never learn how they wound up in this predicament, or why, when the film opens, they have sunk into listless defeat. Woman 2 (as she is identified in the credits, played by Taciana Rei) lies unconscious in the stern; Man 1 (Raul Schnoor) sits with his head hanging, his hair over his eyes; only Woman 1 (Olga Breno), occupying the prow like a figurehead, shows some stubborn will to survive. As they brood, gazing out at the endless water and the relentless light, scenes from their lives drift past like fragments from a shipwreck, full of extreme but often indecipherable feeling. There are only three intertitles in the film, and they do little to clarify matters.
Shot around the coastal village of Mangaratiba, with a tiny cast and equally tiny crew, Limite had a few showings in Rio de Janeiro in 1931 and 1932 but got little traction. Over the years it gradually built something of a cult—Orson Welles saw it in the early 1940s when he was in Brazil shooting It’s All True, and was duly impressed—but by the late 1950s the lone nitrate print had deteriorated to the point where it could not be projected. During the years when it was impossible to see, its reputation grew to mythic proportions, thanks in part to Peixoto’s persistent efforts to keep alive the memory of his masterpiece, which included circulating an adulatory review that he claimed Eisenstein had written but that he later admitted he had penned himself. He described shots that do not exist in the print and probably never did, creating another, imagined version of the film that threatened to overshadow the actual work. Eventually, however, Limite was resurrected, thanks in large part to the stewardship of Saulo Pereira de Mello, who rescued the print after Brazil’s military dictatorship confiscated it in 1966, along with two Soviet titles. A restoration, the result of multinational collaborative effort supported by the World Cinema Project, had its U.S. premiere in 2010.
This lost-and-found history befits a film about people inhabiting a liminal space at the edge of death, a film of ravishing beauty and bitter desolation. The framing device of the three ragged castaways morosely succumbing to their fate might be an allegory for the way each of them is somehow imprisoned, stuck, and desperate. Woman 1 has escaped from jail but still seems trapped. She is associated with sharp edges and straight lines: the razor she uses to open a tin of biscuits, cutting her finger; the gleaming scissor blade she thumbs; the bars of a prison cell and the hard lines of curbs, fences, and window frames. Woman 2 arrives home, carrying a dead fish in a basket, to find her drunken husband curled up on the stairs; she walks out in disgust, and later perches on a crest of rock gazing distraughtly down at the ocean’s edge. Man 1 enjoys the film’s happiest interlude, strolling on the beach with a woman and wading together into water up to their thighs, amid lovely images of vines, branches, palms, reeds shaking in the wind, the reflection of trees shivering on water. But a second flashback opens with the same images repeated, now darkened or flipped in negative; a mysterious confrontation in a graveyard (with a man played by the director) reveals that Man 1 is a widower in love with a married woman. These plot elements are only ever hinted at, but the mood of entrapment and paralysis is overwhelming. When a snippet of a Chaplin film is seen in a movie theater (1917’s The Adventurer), it shows Charlie burrowing up out of the sand on a beach in prison stripes, only to find himself looking into the barrel of a guard’s rifle.
The film is full of movement, of wind and rippling water and watery light, hair blowing and feet pacing, yet it keeps returning to the stasis of the boat and ends where it began with a conclave of vultures. The tempo swings wildly between slow, lingering scenes with a feeling of heaviness and frantically edited sequences in which the shots smash up against each other like waves—for instance during Man 1’s hysterical breakdown, which is followed by tranquil images of fishing boats, nets, and gentle lapping surf. If the men and women are beset by passivity and impotence, the camera is a constantly active presence: it has all the physical freedom the characters lack. Cinematographer Edgar Brazil creates bizarre, impossible angles: shooting up from the ground as though, like Chaplin in that clip, he were buried in the sand; getting so close to the surging pistons of train wheels that you wonder he wasn’t mauled; peering down on people’s heads or barging right through their bodies; sometimes tipping over sideways or spinning wildly like a kid chasing dizziness.
What defines the visual quality of the film above all is its intense, tactile physicality: textures, temperatures, smells seem to jump from the screen. These men and women—who seem like urban types in their suits and fedoras, high heels and chic skirts—are confronted by the intractability of nature, the impossibility of escaping the needs and sensations of their bodies. The feverish, protean flow of images mimics the warping of their heat- and thirst-addled brains, as well as the liquid, ever-changing nature of the element that surrounds them. Limite, like the works of Jean Epstein and Jean Renoir, illustrates the link between water and the fluidity of film. It leaves its audience, like its characters, drowning in cinema.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble