For a few years now, Brazil has been making headlines as a nation in deep political and economic crisis. The imprisonment of wildly popular leftist president Lula on corruption charges and the impeachment of his successor Dilma Rousseff opened the way for Michel Temer to take over in what many deemed a coup. His low approval ratings paved the way for the election last year of Jair Bolsonaro, a man nostalgic for the brutal years of dictatorship.
Directed by Vincent Rimbaux and Patrizia Landi, Ressaca offers up the on-goings at Rio de Janeiro’s grand opera Theatro Municipal as a new prism onto this turmoil. Ressaca takes its title from a Portuguese word meaning both rough seas, and a hangover. The film is a rousing call to resistance against a rising tide of right-wing forces to all who recognise cultural heritage as the beating heart of a city’s collective spirit and memory.
«It’s tough to see the city decline like this»
The documentary takes us inside the gorgeous Theatro Municipal, its architecture echoing the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris, its gleaming floors shot in elegant black-and-white. It’s here that the dancers practice for long hours, and the picture is one of an almost sacred space away from the busy streets for their passion and dedication.
But it’s 2017, and this venue is no idyllic escape from reality: the troupe are employees of the bankrupt state, and have not been paid for two months. They are close-knit and supportive of one another, but the strain is showing. With food packages of basic staples like rice and beans handed out in lieu of salaries for the foreseeable future, the dancers must determine how much longer they can go on delivering culture to a city that does not pay them.
One dancer, working as an Uber driver at night to pay the bills, describes his frustration at being diverted from his «essence», and his feelings of humiliation.
«We have reached the limit of our strength and dignity,» the company announces to the audience ahead of a performance of Carmina Burana to celebrate the company’s 88th anniversary – emphasising that support for artists is not only a matter of their physical survival, but integral to the psychic lifeblood of a well-functioning society.
A story about resistance
The devastating fire that rips through and guts Rio’s 200-year-old National Museum in 2018, reducing to ashes most of its 20 million items (including a collection of artefacts carrying the history and lost languages of Brazil’s indigenous peoples), compounds the heartbreak of the family built around the theatre. The predictability of the fire is as tragic as its scale, given that lack of maintenance had been flagged up as a disaster waiting to happen for some time.
Prima ballerina Márcia Jaqueline, fed up with the issue of unpaid salaries, takes up an opportunity to pursue her career in Salzburg
Neglect of the Theatro Municipal, another centennial building integral to the cultural fabric of Rio, could see it suffer a similar fate, they fear. «It’s tough to see the city decline like this,» one says.
But resistance as much as decline is the subject of this film. As much as its vision is one of sadness for Rio’s inhabitants, we also are afforded a bracing portrait of a group of citizens acting in solidarity to take a stand for the city’s cultural life.
In meetings at the theatre tactics are debated, and gestures of protest proposed. Whether to stop singing the national anthem before performances (since the present government is an affront to its affirmation of «order and progress») is among actions discussed.
You could rarely find a more potent symbol of moneyed European colonialism than opera
Prima ballerina Márcia Jaqueline – fed up with the issue of unpaid salaries – takes up an opportunity to pursue her career in Salzburg, and the others promise to continue the fight so she can return. They soon decide to strike. The dancers return to perform, but this time in front of the theatre, in a protest they couch as a cry for help not only for culture – «the soul of the nation» – but also education, health care, and public security. A crowd forms around them; tears roll down the cheeks of some citizens.
You could rarely find a more potent symbol of moneyed European colonialism than opera, and its problematic positioning at the forefront of grassroots resistance goes unexamined by the directors. But it would be churlish to deny the dancers their place among the wider suffering of the city. It’s become a popular way, too, to describe the turmoil that left few unaffected.
Ending with the ominous news of Bolsonaro’s election, the film is not one for consoling platitudes, as it seems much worse times for Brazil are to come. But in the camera’s gentle and loving dance through the faces of those who have invested so much of their lives in the theatre and who believe in its ability to gather and inspire the citizenry, regardless of a political class that would blithely steal Rio’s future, the film shows the human capacity of Brazil to persist and transform its fortunes.