Brazilian writer and director Mário Peixoto made only one film; the 1930 experimental silent movie Limite, which he produced almost single-handedly, being the writer, director, producer, and even appearing in a minor role. In the film, two women and a man are lost at sea in a rowboat, and episodes from their pasts are presented as flashbacks. The film won praise from such giants as Eisenstein and Welles, but was lost for a long time and acquired such legendary status that apparently some claimed it had never been made. However, now that it has been recovered and restored, critics are at a loss as to how to respond to it. Upon viewing the film, my first reaction was extreme confusion as to what to make of it and I decided to look up what the critical response has been. All the reviews and comments I have found are characterized by such extravagant phrases as “singular, outstanding work of art,” “elaborate, innovative symbolism” and “a hypnotic tale spun by a silent sphinx.” What is agreed upon by all critics is that the film is unique, provocative, and groundbreaking, but they almost all evade making more solid comments, preferring nebulous and grandiose descriptions and lavish praises. This is because Limite seems to defy analysis. I think that the critic who came closest to defining the film accurately was Jose Carlos Avellar, who claimed that the film makes us aware of the limits of cinema and what it does not show rather than what it does: “the image conceals more than it reveals.” In Limite, the viewer is so close to the inner lives of characters that understanding them is nearly impossible. The camera focuses on objects and details that have a significance of which the viewer is not aware. In a scene in a graveyard, the character played by Peixoto himself points at something, but when the camera follows the direction of his hand, we see nothing but blurred space. We are not allowed the full access into the characters’ lives that would enable us to understand why certain shots, techniques, etc. are utilized. The camera is almost careless of the characters; at times they stop walking and the camera moves on, the focus is rarely on their eyes but more often on their hair or mouths, and faces are frequently hidden or outside the frame. It is never revealed how the characters come to be in the same boat or what the framework of their flashbacks is. We are simultaneously invited to share their most private recollections and yet are not allowed to understand them. The film is thus a glimpse into the characters’ innermost thoughts and emotions, but examined so closely that we lack the tools to interpret them. It is like studying a pointillism painting in detail and being unable to step back and see the dots and brushstrokes combine into a full picture.
Limite is an extremely experimental film. According to Michael Korfmann, Peixoto said of the film that it [is there a way to work around that double citation?] “does not want to analyze. It shows. It projects itself as a tuning fork, a pitch, a resonance of time itself.” Fortunately, I don’t have the space to interpret this ambitious artistic statement, but what is clear is that Peixoto was more concerned with using the language of cinema to evoke an emotional reaction in his viewers rather than telling a story to do so. William M. Drew called Limite “a consummation of the possibilities of silent film.” The film indeed synthesizes many of the most significant innovations of silent film (montage editing, close-ups, cross-cutting, oblique shots, etc.) and adds many new ones. A handheld camera, extreme high-angle and low-angle shots are extensively used. The high-angle shots are so drastic that special equipment had to be built to accomplish them. One of the most unusual elements in the film is the camera’s 360-degree motion, showing a character from the front, then crossing the line of axis and following from behind. The effects created by the camerawork are fascinating and powerful. For example, a woman is shown looking up at her husband who is sitting on the stairs in a drunken stupor. The camera is angled in such a way that the stairs, as she looks up at him, seem insurmountable, almost completely vertical and enormously high, showing the distance between them and the impossibility to overcoming it. In another scene, a woman contemplating suicide is shown looking down into a beautiful harbor and the camera (probably handheld) suddenly moves erratically, spinning, zooming, turning upside down, mimicking the dizziness, loss of control, and the motion of falling. All the critics are certainly right about one thing; Limite is a triumph of ravishingly beautiful and visionary cinematography that is enough to hold the viewer’s attention on its own, even without trying to make sense of the theory behind the film.
Watch ‘Limite’ on YouTube (English transcription of inter-titles is an option)