Pixote / Dos monjes
With its bracing blend of harsh realism and aching humanity, Héctor Babenco offers an electrifying look at lost youth fighting to survive on the bottom rung of Brazilian society that helped put the country’s cinema on the international map. Shot with documentary-like immediacy on the streets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Pixote follows the eponymous preteen runaway (the heartbreaking Fernando Ramos da Silva) as he escapes a nightmarish juvenile detention center, only to descend into a life of increasingly violent crime even as he finds himself part of a makeshift family of fellow outcasts. Balancing its shocking brutality with moments of disarming tenderness, this stunning journey through Brazil’s underworld is an unforgettable cry from the lower depths that has influenced multiple generations of American filmmakers, including Spike Lee, Harmony Korine, and the Safdie brothers.
Made in the early days of Mexican sound cinema, this vividly stylized melodrama hinges on an audacious, ahead-of-its-time flashback structure. When the ailing monk Javier recognizes a brother newly arrived at his cloister, he inexplicably becomes deranged and attacks him. What causes his madness? Director Juan Bustillo Oro recounts the two men’s shared past—a tragic rivalry over the love of a woman—twice, once from the point of view of each, heightening the contrasts between their accounts with visual flourishes drawn from the language of German expressionism. With its gothic sets, elaborate lighting, and daring camera work by avant-garde photographer Agustín Jiménez, Dos monjes is a broodingly intense outlier in Mexican cinema, plumbing the depths of psychological torment and existential mystery with experimental verve.
The next pairing in Criterion's third volume for Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project presents Héctor Babenco's Pixote (from Brazil) and Juan Bustillo Oro's Dos monjes (from Mexico). The films are presented in their respective aspect ratios of 1.85:1 and 1.37:1, and have both been sourced from 4K restorations. Dos monjes was scanned from a 35mm positive while Pixote primarily comes from the 35mm original camera negative. An internegative was used to replace frames missing from the negative. The films share one dual-layer Blu-ray disc while each also receives their own dual-layer DVD. Pixote has been enhanced for widescreen televisions on the DVD. This review will focus on the Blu-ray's presentation but, based on sampling the DVDs, my comments hold mostly true for the presentations of the films on that format, the only real difference being the final images found on the DVDs show more compression due to the limitations of the format (but they still look decent enough upscaled).
Despite whatever issues the restoration team came across with Pixote, which included those missing frames mentioned in the notes along with mold in reels 3, 5, and 6, they've done an incredible job on this film as you'd never really notice. Though there are stains noticeable on the edge of the frame in a couple of places (it stands out most during a drug deal midway through the film) I was actually hard pressed to find any leftover residue from the mold anywhere else and the image looks about spotless (in relation to the source materials) throughout the rest of the film. I also couldn't detect where the internegative was probably used, so they've managed to make any repairs rather seamless and the film could pass off as fairly new.
The digital encode does an impressive job overall. Film grain is rendered very well (which is good as the film is very grainy) and the image is very sharp and clear. The only negative aspect is the colour grading, though to a minor extent. It has that green-like tint that plagues a lot of recent restorations, and maybe it is supposed to look that way (the notes indicate director of photography Rodolfo Sanchez helped on this aspect), but it impacts the black levels negatively, making many darker shots in the film, like nighttime sequences at the reform school, or a sequence in a nightclub, murky and flat. Blues manage to come through a bit and the green-yellow-teal (whatever it is) tint is not insanely heavy to the point that whites are way of, and it does suit the film (I have no doubt the film should have a warmer look), but it still feels like things are leaning a wee bit heavier than they should.
Having said that, it's still an incredibly impressive restoration and it's staggering just how good it comes out looking in every other area.
Dos monjes was also a pleasant surprise, but that was because I was really expecting a mess, something worse than After the Curfew found on the previous disc. Though there are still plenty of source issues Dos monjes has held up better than I figured it would have. There are a lot of scratches and lines raining through and this is pretty much a constant: there are really only a handful of sequences where this aspect is not all that bad, but there's always something raining through in some area of the screen. There are also a staggering number of missing frames and their are 10-15 second sequences where everything is just jumping around because intermittently there a few frames missing.
Detail is also a bit iffy, probably because of the later generation source, but the digital encode handles the grain incredibly well, and there are some impressive moments that you'd swear came from a negative, or close to it. Contrast is decent if not great, the blending being a bit harsh a lot of the time. But black levels still look good, whites are nice without blooming, and there is still a solid photographic look to the presentation.
Despite the issues that do remain I thought it looked pretty great all things considered and the digital presentation is clean, making the stronger aspects of the source stick out better.
Pixote (1981): 8/10 Dos monjes (1934): 6/10
Both films come with lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray and Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtracks on the DVDs. Pixote's original magnetic soundtrack was discovered but had apparently been affected by mold. The restorers have done a stupendous job because I didn't notice anything off about the track at all. In fact, I found it fairly dyanamic and rich, dialogue sounding clear and deep, and sound effects providing excellent fidelity (waves of the water in one sequence sound surprisingly good). Some music can sound a bit flat, but it's a minimal concern.
Dos monjes shows its age, with some loud background noise and edgy music and dialogue. Apparently some of the audio soundtrack was missing so there are a few, short dead spots, but they actually don't stick out that much (I found the missing frames far more distracting). It is what it is, but thankfully not unpleasant.
Pixote (1981): 7/10 Dos monjes (1934): 4/10
To keep costs down (I assume anyways) Criterion does sadly skimp a bit on the supplements for these releases. Both films do come with short introductions by Martin Scorsese, who talks briefly about the films before talking about the restorations. He gives some sad updates around some of those involved with Pixote and then uses Dos monjes as an example for the wonderful discoveries he has come across while working on these restorations.
Pixote does end up being "stacked" in comparison to other titles in the series in that it gets two (yes, 2!) other supplements, not just one. There is a brief, 2-minute prologue made for the film's U.S. release, featuring director Babenco (and the film's young start, Fernando Ramos da Silva with his family) offering context for American audiences by explaining the conditions in areas of Brazil and how laws preventing children under the age of 18 begin charged for crimes has led to them being used by criminals to commit crimes for them. There is also a 22-minute excerpt from a conversation with Héctor Babenco, running 22-minutes and featuring the director talking about his early life and then Pixote. He has apparently had his eye on filmmaking since he was a child, and he recounts here the experience of working at a Argentinian hotel during a film festival (seeing the likes of Truffaut and more) and then how he went to documentary filmmaking and then Pixote (which came from a documentary he had been working on prior but couldn't finish). It's a terrific recounting of his early career while also providing a brief look at Brazilian cinema of the time.
For Dos monjes Criterion enlists (remotely) film scholar Charles Ramírez Berg, who talks about early Mexican cinema, which was saved from bankruptcy after the advent of sound. He then talks about the film's director, how he completely revamped the generic melodrama script he received for the film, and then talks about the film's narrative structure, which would have been revolutionary at the time (it apparently didn't connect with audiences and was a failure). He looks at how the film gives you pieces of the story through the two perspectives, and how the subjectivity of each storyteller is worked in there (which goes right down to the shades of the clothing being worn). Berg also talks about the influence of German expressionism on the film (which led to the film being labeled more of a horror film at the time) and some of the film's impressive shots, especially for an early sound film. It's an unbelievably great interview at a pretty swift 19-minutes, giving a great primer on early Mexican cinema while also delivering an in-depth analysis of the film.
And sadly that is it, but the features here are probably the strongest ones to be found in this particular set.
Again, it's another great pairing with impressive restorations. This collection also has the better supplements to be found in this particular set.