Introducing Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes

Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager

Tue, Jan 17, 2017

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As part of the multi-year Via Brasil initiative, the Wexner Center has supported the publication of On Brazil and Global Cinema, the first English-language translation of the essays of Brazilian film critic and historian Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes (1916-1977), and this week brings two days of related programming to the Film/Video Theater in conjunction with its upcoming release.

"He was like the godfather of Brazilian film and culture in general", according to Wex Film/Video Director David Filipi. But in the U.S., which has seen only one previous translation of Gomes's work (his seminal book on French filmmaker Jean Vigo), the writer's influential role in world cinema history is still obscure. For those not in the know, here's more information on Gomes and his work. Hardcover and paperback editions of On Brazil and Global Cinema will be released in June.

Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes

Gomes 101

As editors Maite Conde and Stephanie Dennison note in the upcoming book's introduction. "Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes is revered within Brazil as one of the country’s founding fathers of film criticism and film studies both through the large volume of essays he published throughout his life (some 400) and latterly through his teaching at a number of important film schools; as an instrumental figure in the development of film archiving, both in Europe and in Brazil; and as the first ardent defender and promoter of Brazilian cinema."

The critic in context

"Paying special attention to cinematography, such as camera angles, mise-en-scène and montage, [Gomes's] essays taught an entire generation about the art of film," the editors add. "[The late philosopher and critic] Gilda de Mello e Souza recalls that, unlike previous critics, Paulo Emílio’s writings on film did not just alert people of the latest screenings—they made them learn about and appreciate film aesthetics. The critic’s personal engagement with film, then, had a profoundly public reach, and Paulo Emílio’s writings created a new spectator, one who exchanged entertainment for an understanding and appreciation of cinema. As [Brazilian writer and Gomes scholar] José Inácio de Melo Souza puts it, they turned film fans into cinephiles."

When asked to place Gomes in the canon of the most influential film critics in cinema history, David Filipi said, "The most logical comparison, to me, is Andre Bazin. He was not only a critic, he nurtured a generation of critics and eventually filmmakers. He championed the French New Wave, and he recognized greatness in filmmakers from other countries."

A vocation found through escape and exile

Gomes was involved in the cultural and political scene of his birthplace, São Paulo, from a very young age, becoming editor of the cultural journal Movimento when he was 17. The same year, he joined the National Alliance for Freedom, and his involvement in its militantly anti-fascist and anti-imperialist efforts led to Gomes's arrest and imprisonment in 1935. Fourteen months later, he and 16 other prisoners escaped through a tunnel they had dug, and Gomes fled to Paris, where he spent two years in exile. During that time, he got swept up in the city's growing community of filmmakers and film lovers, attending Parisian movie theaters, the Cinémathèque Francaise, and meetings of Le Cercle du Cinéma, the film club started by French filmmaker Georges Franju and legendary archivist Henri Langlois.

This experience solidified Gomes's view of cinema as an art form and shaped his life from that point forward. In 1940, when he returned to São Paulo to study philosophy, Gomes launched the film club Clube de Cinema to present screenings as food for conversation, and soon began writing about film for the cultural journal Clima. He also championed the need for a film archive in Brazil, and took on the job of directing and organizing the film library at the Museum of Modern Art São Paulo. These efforts would lead to the establishment in 1956 of Cinemateca Brasileira, currently home to the largest audio-visual collection in Latin America.

Lasting impact

According to Conde and Dennison, "Paulo Emílio’s essays provide a fascinating series of snapshots of what films were being screened, viewed and discussed in the Brazilian press at a given time; they also offer precious insights into film production, cinephilia, stardom, curation and audiences, so he simultaneously created and contributed to film culture in Brazil. By engaging with the broader picture of film and filmmaking, and the actual films’ relationship with the socio-political context in which they are produced, Paulo Emílio was instrumental in creating a central place for film in twentieth-century cultural history. It is perhaps no exaggeration to claim that it was thanks to Paulo Emílio and his trailblazing work on film culture that filmmakers, curators and critics are afforded a privileged position within cultural debates in Brazil to this day."

(Please note: Gomes’s name has been alternately spelled as "Sales" in various publications.)