Limite (1931): Brazilian Mário Peixoto’s Silent Masterpiece

From the Archives:

Limite (Portuguese for “limit” or “border”) is a silent cult film by Brazilian director-writer Mário Peixoto (1908–1992), shot in 1930 and first screened in 1931.

Cited by some as the greatest of all Brazilian films, this silent, and experimental feature  was made by novelist and poet Peixoto, who never completed another film.

It was seen by Orson Welles and won the admiration of many, including Sergei Eisenstein, Georges Sadoul, and Walter Salles.

In August 1929, Peixoto was in Pari, on summer break from studies in England, when he saw photograph by André Kertész. The picture of two handcuffed male hands around the neck of a woman who was gazing at the camera became the ‘generative’ image for Limite, in which a man and two women are lost at sea in a rowboat.

Their pasts are conveyed in flashbacks, denoted by music. One woman has escaped from prison; another has left oppressive and unhappy marriage; the man is in love with someone else’s wife.

The unusual structure has kept the film in the margins of most histories, where it has been known mainly as provocative cult film.

Peixoto wanted to play the lead himself, and pitched the film to Brazilian directors Humberto Mauro and Adhemar Gonzaga. Peixoto paid for the production using family funds.

He shot on the coast of Mangaratiba, a village about 50 miles from Rio de Janeiro, where his cousin owned a farm.

Stylistically, Limite follows great 1920s directors: D.W. Griffith, Soviet montage, the German Expressionist works of F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene, French Surrealist shorts by Germaine Dulac and Man Ray, Robert J. Flaherty, Carl Theodor Dreyer and particularly Jean Epstein, all of which are visible in German-born Edgar Brasil’s cinematography.

One scene takes place at a screening of The Adventurer (1917) by Charlie Chaplin, suggesting another important influence on Peixoto’s film.

Limite had three public screenings in Rio de Janeiro between May 1931 and January 1932, with little public support or critical acclaim. Its reputation built slowly. Vinicius de Moraes, who became prominent Brazilian poet, showed the film to Orson Welles when he visited Brazil in 1942 to film parts of It’s All True.

Other screenings took place in film societies, alongside works by  Eisenstein and Pudovkin, during the 1940s and early 1950s.

Peixoto died in 1992, aged 83, leaving a body of literary work, unproduced screenplays, and fragment of a planned second feature, Onde a terra acaba, which never was completed and mostly lost in a fire.

Peixoto continued to promote Limite, however. In 1965, he publicized an article about his film written by Eisenstein, praising its “luminous pain, which unfolds as rhythm, coordinated to images of rare precision and ingenuity.”

Peixoto was vague about the article’s provenance, which lacked primary sources, claiming it appeared in Tatler and then an unidentified German magazine, but finally admitted that he had written the text himself.

By 1959, the single nitrate print of Limite had deteriorated due to poor storage conditions and could no longer be screened. It was stored at the Faculdade Nacional de Filosofia (FNF) until 1966 when the military dictatorship’s police confiscated it, along with works by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and other Soviet directors.

Former FNF student Pereira de Mello retrieved the print, later that year; restoration began with reproductions of every single frame.

I had its American premiere in Brooklyn, New York on  November 17, 2010, though crucial scenes were missing.

In 2017, the Criterion Collection issued Limite on DVD and Blu-Ray, as one of Scorsese’s selections for its World Cinema Project.

Cast
Olga Breno as Woman #1
Tatiana Rey as Woman #2
Raul Schnoor as Man #1
Brutus Pedreira as Man #2
Carmen Santos as Woman eating a fruit
Mário Peixoto as Man sitting at the cemetery
Edgar Brasil as Man asleep in the theater

Credits:

Produced, written, and directed by Mário Peixoto
Cinematography Edgar Brasil
Edited by Mario Peixoto
Release date:  May 7, 1931 (Brazil premiere, Capitol Theatre,
Rio de Janeiro)
Running time 120 minutes