The following is one of the entries from my list of the 100 greatest films (through 2006) from Africa, Latin America & the Caribbean, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
“I’m not much of a person,” 19-year-old Macabéa tells boyfriend Olimpico, and her self-evaluation is accurate. She lives with three other renters in a single small, squalid room. Both Macabéa and Olimpico are impoverished, socially and academically uneducated rural migrants in the city; she, the protagonist of Suzana Amaral’s Brazilian A Hora da Estrela, which is based on Clarice Lispector’s novel, is nicer, though. When Olimpico dumps Macabéa for someone who is more (obviously) attractive, he tells her, “You are a hair in my soup.”
Macabéa, like Olimpico, is an orphan. She works ineptly and painfully slowly as a typist, and is constantly on the verge of being fired. (Olimpico is a factory worker.) Macabéa continually asks Olimpico questions, often about unfamiliar words she has heard used on the radio. When she asks what culture is, he typically hides his ignorance behind a brusque, dismissive response: “Culture is culture.” Macabéa wants to better herself, but she doesn’t know how, and her attempts to do so are routinely blocked.
Yet Macabéa perseveres. She succeeds somewhat in coming to terms with herself in a largely inhospitable environment. For the most part, no one sees her. In a crowded fast-food restaurant, Macabéa is pleased when she thinks a man is noticing her, but as he leaves she realizes he is blind. Throughout, we see her looking at her image in mirrors and windows, and the reflecting surface usually is vague, smudged or given to distortion. At first, she is trying to see herself as others see her; later, she is trying to see herself more clearly, more kindly than others do. Amaral’s at times almost documentary-like film cries out for us also to see Macabéa and people like her.
Profoundly engaging, sometimes radiant, Marcelia Cartaxo is superb as Macabéa.