I want to be on your body
Like a tattoo
To give you courage
To carry on
When night falls upon
– Chico Buarque & Ruy Guerra, Tatuagem
When you can’t do anything else,
You mock and rile.
– Paulo Villaça in The Red Light Bandit
Tattoo (Tatuagem) is the directorial debut by renowned screenwriter Hilton Lacerda, and it wastes no time by setting the tone right from its swashbuckling opening scene. Clécio, the leader and main intellectual mentor behind an anarchist experimental theatrical group, introduces us to another night of their spectacle: “The Moulin Rouge of the outskirts, the Broadway of the poor, and the Studio 54 of the slums: welcome to the Star-spangled Floor!” Taking place during Brazil’s military dictatorship, Clécio (with an outstanding performance by Irandhir Santos) and the larger-than-life peacockish Paulette (Rodrigo García) are the first characters introduced and the central figures within their artistic group. Soon afterward, Fininho (Jesuita Barbosa) enters the scene, an 18 year old from a poor countryside family who is serving the military and begins a romantic entanglement with Clécio, thus slowly becoming a household member in the group’s commune.
But Tattoo is not a plot-driven film. More precise would be to say that plot development is often broken into tangential vignettes, which is where we find the film’s greatest moments. The performance scenes in the nightclub feel like they could belong in a more flamboyant Béla Tarr flick, with long sequence-shots that roam the smoke-filled environment, while a romantic bolero is sung by an extravagant cross-dresser on stage. Mr. Sophistication goes Tropicália.
These moments allow for the cinematography to truly shine. With its frequent use of closeups, much attention is given to the body: faces, mouths, smiles, hips, legs, breasts, penises. Lust and desire play a major thematic role, more specifically in their anarchic free-love transgression variation, but these closeups also serve to reflect on ways for the body itself to be. Much like a tattoo, which both gives the film’s title and provides the backdrop for a powerful tear-inducing scene, we must choose how to inscribe and modify our body but also realize that it can be a potent political weapon. While the film’s contrast between 70s anarchic-artistic sexual freedom against the repressed military body sometimes becomes heavy handed, it’s merely designed to act as a starting point and thankfully never assumes a central role. In fact, due to the film’s very structure, no theme ever does assume the main stage (figuratively); instead, the stage (literally) is the setting where all sorts of characters and performers present their insubordinate bodies unto the world.
Although associations with Fassbinder are likely to surface, especially from an international audience, Tattoo owes its legacy to Brazilian Marginal Cinema and follows in the footsteps of Rogério Sganzerla, Julio Bressane, Andrea Tonnaci, and Glauber Rocha, the latter being explicitly and verbally referenced by Clécio during one of his performances. This is a crucial point, since the theatrical performances should not be taken at face value. While the military dictatorship period serves as the backdrop — 1978, to be more specific, a moment when the first timid steps are taken toward redemocratization — the historical recreation at stake is not sociopolitical, but aesthetic. The historical period is only briefly mentioned and barely plays a role. History does play an important part in the film’s aesthetic, however, where the recreation of 70s Brazilian marginal transgressive art confuses itself with Lacerda’s own aesthetic choices. This is where Tattoo’s bold experimentalism stands out, making it one of the best films to come out of Brazil in the past decade.
This is the time of desbunde in Brazil’s political and artistic environment (which could be loosely translated to chaos, mess, to lose your self-control, to go crazy or wild), where loud, flamboyant expressions of sexuality and transgressive moral behavior assume a central political role in face of the exhaustion of the traditional armed left Marxist model of the late 1960s and early 70s. “Our weapon is mockery,” Clécio asserts in the opening scene and then further enlightens us with his own definition of a famous Marxist concept: “praxis is doing rather than thinking, fucking rather than jerking off.” Tattoo walks a very peculiar metalinguistic path, and Lacerda, with the crucial assistance of cinematographer Ivo Lopes Araújo, nails it with an aesthetic-within-an-aesthetic experiment that succeeds in being equal parts homage and good-spirited satire.