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Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)

Director, Actor, Sound

Main image of Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)

In a filmmaking career spanning half a century and at least half a dozen countries, Brazilian-born Alberto Cavalcanti spent some fifteen years in Britain during the 1930s and 1940s, bringing a cosmopolitan outlook and a talent for the poetry of sound and image to both documentary and fiction cinema.

Alberto de Almeida Cavalcanti was born in Rio de Janeiro on 6 February 1897, the son of a noted mathematician. He left Brazil at the age of fifteen to study architecture and interior design at the School of Fine Arts in Geneva, from where he moved to Paris to take up work as a set designer in a film studio. As one of a group of young avant-garde artists surrounding Marcel l'Herbier and Louis Delluc, Cavalcanti soon began producing and directing films on his own account, among them the pioneering 'city symphony' Rien que les heures (France, 1926), which reputedly inspired Dziga Vertov's more celebrated Man with a Movie Camera (USSR, 1929). It has been suggested that the key influences at this early stage of Cavalcanti's career came from the French realist tradition and, to a lesser extent, from surrealism.

In 1934, at the invitation of John Grierson, Cavalcanti left Paris for London to join the GPO Film Unit. There he worked on numerous films in a variety of creative capacities, including producer, director, sound supervisor, editor, scriptwriter and art director, and took over as head of the Unit upon Grierson's departure for Canada in 1937. In 1940, he returned to feature films as an associate producer and director at Ealing Studios, and remained there for six years.

In the first feature he directed at Ealing, Went the Day Well? (1942), an army detachment appears in a quiet English village, supposedly Royal Engineers on an exercise, but it gradually dawns on the villagers that they are Germans who have been parachuted in by night. By the time the traitorous squire has been shot by the vicar's daughter, the village's placid surface has been torn aside to reveal unexpected violence and brutality.

Cavalcanti directed three more features at Ealing (Champagne Charlie (1944), Dead of Night (1945) and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947)), and produced many more. He parted company with the studio in the late 1940s, and went on to make three features for other British studios: They Made Me a Fugitive (Alliance, 1947); The First Gentleman (Columbia British, 1948); and For Them That Trespass (Associated British, 1948).

Early in 1950, Cavalcanti returned to Brazil to take up a post as head of production at the Companhia Cinematografica Vera Cruz. Shortly afterwards, at the height of the Cold War and under suspicion of Communist activity, he returned to Europe, where he continued making films until the late 1970s, working in East Germany, France, Israel, and elsewhere. During this period he made a brief return to Britain to direct the animated film The Monster of Highgate Ponds (1960). He died in Paris on 23 August 1982.

In his early British film, Pett and Pott (1934) - a satirical tale of shopping, the telephone, and two suburban families - Cavalcanti established his trademark blend of poetry, realism and fiction. If the influential Coal Face (1935) is more obviously in the Griersonian 'creative interpretation of actuality' mould of documentary filmmaking, Cavalcanti's non-naturalistic approach to factual cinema is still very much apparent in this visual and audial tone-poem about the lives and work of coal miners. However, differences within the GPO unit concerning the merits of Pett and Pott and over his credits on a number of films, including Coal Face, suggest that Cavalcanti's time there was not always easy.

Nonetheless, with their attention to the expressive interaction of sound and image, Pett and Pott and Coal Face embody what was to be Cavalcanti's distinctive aesthetic contribution to British cinema: a melding of actuality and the commonplace on the one hand with a non-naturalistic, even at times surreal, approach to fiction on the other. Cavalcanti was able to bring his brand of poetically-charged documentary authenticity, drama and surrealism to some of his work at Ealing Studios - in the unsettling atmosphere, and sudden, intense, acts of violence in Went the Day Well?, for example, and even more so in his celebrated contribution to the portmanteau film, Dead of Night, where a ventriloquist, possessed by his dummy, is led into degradation, murder and madness.

Cavalcanti's British work, defying hard-and-fast distinctions between art and entertainment, is arguably his best: it is certainly his most consistent. However, Ian Aitken contends that he lacked the dedicated careerist's political savvy, and that in Britain he was thrown off creative course by the demands of the documentary form and the commercial film industry. He certainly seems to have felt an outsider at both the GPO and Ealing, and indeed in aesthetic terms his contribution to British cinema does have something of a maverick quality. Yet he was clearly a significant mentor to younger colleagues, and it is as a mentor and as a producer that he made a particularly decisive impact.

Aitken, Ian (ed.), The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), pp. 179-214
Aitken, Ian, Alberto Cavalcanti: Realism, Surrealism and National Cinemas (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000)
Cavalcanti, Alberto, Filme e realidade (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Artenova, 1977)
Hillier, Jim, Alan Lovell, and Sam Rohdie, 'Interview with Alberto Cavalcanti', Screen v.13, n. 2, 1972, pp. 36-53
Monegal, Emir Rodriguez, 'Alberto Cavalcanti', The Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television v. 9, n. 4, 1955, pp. 341-358

Linda Wood, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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