The first screening took place on May 17th 1931 in the Cinema Capitólio in Rio de Janeiro, a session organized by the Chaplin Club, which announced Limite as the first Brazilian film of pure cinema. It received favorable reviews from the critics who saw the film as an original Brazilian avant-garde production, but never made it into commercial circuits and over the years was screened only sporadically, as in 1942 when a special session was arranged for Orson Welles who was in South America for the shooting of his unfinished It’ s all true and for Maria Falconetti, lead actress of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Due to various facts, Limite, sometimes referred to as the “unknown masterpiece” - an expression derived from Georges Sadoul who in 1960 had made an unsuccessful trip to Rio de Janeiro just to see the film - along with Mário Peixoto, became quite legendary subjects.
Soon after the first screening in Rio, Limite was shown on several occasions in Europe, in Paris as well as at the Marble Arch cinema in London where it is said to have attracted Sergei Eisenstein’s interest and an article written by him entitled A movie from South America, supposedly published in 1931 in the The Tatler Magazine. This article has frequently been quoted as proof for the international recognition and reputation of Limite, as in the program of the Berliner Filmfestspiele in 1981 or as recently as in 2004 when At the edge of the earth, the documentary about Mário Peixoto, was presented in several European movie theaters. In the 40s and 50s, Mário himself had often mentioned the Eisenstein text but never came up with the article itself. When trying to get financing for one of his projects – a movie called The soul according to Salustre, in 1964 -, he was told by Plinio Süssekind, a friend, that the article would be very helpful to raise funds. Two weeks later Mário presented a hand written text in Portuguese, which was actually published in 1965 by filmmaker Carlos Diegues in his cinema-column of the Brazilian magazine Arquitectura, vol. 38. Peixoto himself first said he had translated this text from a French version of the original English article and later on claimed that cameraman Edgar Brazil had translated it from German into Portuguese, but, according to Saulo Pereira de Mello, finally admitted to having written it himself. The article was then republished by Mello (2000) as a text written by Mário Peixoto.
A second item to mention is the vanishing of Limite in the 60s and 70s. In 1959, the nitrate film began to deteriorate and Plinio Süssekind and Saulo Pereira de Mello started a frame-by-frame restoration. Without previous technical experience, they used procedures from specialized books. Limite only returned to festivals and screenings in 1978. Even though nobody could see the movie between 1959 and 1978 – as in the case of Georges Sadoul and his unsuccessful trip to Rio de Janeiro in 1960 - it still served as a reference for controversial discussions and statements while others even doubted that the film really existed. Glauber Rocha, leading figure of the new cinema, the cinema novo, classified in 1963 the director as “far from reality and history” (59) and the unseen movie as “unable to comprehend the contradictions of bourgeois society” (66), a “contradiction historically overcome” (67) and confirmed his judgment of Limite as a product of the intellectual decadent bourgeoisie again in 1978 after finally having seen it.
The scenario with its 220 listed shots shows itself to be a very explicit manual with detailed descriptions of camera positions, angles and movements for cameraman Edgar Brazil to use. The final cut of Peixoto’s film sticks very closely to the scenario.
Shot 73 might serve as an example:
fusion close up – hand of the woman who has fish and some vegetables in her basket – camera follows her and, once again, close up showing the basket and all of her purchases – woman keeps on walking – camera moves with her (8)
In comparison with the scenarios of other silent avant-garde movies of the 1920s, for instance Man Ray’s manuscript for L’étoile de mer (1928) (9), or even the script by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz for Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), it must be said that Peixoto’s text does not tell a story, nor does it give insights into any kind of psychological state of mind among the three main characters. Rather, it “thinks” in pictures, movements and angles, trying to intertwine the diverse visual fields by using certain symbolic themes and variations. From the outset, the filmic style of Limite is part of the scenario and not a result of an interpretation or transformation of the textual outline by subsequent shooting. The metaphor of the “camera brain” – a frequent term used by many avant-garde filmmakers – is also present in Peixoto’s scenario, in which the use of intertitles is avoided, with one short exception, and reliance is placed overall on the camera and its movements. Limite therefore accomplishes what Germaine Dulac had demanded in 1927: the “real” filmmaker should “divest cinema of all elements not particular to it, to seek its true essence in the consciousness of movement and visual rhythms” (10).
Taking in account the scenario as well as the actual movie, Limite must be seen as a film with a clear, elaborated and recognisable concept. This may explain Peixoto’s dislike of surrealistic movies, specifically those of Luis Buñuel, and the rejection of chance as an artistic principle, as found in Man Ray or Dada. Limite starts off with the image of a woman embraced by a man in handcuffs, a prototype image that goes on being modified throughout the film. The opening proto-image, from the photograph he saw in Paris in 1929, introduces the leitmotiv of imprisonment, of being trapped, and gives way to a long, almost hypnotic boat scene that is to transport us into the continuum of time, a rather fluid amorphous state in which the camera then moves into the past, tracing certain memory lines, episodes and associated details, objects, movements and images. These visual flashes of limitations are reflected in other images and thus escape from their fixed, limited and solid status, only to disappear or fade out without further explanation. The wrecking in the storm at the end then leads us back to the original proto-image, the initial theme, now extended and enriched by the visual and rhythmic variations that have been experienced. The scenario and film can therefore best be characterised as a visual cinematic poem that explores the medium for its poetic capacities, instead of using it for transporting non-visual conceptions and narratives.
Peixoto then offered the scenario to his director friends Gonzaga and Mauro. But both of them declined and advised him to make the film himself and to hire the cameraman Edgar Brazil, who would have the necessary experience to ensure completion of the project. Shooting began in mid-1930, using imported panchromatic film material with a high sensitivity for grey scales.
Limite had its première on 17 May 1931, in the Cinema Capitólio in Rio de Janeiro, in a session organised by the Chaplin Club. It received favourable reviews from the critics, who saw the film as an original Brazilian avant-garde production, but it was also rejected by part of the audience and never made it into commercial circuits. Over the years, it was screened only sporadically, as in 1942, when a special session was arranged for Orson Wells, who was in South America for the shooting of his unfinished It’s all True, and for Maria Falconetti, lead actress of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928).