'Helio Oiticica': Film Review

An artistic semi-autobiography to delight fans and stoke newcomers' curiosity.

The inventor of Tropicalia, making art and life one.

A giant of 20th century South American art, Helio Oiticica was to visual expression what Caetano Veloso and his peers were to music; in fact, the "Tropicalia" tag that came to refer to the overall Brazilian avant-garde came from one of his installations. In his first film, the artist's nephew Cesar Oiticica Filho digs through A/V archives to assemble something like a self-portrait of a man who died at just 42 but left a huge legacy. Though its informality and lack of scene-setting make it much less accessible than a standard doc — it's a bit like being two-thirds of the way through a drunken party when a friend realizes you haven't heard of his favorite artist, then tries to excitedly convey a career's high points before passing out — the film will be appreciated by admirers of Oiticica and the overall movement, and should have long life on video after niche bookings in art-savvy cities.

The artist, whose output defied labels like "painter" or "sculptor," narrates most of our journey here, via old audio-taped interviews whose technical quality is often pretty poor. The filmmaker finds a wealth of vibrant visuals to compensate for that poor audio, though, from hand-colored experimental films Oiticica shot to plentiful home movies and news footage of gallery shows.

We skip over nearly all discussion of his youth and early artistic training, jumping in at the moment where he found his voice — one deeply influenced by the streets and Carnaval, bent on piling as many sensory experiences into a single creation as possible. He made "Penetrables," environments meant to be walked into, even rolled around in (often with sand, water or straw to tickle bare feet), built boxes called "Bolides," full of treasure-stuffed compartments; and designed costume-like "Parangoles," which he considered incomplete until they were draped around someone's body and put into motion.

His "environmental art" was a sensation, but the film avoids the usual present-day interviews with critics and scholars in favor of floating through the career at Oiticica's own pace. He seems to have enjoyed celebrity enormously — probably too much, in the latter part of the years he spent in New York City. "Cosmococas," made in collaboration with Neville D'Almeida, were environments incorporating cocaine as a drawing medium and, probably, as an idea-generator.

The film hits a bit of a burnout droop here, and the artist returns to Brazil, frets over violent turmoil and decides he's bored with drugs. He started things over to some extent, trying to demythologize himself and to create sturdier versions of early work that will last after he's gone. While the film doesn't mention a 2009 fire that destroyed many of Oiticica's ephemeral creations (the filmmaker's father, Oiticica's brother, was storing the archive at the time), it does show some of these splendidly colorful new structures in situ, with the hopeful suggestion that a body of work very much of its time will continue to inspire and delight for generations to come.

 

Production company: Guerrilha Producoes Artisticas e Cinematograficas

Director-Screenwriter: Cesar Oiticica Filho

Producers:

Executive producers: Joao Villela, Juliana Carapeba, Felipe Reinheimer, Cesar Oiticica Filho

Director of photography: Felipe Reinheimer

Editor: Vinicius Nascimento

Music: Daniel Ayres, Bruno Buarque

No rating, 94 minutes

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