Linha de Passe and life in the suburbs of São Paulo (Brazilian Gringo)

Fala cados, beleza?

Welcome to The Brazilian Gringo, an ongoing column about life, pop culture, politics, and history in Brazil from the perspective of a permanent resident who has lived in the country for three years and counting. If you have any suggestions for subjects you’d like to see covered in future articles, let me know in the comments!

Since moving to Brazil, one of the most common questions I receive from family and friends in the US and Europe, besides “why?”, is “what is life like in São Paulo?” I always feel a bit at a loss to properly describe it. São Paulo is the fourth largest city in the world (the metropolitan area has nearly 22 million people), and the sheer diversity of life here can be discussed for hours on end. However, when asked this question, I often think of the 2008 film, Linha de Passe (the literal translation is “Pass Line”). Directed by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas, the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and its lead actress Sandra Corveloni won the Best Actress prize for her exquisite performance. Despite these accolades and a slew of positive reviews, it never gained much attention outside of Brazil, excluding a limited release in the UK. With a few notable exceptions, like City of God and Central Station (both of which will be covered in future articles), Brazilian cinema often struggles to find the global appreciation it richly deserves. Linha de Passe is not only a masterpiece of contemporary Brazilian cinema, it is also one of the most truthful and complex depictions I’ve seen regarding life in São Paulo.

Linha de Passe centres on a working-class family living in the suburbs of São Paulo. The mother, Cleuza (Corveloni) has four sons, each from a different father. Pregnant with her fifth child, she works as a cleaner for wealthier clients and seems resigned a life of consistent drudgery. Her eldest son Dênis (João Baldasserini) works as a delivery man who gradually gets involved in robberies. Dinho (José Geraldo Rodrigues) is a pious church-going young man who works at a gas station and is always trying to do the right thing, even if his occasionally sanctimonious nature irritates those around him. Dario (Vinícius de Oliveira, best known as the child lead from Walter Salles’ other masterpiece, Central Station), trains religiously so he can land a contract with a major football team. Reginaldo (Kaique Jesus Santos), the youngest of Cleuza’s children, is desperate to find his father and spends most of days riding buses across the city (he suspects his father is a bus driver). The family bonds and squabbles and the film catalogues their adventures through the seasons. Some members of the family spiral out, others find moments of triumph, and life trundles along.

On the surface, the film’s social realist aesthetic defies easy categorization. It’s not vibrant and propulsive in the same vein as City of God, but it’s not a soapbox piece like a lot of British social realism (looking at you, Ken Loach). Salles and Thomas have a keen eye for detail and coupled with the actors’ naturalism and easy chemistry, the family in the film really feels like a family. The performances are uniformly fantastic, with Corveloni more than deserving her Best Actress win at Cannes.

One performance of particular note is João Baldasserini as the oldest brother, Dênis. As his character progresses deeper into the world of petty crime, He has the difficult task of capturing Dênis’ mixture of boredom and desperation while not sacrificing his charisma and humanity, and Baldasserini makes it look easy. He eschews every opportunity to ham it up for easy sympathy, instead focusing on the disturbing ease of which a smart, likeable guy in a poor neighborhood can easily turn to crime. It’s heartbreaking to watch and builds toward one of the film’s most powerful scenes. After carjacking a wealthy man, Dênis orders the man to drive to secluded place. The threat of violence hangs heavy over the scene as the audience fears he will cross the line and do something unforgivable. Instead, as he screams at the man, he removes his mask and demands the man look at him. The scene ends with the man escaping and Dênis left crying in the car. Ultimately, it captures the film’s central theme: the exhaustion, rage, and heartbreak that comes with being ‘invisible’ in Brazilian society.

During my first nine months in Brazil, I lived in the suburbs of São Paulo, in a neighborhood similar to the one featured in Linha de Passe. I met people like the characters, many of whom I am privileged to call my family and friends (quick aside: happy to report that none of them have engaged in any petty crimes). Those nine months in the quebrada (Paulistano slang for “suburbs”) were… challenging to put it mildly. The long commutes, the feelings of isolation (exacerbated by me being a gringo), the labyrinthian bureaucracy that made trying to move to a more desirable neighborhood even more enervating, all of it was draining. But the feeling of community, that sense of belonging even when things get dark and uncertain, it’s a sensation that I remember with total fondness. When I first saw the film back in 2017, I was struck by how different it felt. It didn’t feel like cheap poverty porn or a leering, sanctimonious soap opera. It felt so real in a way I couldn’t quite articulate.

Watching the film after having lived in São Paulo for nearly three years, it still feels real but now there’s a familiarity that’s oddly comforting. Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas made one of the most poetic and honest films about the challenges of life in São Paulo. Revisiting the film is like revisiting family.

“Life is what you make of it”