The Lost Souls of Sao Paulo

Long Day’s Journey into Night is the title of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1956 play but it could also serve as a succinct capsule description of numerous movies from the 1960s that were clearly influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) and its themes of alienation and existential despair. Some examples include Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s Il Mare (1962) which follows three strangers on the isle of Capri during a bleak winter season as they try to connect with each other. Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) depicts a dystopian futuristic society in which a detective finds himself out of place in a modernistic Paris controlled by an oppressive artificial intelligence. And Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969) uses the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and its smog-creating car culture as a backdrop to an unemployed architect’s search for meaning in his life. Yet, the most Antonioni-like film of all and the least known is probably Noite Vazia (1964) by Brazilian director Walter Hugo Khouri, which traces a dusk-to-down encounter between two men and two women amid the sterile cityscapes of modern Sao Paulo.

Not released in the U.S. until 1967 under the title Men and Women, the original title, Noite Vazia, which translates as The Empty Night, is much more accurate. The film opens with Luis (Mario Benvenutti) leaving his wife and son for a business meeting which is actually a cover for a night on the town with his unmarried friend Nelson (Gabriele Tinti). We soon learn that these nocturnal prowls around Sao Paulo are routine rituals for the two friends but their motives differ. For the wealthy, entitled Luis, his nightly sojourns are dictated by his sex drive and male ego. Nelson, on the other hand, is searching for something missing in his life, a situation his current girlfriend can’t help him resolve.

Nelson (Gabriele Tinti, left) and Luis (Mario Benvenutti) are jaded night owls who prowl the city bars and clubs for sexual adventures in the Brazilian drama NOITE VAZIA (1964) aka Men and Women in the U.S.

The two men bar hop and frequent a jazz club where they encounter night owls like themselves, looking for action or companionship but mainly experiencing boredom. Their possibilities improve when they visit a late night Japanese restaurant and Luis spies an elderly business acquaintance with two beautiful women, Regina (Odete Lara) and Mara (Norma Bengell). The two women turn out to be prostitutes and, when their client falls asleep, they abandon him and go off with Luis and Nelson to a private apartment that Luis keeps for his extramarital flings.

Luis (Mario Benvenutti, left) and Nelson (Gabriele Tinti) and their prostitute pick-ups watch a porno movie in Luis’s private penthouse in NOITE VAZIA (1964), directed by Walter Hugo Khouri.

The rest of the evening unfolds in this chic but impersonal environment where the foursome switch partners, have sex, watch a stag film entitled Santa Claus Presents but mostly taunt and confront each other over their transactional relationship like this exchange between Regina and Luis:

Regina: You know what? You’re the type of guy that, without money, wouldn’t get anything. Anything!

Luis: You better shut up. I just gave you money because I see you’re miserable. Finding a woman like you is the easiest thing in the world.

Odete Lara stars as Regina, a hard-as-nails veteran prostitute who is wise to the games men play in NOITE VAZIA (1964), a Brazilian film about alienation and despair in modern day Sao Paolo.

In some ways, Luis and Regina are perfectly matched like the George and Martha characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. His self-righteous egotism is constantly buffeted by Regina’s brutal candor. When they first enter the apartment, Luis tells her she is number 367. “That’s ridiculous,” she relies, “Not even 20 year old boys do that anymore,” adding, “For me, you’re number 1800.” But Luis knows how to make an insult sting and constantly reminds Regina of her fading charms and age or dismisses her as crazy when she drops her guard and reveals a nightmare to him.

Real life married couple Norma Bengall and Gabriele Tinti enjoy an intimate night together but it doesn’t last past the dawn in the Brazilian drama NOITE VAZIA (1964).

In contrast to this bickering duo, Nelson and Mara come off as quietly desperate and forlorn. Although they share a mutually satisfying intimacy in bed, the mood quickly fades by dawn’s early light and both realize that nothing is going to change their current situations. Nelson appears to be doomed to a life of non-committal relationships and inarticulate longings while Mara loses hope of finding love and resigns herself to her fate as a hooker.

Noite Vazia may not be everyone’s idea of a fun night at the movies but, for those interested in a serious adult drama, it provides a telling portrait of a certain kind of socio/economic divide between men of privilege and working women in a patriarchal society like Brazil. The performances are especially vivid with startling moments of psychological insight and caustic humor. Compared to the films of Antonioni, Khouri’s melodrama also has a more pronounced sensuality and eroticism such as the scene where the two women strip down during a rainstorm and bath in the downpour.

An overhead shot of Regina (Odete Lara) contemplating another lousy night with an obnoxious male client in NOITE VAZIA (1964), directed by Walter Hugo Khouri.

Rudolf Icsey’s moody black and white cinematography clearly establishes an after-hours atmosphere that truly feels like a long day’s journey into night. And Rogerio Duprat’s slightly downbeat jazz score enhances that vibe. Best of all, Khouri maintains a nervous tension throughout the narrative that maintains your interest, even when you realize there will be no true resolution for these lost souls.

Mara (Norma Bengall, left) and Regina (Odete Lara) find themselves discarded like rubbish after an evening of sex and games with two upper class men in the Antonioni-like drama NOITE VAZIA (1964).

Among the cast members, Norma Bengell is probably the most sympathetic and her grave but beautiful face with those soulful eyes is hard to forget. Of the two prostitutes, she is clearly the novice and her sadness and fragility are almost palpable, especially in the scene where she is coerced into having sex with Regina but bursts into tears instead. Gabriele Tinti is also impressive as her confused and aimless lover. In real life they were in the early stages of a passionate six year marriage (1963-1969) and the chemistry between them is obvious. Tinti was already a popular Italian leading man at this point and later appeared in numerous exploitation genre films including a series of Emmanuelle sex dramas starring his second wife, Indonesian actress Laura Gemser.

Bengell was five years into her film career when she appeared in Noite Vazia but she had already stirred up controversy among conservative critics and moviegoers for her full frontal nudity in Ruy Guerra’s Os Cafajestes (The Hustlers, 1962). She followed that up with memorable performances in Anselmo Duarte’s The Given Word (1962), a key work in the Cinema Novo movement, and Mafioso (1962), a crime satire filmed in Sicily by Alberto Lattuada. For the remainder of her career, Bengell moved easily between avant-garde/art house fare like Paulo Cesar Saraceni’s A Casa Assassinada (The Murdered House, 1971) and Pierre Kast’s Les Soleils de I’ile de Paques (1972) as well as genre films (Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires [1965] and the spaghetti western The Hellbenders [1967]). She died at the age of 78 but is now considered a major figure in Brazilian cinema.

Norma Bengall plays an astronaut named Sanya in Mario Bava’s innovative and stylish sci-fi fantasy, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965).

The same holds true for Walter Hugo Khouri, who was quite famous in his native country but almost unknown in the U.S. despite being twice nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes for Noite Vazia and O Palacio dos Anjos (1970). Although most of Khouri’s work were dramas which focused on the moral decadence of the Brazilian upper class, he is enjoying a revival of interest due to two films in the horror/supernatural genre: O Anjo da Noite (The Angel of the Night, 1974) and As Filhas do Fogo (Daughters of Fire, 1978).

The former film sounds like a variation on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw but is actually a precursor to the 1979 babysitter-in-peril thriller When a Stranger Calls. The plot involves a female university student who is hired to watch over two children at a creepy mansion in the countryside. Almost immediately she begins receiving threatening phone calls that escalate until the horrific climax.

As Filhas do Fogo is more of an erotic thriller with supernatural overtones as a young lesbian couple take a road trip and fun afoul of a malevolent woman who may be a witch. The film has developed a cult reputation for taking a horror film conceit and filtering it through a queer perspective.

A shot of the cast and crew on the set of NOITE VAZIA (1964), directed by Walter Hugo Khouri.

Unfortunately, none of Khouri’s work is available on Blu-ray or DVD in authorized editions in the U.S. However, Noite Vazia is available for free streaming on Youtube in a surprisingly decent print with English subtitles. Sometimes it can be quite surprising what turns up on Youtube. In recent months I’ve found everything from bizarre obscurities like Scream of the Butterfly (1965) to the lesser known German krimki, The Phantom of Soho (1964), directed by Franz Josef Gottlieb and presented in a pristine black and white print with English subtitles.

Other links of interest:

Luis (Mario Benvenutti) discovers that Regina (Odete Lara) is not the easy, obliging prostitute he hired for the night in NOITE VAZIA (1964).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s