Susana Amaral’s The Hour of the Star
Great novels are seldom, if ever, successfully translated to the screen (Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard is the one exception that immediately comes to mind). Wonderfully accomplished novels fare better (just to mention a few recent adaptations, think of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm and Mira Nair’s The Namesake, fine movies made from eponymous novels). Still, more good novels fail than succeed in the attempt. In fact, it is a commonplace to say that, in general, minor novels make the best movies. Then what about Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star? It is a novel that is short on narrative but big on interiority, peppered with goofy philosophical musings, and has at its center the character, Macabea, who is described by the novel’s narrator as “simple minded,” and as “a creature from nowhere with the expression of someone who apologizes for occupying too much space.”
Though The Hour of the Star, Lispector’s final work, is hardly the stuff out of which good movies are made, Amaral’s film adaptation comes as a refreshing surprise to the readers acquainted with the novel. I will not go as far as to say that I prefer the movie to the original novel, but I would like to argue that Susana Amaral’s film expands the confines of the novel and enriches the narrative, adding layers of feeling that the novel doesn’t have. It achieves this, I think, by turning the “unformed” Macabea into an unforgettable movie creation. I would even go as far as to say that thanks to Amaral’s movie, Macabea has finally come fully to life.
The director said in an interview that the first crucial decision she made in writing the screenplay was to get rid of the intrusive narrator, whom another less inspired artist might have tried to keep in the form of a voice over. By stripping the novel of this writerly device, Amaral was left with the crux of Lispector’s ontological conundrum: how to create a whole human being out of a character who is a blur? Amaral has, on the other hand, kept almost intact whole scenes and much of the scant dialogue found in the book. By virtue of doing so, she has preserved Lispector’s sly and acerbic sense of humor.
Existentialism was one of the most predominant philosophical movements at the time Lispector wrote her work. And in France, she’s read as an existentialist philosopher who uses fiction to express her ideas. The Brazilian author is interested in exploring many of the themes that her French counterparts—de Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, and Beckett—tackled in their novels and plays: bourgeois guilty conscience, the need for the intellectual to be committed, and being and nothingness. Additionally, like de Beauvoir, Lispector was deeply interested in the condition of women, the lives they were forced to live under the restrictions imposed by mid twentieth century societies.
In the novel, Macabea remains an enigma. As Lispector intended, she stands for all the marginal, uneducated, and brutalized young women who cannot advance themselves in rigid societies where the poor are exploited and treated as untouchables. Traveling in Latin America, and in Africa, I’ve encountered hundreds of Macabeas. Yet, despite her stunted mind, Macabea is curious, and she longs to know the meaning of things. Like so many of the great heroines in fiction until quite recently, she yearns for knowledge, which will be the only way out of her dead-end existence.
The movie fills in Lispector’s sketch of this unfortunate girl thanks to the heart-breaking and luminous performance by Marcelia Cartaxo. Her complete lack of actressy vanity, as she immerses herself in the creation of the uncouth Macabea, is one of the greatest triumphs of screen acting. Cartaxo achieves this because Susana Amaral catches Macabea’s every movement with the empathy and respect that Vittorio De Sicca extends to the young maid in his ground-breaking neorealist masterwork Umberto D. His camera observes her lovingly, reverentially, as she wakes up in the morning and performs her daily chores in the kitchen, as if he were filming her in the act of lighting a sacred fire. Like Robert Bresson, Satyajit Ray, and Jean Renoir, Amaral sees, and celebrates, the beauty and poetry of the most humble creatures. Lispector, the philosopher, was interested in exploring her ideas about what it means to be a human being who struggles to create a consciousness for herself; Amaral, an instinctual artist, fleshes out Lispector’s arresting concept, making out of it a human being who touches our heart.
Susana Amaral’s The Hour of the Star was well-received and celebrated by many film critics all over the world. But it took a critic of Pauline Kael’s keen intelligence to recognize what Kael called a “mystic sanctity” in Amaral’s depiction of Macabea. What exasperates many readers who come to Clarice Lispector’s work for the first time, is that more than a philosopher (she lacked the intellectual rigor of the French existentialists), she was a religious writer, a mystic, a visionary. Perhaps even a prophet. Her true subject is enlightenment. As Lispector herself warned us, you have to be ready to understand what she’s trying to say. But she did give us clues about how to read her final novel: “The anonymous girl of this story is so ancient that she should be described as biblical.”
It is our luck that Susana Amaral has taken that biblical creature—a holy fool, one of God’s sacrificial lambs—and made her a breathing, living person as tangible as you and I. In this case, I may even go as far as to suggest that Amaral’s film is a window she has opened so we can access Macabea in all her humanity and understand Lispector’s aim as a novelist. You might even want to watch the film first before you read the book. Though the order doesn’t matter. What cannot be denied is that one enlarges the meaning of the other.