The End. To the sad sound of seat-backs clacking shut for the last time, the final credits on the much-loved independent cinema, Cine Belas Artes, have rolled.
Famed for its all-night Friday film sessions, Belas Artes – which closed on 17 March 2011 – had been a vanguard of arthouse cinema since it first opened in 1943 as the Cine Ritz. Film-lovers, drawn to a programme that steered away from mainstream blockbusters, would debate films for hours afterwards at the Riviera Bar and Ponto 4, which were opposite the cinema on the corner of Rua Consolação and Avenida Paulista. The bars, once hubs for artists and intellectuals, are no more – their closing, four years ago in the case of Riviera, all part of the process of deterioration in the area, in which Belas Artes was a last bastion of night-time activity, helping to keep the streets busy and safe at night.
‘It’s a catastrophe,’ says Nabil Bonduki, an architecture professor at the University of São Paulo, of the Belas Artes closure. ‘Street-level cinemas and theatres are public spaces and need to be protected, but the public authorities are doing very little. This closure is a symbol of the desertificação of areas like this: it’s essential that they remain open in order for the city streets not to become empty.’
Requiem for a cinema
So-called ‘cinemas da rua’, or street-level cinemas, have been dying a slow death since their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. Nowadays, 80 per cent of Brazil’s 2,000-plus cinemas are multiplexes, housed in identikit shopping centres, with a predictable menu of Avatars, Social Networks, Shreks and Iron Mans.
Shopping centres have become popular places for leisure activity – and are perceived as being safer, as part of a parallel, opposite and arguably related trend to the deterioration of street life around downtown places like Belas Artes.
For Belas Artes, market forces have, it seems, proved the last straw. When the brand new Metrô Paulista opened virtually next door to the cinema in May 2010, Flávio Maluf, the building’s owner, decided to more than double the rent, from R$65,000 to a whopping R$150,000. André Sturm, one of the cinema’s partners, made a last-ditch effort at a compromise; but his final offer of around R$85,000 was snubbed at the eleventh hour, as 68 years of history came to a close.
It didn't end without a struggle. A campaign to stop the closure of Belas Artes organised fund-raising nights, as well as four marches which drew hundreds of protesters on to the streets to try and save the doomed picture house. Tens of thousands signed an online petition, but all to no avail. ‘Is it not possible to preserve the good things in São Paulo?’ wrote Morena Moraes, one of over 74,000 protestors who joined an online campaign to protest the closure. ‘What next? Close the Bienal and the Municipal Theatre? Our city won’t be the same – we’ll only have filminhos from Hollywood,’ added Luciano Santos Silva to the dozens of other comments left on the Facebook campaign page.
Misty-eyed movie-goers can now, unfortunately, reel off a roll-call of classic Sampa cinemas that have closed down over the years – Bijou, Marrocos and Ipiranga; and with the closure on Avenida Paulista of Astor, Top Cine and most recently Gemini in 2010, the slate has practically been wiped clean.
But it’s not all bad news. There’s still at least one survivor – the Marabá – which in its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s was just one of 14 chic cinemas comprising Cinelândia in the Centro. Marabá opened in 1944, a year after Belas Artes, and underwent extensive renovation in 2007 under the direction of star architect Ruy Ohtake, reopening in 2009 with a restored façade, as well as restoration to the marble walls and columns in the double-height entrance hall. Cine Olido, opened in 1957 inside the Galeria Olido, could be considered a second veteran, having been restored in 2004. And there’s still the Cine Livraria Cultura on Avenida Paulista, which itself was threatened with closure in 2003. Other, relatively newer, street-level cinemas thrive, such as Espaço Unibanco and CineSESC on buzzing Rua Augusta.
Supporters of Belas Artes mounted a campaign in January 2011 for the cinema to be tombado – that is, preserved as a cultural heritage site. The origin of the preservation law was written by one of the founders of Brazilian modernism, Mário de Andrade, to protect the emerging arts in the then industrialising world. This law led to the creation, in 1936, of the Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (National Institute of Artistic and Historical Heritage), and subsequent state and city bodies to enact those laws, such as the Conselho de Preservação do Patrimônio de São Paulo (Council for the Preservation of São Paulo Heritage). The laws, however, only protect the building, not its use. Of the seven São Paulo cinemas that have been granted this protection by law, two have become porn cinemas, and only Marabá remains as a mainstream cinema – living proof of what Ruy Ohtake told the newspaper Estadão at the time of the Marabá restoration: ‘This project showed that the revitalisation of the city centre can only happen through culture. As of September 2011, the case for preservation of the building was still pending.