In a long career that stretches back more than 40 years, and into his teens, Bruno Barreto has shown an interest in the widest variety of film projects. Barreto has made lighthearted comedies, cop drama, supernatural romances, and politically edged stories rooted in actual history. Among his best-known films are 2008’s “Last Stop 174,” a tense thriller based on the real-life hijacking of a bus in Barreto’s native Rio de Janeiro; and the 1976 romantic comedy “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” a story of a woman, her lover and the ghost of another lover, which earned a Golden Globe nomination. Barreto, who lived in the U.S. for 20 years and now resides in Sao Paulo, has made movies in the States and in Brazil, in English and Portuguese.
Still, there are some stories Barreto isn’t interested in telling. For instance, the romance between two women — the American poet Elizabeth Bishop and the Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares — set in 1950s Rio.
“It seemed too confined — a gay love story. Too much of a niche story,” Barreto said in a phone interview. “My producer brought it to me, and I wasn’t interested at all in reading it. Maybe it wasn’t pitched well to me.”
That was in 1997. But in 2004, the project was pitched in a way that made Barreto see far greater possibilities than a standard gay romance, or even a tortured-artist tale, another kind of story he wanted to avoid. Amy Irving, Barreto’s wife at the time, performed a monologue, “A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop,” about the poet who won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for her book “Poems: North & South. A Cold Spring.”
“I knew it was the same story. But I started to see the edge. That got me going,” the 58-year-old Barreto said. “I read Bishop’s poetry, the letters between (fellow poet) Robert Lowell and her. I got intrigued.” One of the things Barreto began to see was a geographical angle to the story. Bishop traveled to Brazil in the early 1950s and ended up spending most of the next 15 years there. Barreto could relate: “I felt a little like Elizabeth Bishop, except in reverse — a Brazilian living in New York,” he said. But Barreto wanted more to the story. “It wasn’t enough of an angle. What did I want to talk about with this story?”
“Reaching for the Moon,” which shows today at Aspen Filmfest, explores not only sensuality, but how people deal with loss and adversity. Bishop, played by Miranda Otto, begins as something of a lost soul — her father died when she was young, and her mother was institutionalized, leaving Bishop painfully shy as a young woman. Lota de Macedo Soares (Gloria Pires), who takes Bishop into the magnificent Brazilian home she designed, is outspoken and intimidating, and at first she shows disdain for the meek American poet. Soon, though, the two start a love affair, and the movie examines how the relationship between the two shifts over the years, finally ending in tragedy.
“It eventually dawned on me that most of Bishop’s poetry was about loss,” Barreto said. “I thought the dynamic between the strong one who gets weaker and weaker because she can’t deal with loss, and this loser, the weaker, gets stronger and stronger because she deals with loss. I saw some good drama there.”
Barreto said that the long gestation period, and the experience of moving from being uninterested to curious about the story, was beneficial. “That adds a maturity and complexity,” he said. “It was not made in a rush. I had time to reflect, dig into the characters. The casting process was long. All the possibilities were exhausted when a decision was made. I’ve never made a film in which we went so many different ways, examined everything.”
Even when the film had its premiere, in February at the Berlin Film Festival, Barreto wasn’t done; he later trimmed five minutes from “Reaching for the Moon.”
Barreto never had to examine the question of whether to become a director. He was born into a filmmaking family; his parents were producers and part of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement of the 1960s, inspired by Italian neorealism and the French New Wave. As a boy, Barreto loved nothing better than being on movie sets, and at 10 he realized just how comfortable he was around cameras and actors. On the set of a film his father was producing, director Glauber Rocha, a prominent filmmaker in Brazil and a favorite of Martin Scorsese’s, was rehearsing a scene with an actor. The actor kept tripping over a certain word, and Rocha instructed the crew to just keep shooting till he got it right.
“But I couldn’t control myself,” Barreto recalled. “I said, ‘Cut!’ My father expelled me from the set.”
The exile didn’t stick. By the time he was in his teens, Barreto was making shorts, and had claimed as his idols Howard Hawkes, Francois Truffaut and Elia Kazan. He was 18 when his first feature, “Tati,” about a single mother seeking a better life for her child, screened at the Moscow International Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Prize. After establishing himself in Brazil, he moved to New York and made American productions including “One Tough Cop,” with Stephen Baldwin and Chris Penn, and “Carried Away,” with Dennis Hopper and Amy Irving.
Barreto returned to Brazil several years ago, preferring the cosmopolitan Sao Paulo to his native Rio. “Once you live away from home, you don’t become an American citizen — you become a permanent immigrant,” he explained. “You’re a foreigner wherever you are. That’s why I like New York — it’s a city of foreigners. It’s not like part of the U.S.”
Back in Brazil, he has discovered a rising film landscape that includes Fernando Meirelles, who made the spectacular gang drama “City of God,” and Jose Padiha, who is creating a remake of “Robocop” that, like the original, is an American production.
“Now we can say there is a film industry here,” Barreto said. “There is, and it couldn’t be more active. And it’s a great place to make films about human beings. Hollywood has become like an amusement park. Hollywood is making rides — thrills, no storytelling.”
Nevertheless, Barreto is looking at least partly toward the U.S. with his latest project. “Cro,” in post-production and due for release in November, is a physical comedy built around a Jerry Lewis-type character.
“He’s a gay butler, and the story is about power and submission,” Barreto said. “He’s an idiot savant, very much like Jerry Lewis. And a little like Peter Sellers in ‘Being There.’”
For the moment, though, Barreto is still feeling warm about having made a love story in “Reaching for the Moon.”
“Elizabeth and Lota are so different, so far from each other,” he said. “Yet they had the best time of their lives together — Bishop was never as productive as she was with Lota.
“What was in their hearts was very epic. We all long for love stories. We all want an intimate epic, a great love story. We’re always asking for another ‘Casablanca.’”