The Salles family has two brothers well-known in the film industry. Walter directed The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) and Central Station (1998) among others. João directed a few documentaries like Nelson Freire (2003) and co-directed News From a Personal War (1999), a powerful documentary co-directed by Kátia Lund, featured with the City of God (2002) DVD — which Lund co-directed with Fernando Meirelles and Walter co-produced. In this big, Brazilian, family network, there was an unknown character so interesting that he deserved to have his own story told: Santiago, the butler. João couldn’t resist the temptation of bringing him to the film world, and after thirteen years of an impasse in a project that already had many hours of footage, he finally released a sweet documentary called simply Santiago.
João returns to the empty rooms of the abandoned mansion where he lived most of his life to make a documentary about the film that he couldn’t finish. Perfect framings and other obsessions canceled the project; but, after Santiago’s death, he revisited the past to find many amazing stories about redemption, memories, farewells, cemeteries, horses, and other anecdotes — all of them products of the imagination of this Italian-Argentine butler, who lived with the Salles family for 30 years. In only five days of shooting with Santiago in a simple set with a kitchen, the bookshelves, and a Remington, and the other days revisiting the house–though it was the Pitti Palace for Santiago–cinematographer Walter Carvalho (one of the most captivating DPs in Latin America) portrayed dreams, dances, solitude, emptiness and with austerity and sensibility. The same sensibility that Santiago had in conflicted feelings of possession and oppression: “Why do I love Wagner?”, he asks himself. The answer lies in the film.
Santiago lived mentally in the Middle Ages and jealously kept until his last days 30,000 pages of notes and memories. He wrote and translated a history of generations of nobility and aristocracy from different countries between 1956 and 1986: Assyrians, Egyptians, Chinese, Indians, Manchurians… Notes and observations in identically aligned pages. With an incredible historic value and a categorization of Medicis or Gonzagas between good and bad families, those pages grew year after year to complete a very rich source of stories. Every chime from the old clock gave Santiago’s characters life again. Almost six thousands years of cruelty and saints. For him, they weren’t dead. Once a week he put the pages in the sunlight, to take some warmth and fresh air. “They understand me when we chat”, said Santiago in total seriousness. He played; he dressed as if for a gala night to listen to Beethoven; he sang, danced with castanets, and spoke English, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. His imagination was never predictable, loving from opera to wrestlers. He even turned floral arrangements into poetry, and he never stopped writing. That was his way to make catharsis with such an overwhelmed mind. And he was happy being a butler: The day he dreamed about being a French Noble, he woke up frightened…
A new relationship developed between João and Santiago during the shooting process, but the filmmaker was still the boss’s son. The voice of command once and again many years later. Santiago did exactly everything João said, and there was always a distance between them. In a way, he played with Santiago like the nouvelle vague directors used to do with his actor-puppets. Probably it was the fascination of exploring Santiago’s limits and broad possibilities. From repetitions that defied memories, to repetitions of quotes in different languages, Santiago accepted every order, used to a whole life of serving. These exercises revealed different layers that not only enriched the audience’s experience but also João’s memories. From the words to the film, the whole experience is like reading a novel: the pages, the typewriter, his hands, the leaves over water and the tireless imagination.
The end approaches, La Gran Partita, with just one wish: Those 30,000 pages should be taken by someone who can love them, otherwise they must be burned. Like mother Salles proposed a toast with champagne on one of Santiago’s birthdays, and like Fred Astaire slid his foot with Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953), Santiago felt happiness and freedom in his own world. But like Bergman talked about death as a cruel and empty sky, Santiago also felt sometimes that he belonged to the cursed beings. He said goodbye in a sweet and sour way with a “Finalle Allegro Vivace Moderato Andante Cantabile”:
“Estamos en la estación de otoño, los días se van achicando y parecen más tristones. Los árboles de su ropaje rojizo, de a poco se van despojando, sintiéndose como que humillados en su desnudez, más cuando se les mira cada vez con atención… tiempo implacable por su falta de consideración.”
He said to the newsman that João wasn’t shooting a movie: he was embalming him. I believe it. More than a butler, Santiago was a writer. A poet. A dancer. A historian. A storyteller. A dreamer. Happy ending: Santiago dies, but he remains in eternity.