by Destynee Norwood
Certain books seem impossible to adapt for the screen without damaging something essential; you might read such a book and hope no one ever attempts to make a movie of it. The Hour of the Star, by the Brazilian Jewish writer Clarice Lispector, was one such text.
Published shortly before Lispector’s death in 1977, the slim novel is a dazzling puzzle narrated by an omniscient stranger who veers into existential asides before—and during—the story at hand. The novella’s tone is strange and at times mystical, but it has a relatively straightforward plot: Macabéa is a young woman from rural northeastern Brazil who moves to Rio after her aunt dies. Working as a typist for less than minimum wage and living in a room with four other women (all named Maria), her few indulgences are a sip of cold coffee before bed and “Clock Radio,” a station that tells the time and random facts. She is inexperienced with men, talks little, and doesn’t practice proper hygiene. Despite her poverty and her hunger, Macabéa is happy and possesses an internal freedom that capitalism cannot extinguish. Lispector described the focus of her final work as “a crushed innocence, an anonymous misery” and yet it is imbued with beauty, humor, and honesty.
Though The Hour of the Star was first published in English in 1992, it wasn’t until recently that Lispector received much attention in the US. Beginning in 2011, many of her books were retranslated into English, prompting a frantic resurgence of interest in her work. It was the 2011 version of her strange novella, translated by Benjamin Moser, that I first read and loved. Upon learning that a Brazilian director named Suzana Amaral had adapted it almost three decades earlier, I knew I had to watch it. Not available for streaming and long out of print on VHS and DVD, I tried my luck in the Brazilian section of Movie Madness. Of course they had it.
Suzana Amaral had eight children when she began studying film, enrolling in university at the same time as her eldest son. She later enrolled in the graduate program at NYU, where a professor recommended that she find a book to adapt and direct for the screen as her debut feature. It was there, far from her home in Brazil, that she found The Hour of the Star. Alone in a foreign city and identifying with Macabéa, she knew she’d found her material. Over the next few years, she made dozens of TV documentaries and saved what she could to buy the rights to Lispector’s book. Her adaptation—made for $150,000, shot in five weeks, and released in 1986–was positively reviewed by film critic Pauline Kael, who wrote that “the transforming power of art is very strong in this movie.” While certain elements of the novella were changed for the film (it takes place in São Paulo and the narrator is scrapped altogether), Amaral’s Macabéa, brilliantly played by Marcelia Cartaxo (winner of the Berlin Film Featival’s Silver Bear for her debut performance) perfectly captures Lispector’s intent. Amaral’s debut feature is a rare thing—an adaptation that does justice to a strange work of art that seems untranslatable to the screen. As Lispector is finally receiving the attention she deserves, I hope that Amaral’s hour comes, too.