The 2015 Brazilian film Nise: The Heart of Madness tells a brave and revolutionary story about Dr. Nise da Silveira, who began working at a psychiatric hospital and refused to treat schizophrenics with electroshock therapy. She is sent to take over the Sector for Occupational Therapy, where she begins treating patients through painting, animals, and kindness. Director Roberto Berliner was kind enough to answer some questions about the film and the filmmaking process that he goes through.
Can we please talk about that opening conference scene? You start off the film in such a powerful and almost jarring way. What led you to the choice of beginning the movie with disturbing images, rather than easing us into Nise’s journey? The length of a feature film is too short for anyone to transmit every sensation of such a complex story like Nise’s. I needed to transmit what was the predominant thought of the hospital and psychiatry was at the moment, where Dr. Nise returned to practice psychiatry after eight years away. She spent two years in prison and six years exiled because she was accused of being a communist in the 1930s. The hospital’s atmosphere was masculine, sexist, and regressive. Nise needed to be really strong to refuse to be a part of that. It’s this moment where she opens the way that takes her to her own methods, that went on to revolutionize psychiatry.
How much research did you do for this film? Every detail from the costumes to the way some of the patients acted seemed to be so well thought out. We talked to a lot of people that worked with Nise and with her clients in Engenho de Dentro, such as Martha Pires Ferreira and Almir Mavignier (both are also characters in the film). We also talked to the people who are now running the Museum of Images from the Unconscious, Luiz Carlos Mello, Gladys Schincarios, Lula Vanderlei and Gina Ferreira, among others. All of them worked daily with Nise and had lots of stories to tell. On the document based side, we uncovered the medical charts from the patients who were treated by Nise and lots of notes from Nise and the rest of the staff. This was the basis for the screenplay, which went through several drafts, with different approaches, and writers. The final version was made from scenes picked from all previous versions.
The actors were given all of the research, and also went on a tour at the Museum of Images of the Unconscious with the museum director, Luiz Carlos Mello. After being briefed intimately on the biography of the characters, and seeing the original artworks, the actors started the rehearsals in Engenho de Dentro, in the real place where the story took place, getting into the routine and feeling the energy of that place, be it inside the infirmaries or walking around the hospital. It was as if the artists came back to revisit their own works.
It's a true story based on real people in the location where it all happened. Not many films have this opportunity. This gave the film an emotional charge that is very strong and positive. We were inside the hospital. In the house of the patients, the schizophrenics, and the misfits. Our film is about them and our relationship was always truthful, respectful and insightful.
This is the first film I had seen with Glória Pires and I was captivated by her portrayal of Nise. For everyone else who may not be familiar with her, could you tell us why she was the obvious choice for the role? Gloria has a quality that she incorporates into characters in a very real way. When she chooses a character, she always looks for what she can teach with them. Gloria fell in love with Nise. She brought rigor and a spirit of leadership and commanded the set very well. Besides being an extraordinary actress, she is a wonderful person. I am a huge fan of her, she has been a great actress since she was very young. She’s one of the main actresses of Brazil, but still, she is not a star. And I needed a person like that to be in the film because we shot in the middle of the intense summer of Rio de Janeiro. I knew it would me a tough journey. So, I needed nice people in the crew and then we could manage it.
You have had a very successful career in the film business, most notably with documentaries. What drew you to this story? My first contact with Dr. Nise da Silveira was in the 1980's at Circo Voador, a cultural center in Rio de Janeiro, at an event called “The Doctor’s Tea,” where she would show up once a month with her friends. The project of the film started much later, with the writings of journalist Bernardo Horta, who was Nise's student and brother of Andre Horta, the film's DP. Bernardo has followed Nise closely for years when he was a part of a C.G. Jung study group, that used to happen on Nise's house. He liked to observe her and take notes, not only of the things she said but also how she behaved. It was through those notes that I got to know Nise's intimate moments. She is one of those people that pushes the human race forward, she is a special person, a rebel, and the more I researched about her life and talked to her collaborators, the more I knew this film had to be made.
In the history of Brazil, there few women as important as Nise da Silveira. A feminist, a great doctor, a great humanist. A woman who battled against the system, against her status quo, and with a very positive job, searched for affection and the understanding of others. She was a warrior. For a person to make a revolution in world history, she has to have a lot of courage, strength, and determination. All she wanted was life and art. A woman who was able to perceive her great wealth on the fringes. Nise had a very special history, so in the beginning, I wanted to make a film about her whole life, because it was really rich and she was always going against the current. But then I realized that a movie would be such a short a time to talk about all that she lived through, so I decided to focus on the specific period of her life and show her values and ideologies. And that time was when she returns to the hospital. It’s a major turning point in her life because she stops being just against the status quo and starts to be a part of a new healing.
This film received some “Best Film” awards at prestigious festivals. What do those awards mean to you and how do you continue to stay motivated? The prizes are great. They are a sign that the project connects with people. It’s really good listening to a jury that values your film because they understood it in a similar way that the crew and I have thought about it. But the prizes don’t make me euphoric. Each film is different like each person in a festival jury. I’ve been part of some juries and I know the madness of that debate. The most important, beautiful and legitimate prize is the prize of the public embracing the film.
If you had infinite resources and budget, what is a fantasy project that you would like to tackle? I’m involved with three feature film projects at the moment. A documentary of a great carioca poet called Fausto Fawcett and two scripts that I really want to shoot. They’re both complex projects. One is about the relationship between Jews and Palestinians and I would love to shoot there. I’m beginning to work in the script. It’s a comedy, but it talks about a really complex issue. The other one is a feature film about my great-aunt. She came from Poland to Rio de Janeiro in the beginning of the 20th century, as a prostitute. Then, she became a respectful Madame. She opened a hotel in front of the government’s palace and created a good business relationship with the local politicians, which helped her a lot on obtaining visas for the rest of my family, all Jewish, right before the First World War.
Can you give us any hints on what you are currently working on? I directed a documental TV series called “Adoption Chronicles,” that is in the second season, about families that adopted children. My two children are adopted, so I thought it was an interesting and necessary theme to talk about in a series. And now I’m working on a new documental TV series about adolescence. My son is now almost 16, so I wanted to talk about it. So, the idea is to give teenagers film workshops of how to shoot and so they will film their own lives. After they do it, we will edit the material with them.
Nise: The Heart of Madness will open theatrically in New York (Village East) and Chicago (Gene Siskel Center) on Friday, April 28 with a national release to follow.