There’s an intrinsic value to every word Fernanda Montenegro speaks.
In Portuguese, from her native Rio de Janeiro, the Oscar-nominated Brazilian actress repeatedly ensures the interpreter conveys each response with precision. Ultimately, a conversation is a performance, and she’s always sought emotional specificity for her roles.
At 90 years old and with four new films released in 2019 and a recently published memoir (“Prólogo, Ato, Epílogo: Memórias”), Montenegro speaks of acting as an inexplicable higher calling, an undeniable vocation that came over her at an early age and never let go. “It’s a mystery,” she said. “Suddenly as a teenager I started finding my path through a profession that I consider almost like a religion.”
Rather than a television actress or an icon of the cinema — mediums in which she’s worked extensively — Montenegro considers herself a woman of the stage who forged the foundations for a remarkable career during the 1950s among companies of writers, actors and directors, where a collective energy reigned.
“The theater taught me about the needs of others, the presence of others, and to dialogue with others,” she explained.
An elemental force without embellishments, she encapsulates the history of her South American homeland as the granddaughter of Italian immigrants from Sardinia raised in a working-class Carioca neighborhood. Without the initial support of her family, she rose undeterred by acknowledging her inclination for the dramatic arts as a divine mission, not a selfish desire.
“When a vocation exists, we overcome the lack of acceptance,” she declared.
Though already regarded as Brazil’s greatest actress for her peerless body of work and tireless pursuit of reinvention (she recently played a murderous elderly woman on the soap opera “A Dona do Pedaço”), Montenegro refuses to dwell on past glories and is far from contemplating retirement.
“Miraculously, I’m still whole and I’m giving this interview,” she humorously noted. “So as long as I can see, listen, speak and walk, I’m not going to stay still, I’m not going to stop.”
Testament to that unfaltering stance is her latest film appearance, in Karim Aïnouz’s “Invisible Life,” an exuberant melodrama creatively adapted from the 2016 novel by Martha Batalha, currently nominated as best international film at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Hinged on an imperishable sororal bond, the dually heartrending plot set mostly in 1950s Rio observes how a merciless patriarchal system sunders the Gusmao sisters, Eurídice and Guida, and tragically banishes one of them into anonymity and forces the other to give up her musical aspirations for a loveless, arranged marriage.
For Montenegro, there’s no demagogy in Aïnouz’s narrative, only wholehearted inquisitiveness.
“It’s a uterine film, it’s vaginal, and it’s absolutely humanistic. There is a cellular denunciation of femicides in this film,” Montenegro said, referring not to the physical death of the characters but the hopelessness caused by the destruction of their ambitions and the possibility of a life together.
“These are two sisters who both want an independent life. One of them goes toward it through art and tries to be a pianist, while the other uses romances to go for that liberty,” she said. “The dream of freedom didn’t even materialize for the one that tried to attain it through love.”
After decades of admiring the vigorous Montenegro, Aïnouz met her for the first time a few years ago at a late-night birthday party while the thespian rejoiced among a young crowd. She sees her star not as a diva but as an artist of the people who has proven meaningful excellence attainable in a field often erroneously judged in Brazil.
“She introduced the idea of acting as a real craft, as something that’s not superficial but profound,” Aïnouz said. According to the filmmaker, growing up in a country where arts culture has perpetually struggled to survive, someone like Montenegro serves as an example of poetic resilience.
“I am an actress because Fernanda Montenegro dignified the acting profession,” said Carol Duarte, an emerging talent who played young Euridice. “It’s impossible to be an actress in Brazil and not recognize her legacy.” Montenegro came on set to see Duarte perform on several occasions, to inform her rendition of the same character at a much older age.
Duarte remembers an exchange in which the veteran star succinctly summarized their shared passion for storytelling. “Our profession sweetens the soul,” Montenegro told her casually, but the weight of her words left a permanent impression.
Since they didn’t exist in the original book, Montenegro’s scenes in “Invisible Life” did not appear in Aïnouz’s screenplay until a few years into the writing process, when he realized concluding with an elder Euridice was the most sincere finale to a story of spiritually undefeated women.
“It could have only been Fernanda,” said Aïnouz. “It was important that the film ended with this veteran of war, someone who has been through a lot and is still here.”
“Fernanda becomes the co-author of every project she elects to make,” said director Walter Salles, whose landmark feature “Central Station” won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film and earned Montenegro an Academy Award nomination for best actress in 1999.
It remains her most celebrated onscreen work, a movie she describes as “a broad and unrestricted miracle only the gods can explain.” Salles wrote the part of Dora, a stern, retired schoolteacher who embarks on a cross-country trip with a boy looking for his father, specifically for Montenegro’s luminous sensibility.
Produced with scarce resources in a country transitioning back to democracy after 30 years of a brutal military dictatorship, “Central Station” was a reflection of a people finding their national identity. For Salles, the letters that Montenegro’s character sends throughout the film are the messages that were silenced by censorship and violence, while the boy’s yearning for an absent parent is a communal search for a country named Brazil.
“All of us came together for our love of cinema, of Brazilian cinema,” said Montenegro about how serendipitous she believes Salles’ vision and wisdom were to accomplish that cinematic feat.
Touched by Dora’s flawed humanity, she found direct inspiration in a teacher from her own childhood in the 1930s who taught her how to read and who was herself an example of respectability in spite of the poverty that surrounded her. To garner international acclaim and the attention of Hollywood’s elite playing an everyday Brazilian woman, from a background not unlike her own, added significance to the magic that “Central Station” brought to the actress’ life.
“It was like a trip to Jupiter,” she said of the marathon Oscar campaign that included a visit to “Late Show With David Letterman," where she charmingly referred to herself as the “old lady from Ipanema.” For Montenegro the experience is a sacred memory that made her feel again a 15-year-old debuting in front of a boundless world.
“I was 70 years old, speaking in another language, representing another culture, and I was celebrated by major artists who I’d never stopped watching on the screen,” she added. “They treated me as an equal.” Years later, in 2007, she made her English-language debut with Mike Newell’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” based on Gabriel García Márquez’s seminal novel.
Salles describes Montenegro’s praxis in cinema and in the theater as a “constant quest to unveil the most profound secrets of the human soul.” He was first impressed when he encountered her in a local production as the title character in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” and most recently found himself enraptured by her ability for transmutation onstage as French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir.
“There’s a constant digging in her performances until somebody that lies really deep below the surface emerges,” said Salles. “She immerses herself not only to understand what motivates her character but what can truly allow the story be a transformative experience.”
Montenegro is a rigorous truth-teller. That much is clear. Her courageous obsession with complexity born of exhaustive investigation created an ethical and aesthetic level that influenced Brazilian actors that came after her and in turn cemented her as a guiding light that has weathered political and socioeconomic storms for nearly a century.
“We in Brazil are aware that it is a rare privilege to see her act and speak. She is our ethical and artistic compass,” said a moved Salles. “In a country constantly awaiting a future that is promised but never achieved, Fernanda Montenegro’s process and her work offer us an inspirational present, a counterweight to a myriad of impossibilities.”