The Saga of the Statue that Disappeared during the Dictatorship which was Recovered in a ‘Cinematic Operation’ by USP Students

Monument to Federico Garcia Lorca in São Paulo

Image: Lais Modelli/BBC Brazil

From the BBC São Paulo

9/30/2017 4:15 pm

On the morning of July 20, 1969, the Praça das Guianas in the Jardins neighborhood in São Paulo dawned with an explosion that damaged one of its sculptures: the ‘Monument to Federico Garcia Lorca’ which had been inaugurated the previous year in the presence of figures such as the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda and the Brazilian composer Chico Buarque.

Sculpted by the plastic artist Flavio de Carvalho, the monument was a homage by Spanish exiles in Brazil to the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was assassinated by the Spanish government under Franco in 1936, accused of being a communist and a homosexual.

Perhaps because of political tension at that time, with the recent AI-5 decree made by the military dictatorship (an institutional act which prohibited all activities of a political nature), or maybe because it occurred on the same day as Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, the monument’s explosion received little attention and was never investigated. However, a clue was left in the rubble of the artwork – pamphlets on the ground that read “communist and homosexual” – led to the crime being attributed to the Communist Hunters Command, the CCC, since Lorca had become a symbol of resistance to totalitarian governments and the fight for sexual freedom.

“Under the dictatorship in Brazil, paying homage to Garcia Lorca and the poetry that resisted European fascism was a way of combining art and politics, even though partisan politics didn’t interest Flavio de Carvalho and his work reflects no ideological tilt whatsoever,” explains art critic PUC-RJ Professor Luiz Camillo Osorio.

Just like the remains of Lorca, which never have been found, the remains of the monument dedicated to the poet were removed from Praça das Guianas by the municipal government and taken to an unknown location. Even in the face of the efforts of Flavio de Carvalho to recover this artwork and return it to the city, what happened to this sculpture remained a mystery for a decade.

This could be made into a film

One afternoon in 1979, during a class in Expressionist Architecture, a timid young bespectacled redheaded student named Fernando found out what had happened to Flavio de Carvalho’s artwork. “Professor Daher (Gustavo Daher) told us the statue’s story, telling us that it had disappeared. Sometime later, I read an article in the Estadão which said that the remains of the statue were in a municipal depository in Cotia (Greater São Paulo),” Fernando remembers, the ex-student of the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism FAU-USP, who is now 61.

Fernando from FAU has become the renowned film director Fernando Meirelles, known for his film City of God. “When we’re young, we’re more likely to do silly things,” he says in relation to this adventure. So Meirelles went by himself to the location listed in the newspaper in Cotia. “I went through the service entrance and under a tree covered in dew I saw the pieces of iron that had once been this sculpture.”

Registering the moment when the statue was “lifted”

Image: Carlos Nascimbeni

From this point on, the story of the sculpture, which was already enough for a film script, took on a new twist: this youth returned to FAU and told his friends what he had discovered. It didn’t take long for the story to spread and for Meirelles to come up with a plan to swipe it:

“The idea went viral very quickly. Volunteers for this crime appeared quickly and my friend Carlão came up with the idea of covering the theft for the ECA’s film magazine Cine-Olho,” remembers Meirelles. Carlão was a film student at ECA-USP and editor of the school’s cinema magazine, Cine-Olho. The ex-ECA student tells us that Meirelles was responsible for everyone knowing about the sculpture’s existence and its disappearance. He was also the one who thought up the heist and they went as friends to provide support.”

Today Carlão is known as the cineaste Carlos Nascimbeni. “The plan was the following: we had a fellow student Nina Grushenko who worked in a municipal daycare center. She stole a few stamped papers and envelopes with the city’s emblem,” Fernando tells us, and with these stolen documents he forged letters that “looked official.” “At the end we had very real looking documents in hand,” the cineaste says.

But to put his scheme into practice, Fernando needed the help of many people, mainly to transport the remains of the statue, made of large pieces of iron and tubing.

The Brancaleone army

Word of the sculpture’s history and the planned heist spread through FAU until they reached the ECA, as journalist José Genulino, Pinho, relates. He was an ECA student in 1979 and was a friend of Meirelles’s sister Marcia, who was studying drama at the ECA and wrote for the magazine Cine-Olho, which is where she became friends with Carlão.

At USP during the ‘70s there was the Bermuda triangle, which was FAU, the ECA and the Economics Department. These were the three faculties that began the student movement after the period of repression and censorship,” Pinho tells us. “On the eve of the robbery, Carlão told me the plan and we arranged to meet on campus the following day and meet up with the group,” Pinho remembers, which became known as the “Brancaleone army,” uniting various groups: Trotskyites, Marxists, tokers, drama people, etc.

“I went to lend a hand to the caper, because there were a lot of people involved in it …I don’t know if it was a heist to us, but from the legal point of view it must have been, mustn’t it?” the journalist asks, laughing. The army organized by Meirelles, which according to the cineaste, “had a lot of Brancaleone,” managed to bring together 14 youths.

One of them had the principal instrument of the crime: the little truck. “We all climbed into the truck and went to Cotia. When we arrived, a middle aged guard met us at the gate. He realized that something was wrong, became worried about the papers we handed him, and went to make a call,” Carlão recalls, laughing.

While the guard made his phone calls, Carlão gathered the group together to take a photo, which was published in the coverage of the event that appeared in Cine-Olho. “We tried to appear presentable. The guard resisted, but with so many stamps and smiles, he let us in,” Fernando recalls. “We went in grinning from ear to ear. The perfect crime.” ”We took no longer than 15 minutes to place the sculpture on top of the truck. When the guard returned, everything was ready,” adds Carlão.

From Cotia, the little truck took the 14 conspirators to FAU, where they left the remnants of the sculpture. The FAU students, including Meirelles, then began metalwork and painting to restore the sculpture. The work, which even received help from the company of the father of one of the students, took weeks to finish.

“One day, the directory of the faculty called us in and said that he was pretending that he wasn’t seeing the sculpture near his classroom door, but that he couldn’t keep this up for much longer,” Meirelles tells us. The solution, which was voted on by all those involved, was to place the sculpture in the space below MASP on the eve of the anniversary of the city of São Paulo, when Avenida Paulista would be closed for the commemorations. “During the middle of the night, people were mounting planks, speakers, etc. We arrived with our truck and again we told the policeman that we just had to unload this decoration for the commemoration and he gave us permission.”

Around 20 people carried the sculpture to a certain point; we removed a few cobblestones, put the sculpture’s feet there and cemented them in place. Meirelles and the others remained to watch the reactions of the passersby. When he learned what had happened, the director of MASP Pietro Maria Bardi was furious and came down shouting at us and threatening to call the police. “It was the worst scolding I’ve ever received in my life,” remembers Fernando.

Since it was the city’s anniversary that day, Mayor Olavo Setubal was nearby and heard the tumult. When he arrived at the museum and saw what was happening, including the presence of the press, he promised the students that he would return the sculpture to its original location. Thus, “the Brancaleone army” managed to return the artwork to the Praça das Guianas, where it remains today.

Along with the monument to Federico Garcia Lorca, which is a representation of an abstract drawing by Lorca himself, there’s one of the Spaniard’s poems: “We have to open ourselves to the entire length of the black night, so that we can fill ourselves with immortal dew!” remembers Fernando Meirelles during the interview. “It’s beautiful.”

“I’ve become domesticated”

Questioned about whether he’s proud of stealing the sculpture, and whether he’d do it again, Carlão reveals that he’s never told his children about this episode. “It’s amazing…and my two children studied at USP. I did a lot of things during college, many things because of the political and social climate that we lived in,” reflects Carlão. “What we did was a robbery, to tell the truth. Fernando was called in by the police, and there was a tumult when we took the sculpture to the MASP space. Our caper became famous and we were on the cover of various newspapers the next day,” remembers the film maker. “But the truth is that there are a lot of stories to tell about that time in USP, and this is the only one that has become well known.”

Fernando Meirelles adds that he still has many cinematographic ideas like the heist. Maybe that’s why the timid, redheaded youth of the ‘70s switched from architecture to cinema. “Today at 60 I still have many ideas for crimes like this, including murders. I have a list of possible victims, but I don’t have the drive to see them through,” he adds to put our minds at ease. He ends by saying “I believe I’ve become domesticated. It’s a shame.”

Credits UOL Entertainment