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Lenita – Traces of a Lady

Finely crafted documentary rescues the work and the personal history of a pioneering however long-forgotten fashion-photographer-turned-horse-breeder from Brazil

An unidentified male voice announces that he first encountered Lenita Perroy in 2002 through a card deck casually purchased in local antique fair. Presumably, this is also how this film was born. What follows is an intimate and intricate portrait of a photographer, fashion designer and filmmaker working in the 1960s, who radically changed her life at the pinnacle of her career – for some very peculiar reasons.

The first half of this gingerly handmade biopic consists of interviews with those who knew Lenita well – mostly actors and singers – as they share their memories of the beautiful and elusive young woman. She is vaguely compared to Frida Kahlo and David Bowie, with the bold assertion that she painted her face years before the British singer printed his with the iconic lightning bolt on his. We watch the celebrity photographs snapped by Lenita showcased in elegant cards – this cinematic device is in line with her high-end trade and also with the medium where the narrator first discovered her (in the antique fair). This is a fitting tribute to someone who spent half of her life devoted to fashion. Talking heads interviews include iconic Brazilian actors Antonio Pitanga, Vera Fischer and also psychedelic singer Ronnie Von. There is also abundant archive footage of movies and events, where routinely Lenita signed the costumes and also the art direction. To boot,we also see images from the two feature films that Lenita directed in the early 1970s.

One day, Lenita mysteriously disappeared from the artistic milieu without leaving a trace. She gave up the world of photography, cinema and fashion in favour of a far less glitzy occupation: breeding Arabian horses. The second half of the film consists mostly of intimate interactions with Lenita at old age, briefly before her death at the age of 81 in 2018 (strangely, the movie opts to brush over her passing). We watch an enthusiastic old lady boast about her animals, particularly the “legendary” Ali Jamaal (whose direct descendants populate most of the Middle East, we are reliably informed). Lenita explains that she opted to give up the arts – particularly cinema – because she realised would never be as big as she hoped for. Surely she succumbed to bourgeois ennui.

The high productions values – impeccable photography, auspicious score and tasteful special effects – vouch for a satisfactory viewing experience, particularly in the first half. On the other hand,m Lenita herself isn’t a particularly inspiring woman, and her journey is barely relatable. She is unabashed of her elitism and individualism. Her grappling with the arts often feels like a fleeting hobby, despite the iconic artists interviewed insisting otherwise. Her confession that she kept her horses merely for “looking” after she was told she could no longer ride is particularly cringey: “If I can’t ride, then nobody can ride. I’ll keep them [the horses] just for looking”. A friend insists that Jaamal was Lenita’s biggest artistic creation, as if breeding horses was a creative trade. After Jaamal dies, Lenita cries copiously at the loss of the “biggest love of her life”.

This 83-minute documentary fails to question the choices of its protagonist, instead brazenly romanticising her. It never reveals the impact of her work (if any) on present-day, younger artists. It looks like the Arabian stallion succeeded at spreading his seed a lot more than his Brazilian owner.

Lenita – Traces of a Lady premiered at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival in 2023.

By Victor Fraga - 02-05-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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