“Nise: The Heart of Madness” (“Nise: O Coração da Loucura”)
A Pioneering Figure
Nise da Silviera was a pioneering figure well known in Brazil,. She lived a rebellious but full life. This film focuses on and the film focuses on a short but definitive part of it when she worked at a Rio de Janeiro psychiatric hospital where she fought and won a battle against the prejudices of men and of science by daring to her patients as human beings.
Director Roberto Berliner focuses on the early ’40s when, fresh out of prison for her Marxist beliefs, Nise revealed that for her patients, artistic creation could be therapy (and this therapy produced some really good art). The film pens with Nise (Gloria Pires) banging repeatedly on a loud metal door so that she could gain entrance to the hospital where she had come to work. This scene foreshadows the struggles to come in a world that was dominated by male prejudice.
Once inside, Nise is appalled to attend a conference in which her male colleagues are extolling the virtues of electrotherapy and ice-pick lobotomies. She refusing to participate in such barbarism and was downgraded to the occupational therapy section. (Since she was also a Marxist, this move was very convenient for the establishment.)
Nise begins cleaning up first the premises as well as the language of the nurses, forbidding the use of terms like “nutcase’” and “animal” and replacing them somewhat disingenuously with “client.” Then, using a stocking and a rag, she sets her patients to play and to paint in order bring their unconscious minds into the open. The film also focuses on the results of her efforts and director Berliner lets us see the compassion in each of the characters. In fact, the patients are actually at the forefront of Nise’s story. Cinematographer Andre Horta shot the movie as if it is a documentary with no exaggeration. We see things just as they were.
In dealing with her chief male adversary, Dr Cesar (Michel Bercovitch), she is able to hold her own and is controlled. She is a woman who quietly deals with her personal frustrations with her husband. and austere performance by Pires which seems designed to allow those surrounding her to flourish: Her frustrations are quietly dealt with in aside scenes with her husband.
At first, Nice was ridiculed by her colleagues and the idea of a painting studio at a mental hospital was thought to be preposterous. Those who were to be artists were schizophrenic, poor, hospitalized for several decades, abandoned by their families and hopeless according to their doctors. However, engaging psychiatrist: Dra. Nise da Silveira brought them a miracle.
Nise is famous for her political passion and iconoclastic approach to psychiatry in Brazil but for those who will see this film, she is basically an unknown. At the psychiatric hospital in Rio de Janeiro, she continually has to assert herself to get attention. At the time of Nise’s arrival, the institute was a brutal place. This is because it used advanced electroshock therapy and the ice pick lobotomy when they were just coming into around the world. Most patients, or clients, (as Nise preferred to call them) were kept locked up and drugged into submission. Nise determines that the only way she can stay on there is by moving into the occupational therapy department; an area where progress has been slow. Clients are given mundane work to do. Nise wants to introduce them to something genuinely stimulating and so she drew on ideas developed by Jung. She was \ a pioneer in giving mentally ill people access to self-directed creative opportunities, and this is the film’s main focus.
There are a host of superb performances from the actors playing her clients, all of who have understood that they are playing people instead of just imitating the symptoms of diseases as is often the case in films about asylums. What’s also understood is that mental illness rarely makes people aggressive. Aggressiveness tends to be a response to ill-treatment or the frustration of being unable to communicate. This film never patronizes its subjects and never lets us forget their potential for violence (we sense the powerful underlying tension in many scenes, especially where groups are getting excitable or staff members are alone with clients who have a history of violence). We see the change that takes place when Nise’s clients are introduced to art but she is also sure that it is the responsibility of staff to maintain some emotional distance, and she’s clear that a client being able to hold a conversation or produce a work of art is not necessarily cured.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the real Nise’s work was the quality of the art that came out of it. We see it beautifully reproduced here and it’s initially through the paintings and sculptures that we get to know the inmates as human beings. When the credits start to roll is when we get the chance to see some of the real human beings whose stories are told here, several of whom made careers out of their work. The real Nise (who died in 1999) has a chance to speak as well here. The film is a beautiful look at a part of history that most of us are unaware of.