I just brought my class on ancient philosophical ideas of happiness and the good life to see the new film by Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade in The Box at the Wexner Center. The short, 7-minute film, O Caseiro (The Caretaker), is a split screen account of two very different lives and daily routines. On the left screen, de Andrade shows a 1959 documentary film showing the day in the life the famed Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre (author of the 1933 book Casa-Grande e Senzala – translated as The Masters and the Slaves, but more literally meaning ‘The Big-House and the Slave-quarters’). On the right screen de Andrade shows the daily routine of a modern day caretaker, imagined to be working in the same house, fixing a CD player and taking care of the grounds.
After watching the film twice, my students and I discussed the differences between the two characters. The opulence of the white sociologist, who has the leisure to read (and reread) for pleasure in breaks from writing his own important books, whose meals (including a ‘frugal’ breakfast served in silverware) are prepared by black servants and whose wife accompanies him at discrete moments during his day. For the single black caretaker, he makes his own meals spends his leisure time in snatches, on the job.
While my students appreciated the ironies of de Andrade’s sly juxtaposition of class and race in Brazilian culture, they were also able to see that the two characters both offered models for the good life, according to ancient models. The caretaker was, in some ways, closer to the Cynic ideal of living detached from conventions (no family, no books), while the sociologist with his focus on his external goods (the tiling of his house, his own and others’ books) seemed to fail the Stoic test for the virtuous life. Either way de Andrade has created a nuanced work of art that makes any claim to what constitutes happiness and the good life a question to be contemplated and debated.