A Discursive Approach to Limite

By Tania C. Clemente de Souza

The first time I watched “Limite”, by Mário Peixoto, I still had not read anything about the film. Three basic aspects surprised me in the film: the beautifully taken photographs, the notion of time, worked out in two dimensions (chronological and the psychological) and the theme, based upon these two dimensions of time.

The chronological time is short: it consists of the period of time elapsed in the boat, plus the moment of the thunderstorm, which is the ending of the story. The psychological time is intense and confused: it makes the characters remind of some bygone happenings in their lives, mixed with present moments of the situation in the boat. The tight psychological time makes the short chronological time become longer, and so it plots the whole story.

The narrative itself, sewed by these two dimensions of time, is composed of two periods of time, projects the story in two directions, and does not have a linear structure.

In the past, the narrative is conducted by the memory of the characters who remember something they have already experienced. And, grasped by the psychological time, they resist to and postpone – even psychologically – their end and, for short moments, they forget about the real time they have left.

In the present, the narrative is conducted by the inexorable reality: the shipwreck and the certainty of death. The actual time is short, almost nothing. There is no life in the future: only those three people remain to recall their past. The past is the place of resistance and search for a forlorn life.

While the present is everlasting, the past is long. And long and agonizing is the rhythm of the narrative. The intense psychological time lengthens the agony of the victims and fret the beholders. However, making the agony last is the only way of keeping the life they have.

The paradox, stated by these two periods of time, made me judge Limite, in discursive terms, as a great antithesis: life versus death. The analysis that I realized, avoiding the analyses frequently proposed, tries to emphasize the characters’ struggles, clearly as they ignore death and think of their lives. So, in my point of view, “Limite” is less a discourse about the decadence of mankind, the purposelessness of the struggle against an unavoidable end, than a discourse about the capacity of resistance, the struggle for life even when one is facing something undefeatable: nature.

For the systematization of my analysis, I will resort to presuppositions found in Discourse Analysis (French School), working basically with the following notions: the discursive operator that, in a film, corresponds to the elements of image which guide the discursive and visual structure to the film; the implicit, unrevealed but suggested images. And finally, the silence, which are the silent images that leave the interpretation of the film implied in it. Besides these notions, I will work with the association of two figures of discourse: antithesis and metaphor.


The approach

The starting point is to reveal what we read about the film, reaffirming that “Limite” is not just a text about the limitation of the mankind. This film does not portray only despair and anguish towards tragedy. It is a text about resistance, the capacity of struggle, the craving for life, even when death is imminent and unavoidable. The most noteworthy trait of this resistance is the memory living the past, even when the past is composed of failures and unhappiness: so those characters’ lives seem to have been. Other traits – understood as discursive operators – sew the thread of life: the living blood that oozes from the woman’s finger when she opens a tin can; the cookies inside the tin; the search after a cask of water; the image of the last woman grasped to a wooden board, the basket with dead fish (the man’s life depends on the fish’s death); the characters’ unkept hairs due to the fierce wind which show the characters’ disgust for that situation.

Through the discourse perspective, we abandon the context analysis, which imprisons language (words or images) in an only possible reading, giving to the text a literal character – in favor of an analysis which tries to understand the discourse as an effect of meanings between the interlocutors.

As the discourses and the interlocutors are historical, this effect of meanings cannot be unique, nor isolated. It varies according to the story of each observer. This way, it is through the position of a discourse analyst that I read “Limite”. To ratify, however, that it is not the only possible reading, not even the most correct about the film. It is just an interpretation among several others.

The Discourse Analysis of the non-verbal has been the target of my reflection, what has made me study the image in the media, in the movies and in the publicity (Souza, 1995 and 1997). This reflection led me to formulate a specific concept for the work with the images. It is the concept of polychromy (used by association with chromolitography, the art in stamping images on embossing), a correlative of the concept of polyphony (ibid).

While the concept of polyphony deals with the notion of voice – implicit voice and explicit one – the concept of polychromy, besides dealing with the notion of explicit image (the visible) and of implicit image (the suggested one), deals with, also, the relation silence-image.

This relation silence-image establishes itself in two levels: the silence in the visual structure of the film, in the sense of the non-revealed and the non-suggested (different from the implicit image); this dimension leaves it open – in terms of visual material – the ending of the film (the solution), which helps to think of the other level: that level of the image to the onlooker, the one which projects the image which has been silenced, according to his point of view.

It means that our tools of analysis of the film as discourse are in debt with the concept of polychromy, trying to map possible and varied paths to read this film.

Another efficacious concept in the analysis of the discourses is the concept of recutting – opposite to the notion of segment. The difference between these two concepts lies in the fact that the notion of recutting is instituted by the interpreter, by the onlooker. This last one clearly favors the relation silence-image instituted by the onlooker and not by the film structure.

This work intends to be a starting point for the study of the image in movement as a visual discourse.


The film

“Limite” can be segmented into four moments. The life of woman 1, the man’s life and the life of woman 2. Lives recovered by three shipwrecked people that, reduced to a skiff, grasp themselves to this remembrance of their past lives.

Three ways to hold on to life, limited by the boat and by the sea. The remembrance of each one of these lives by each one of shipwrecked, allied to the reunion of them three on the boat, constitutes the fourth moment and, at the same time, unites both developments of the film; the fate itself of the three shipwrecked and the story of their lives.

These four segments summarize the film and, at the same time, send us to the two great metaphors: the boat as a metaphor of life and the sea as a metaphor of death. It is also the great film antithesis.

Death fills up the fourth moment. It is present, but it is not revealed through the images. It is marked by the absence, by the non-images. It is, with exception of the last scene, an implicit element, constitutive in the set of the narrative.

The absence strikes first the man who, encouraged by the woman 1, throws himself into the sea in search of a barrel of water. The last image of the man is when he casts himself into the sea. From that moment on, his death is marked by the hugeness of the sea and by his absence on the boat.

Another antithesis: the barrel – in the sea – metaphors of the man’s death. However, getting the barrel could mean the possibility of some more time alive. In the barrel, there was water, vital element to man. So, the barrel is both a metaphor of life and death.

The second absence strikes the woman 2. After the storm, the boat and the woman disappear, only the woman 1 remains, grasped to a piece of wood, probably, wreck of the destroyed boat.

Unlike these two deaths – expressed by the non-image, the ending to this woman’s life stands open. There isn’t the boat any longer, the possible place to mark her absence. On a piece of wood, a leftover of the boat, lies the image – and not the absence – of the woman grasped to it. The conception in images about the film, in its visual texture, does not give us any visible datum which leads us to the conclusion that the last character died in open sea. The last scene shows the woman floating, grasped to a piece of wood, the sunlight on her face. And from the fusion of this clarity into the sun’s reflecting on an empty spot in the sea, the film ends.

We can’t say that we have an implied image, or a suggested one, about the woman’s death. The implicit would be to show, maybe, the piece of wood floating alone, or any other clue. That piece of the boat, once it is not shown anymore in the film, can be read as the board of salvation, by a metonymical extension, like a metaphor of resistance, of struggle – and not of life surrender. The last image shows the woman grasped to the last piece of what has left from the boat. The woman struggles as long as she can and the image of her death is silenced in terms of images and in terms of absence. It is left to the onlookers the decision to choose if that woman died or survived. Reconsidering Mário Peixoto’s own words about the first instant when he guessed the end of the film – a sea of fire, a board, a woman clinched to, it is not found in his script death as the ending of his film.

The final image of the woman’s eyes returns to the initial image of those same eyes, giving a circular character to the film, coherent with its lack of narrative linearity and, so, with the lack of a discursive end: the woman’s fate remains open.

Making use of the polychromy concept – a net of images that project themselves and are interrelated providing the visual materiality of the film -, the spectator does not see (even in the absence form) the death of woman 1, as the analysis proclaim. It is up to the spectator (and not to an unilateral analysis) to project either the woman’s death or salvation. Or, further, to remain with the inquiry. As a discursive operator, the image of the woman that grasps a piece of wood recovers in retrospective all the nerve, struggle, and resistance of this woman, who does not give up her life so easily. In perspective, this image leaves her end undefined.

It is also possible to recover the discursive heterogeneity concept (Authier, 1980) which reveals that every text is marked by spaces reserved to the interlocutor, who shall compose the text’s contexture as a whole, occupying the spaces that he is assigned to. The end of “Limite” is a silenced image: each spectator (interlocutor) projects his own end.

The film’s fusion movement, however, seems to be the main element of determination of this heterogeneity: whenever two images are fused, another text is created and another possibility of interpretation is opened to the spectator, not always clear, although possible. For example, the fusion of the train’s wheel into the sewing machine, besides possibly to meaning links to jail, imprisonment, it may mean the wheel of destiny, of life; it may mean escape, another life.


Fragment and Image

As the film develops it presents a series of fragmented images: fragments of a boat, a part of a man’s body, an eye, hair, etc. Fragments that provide the film with a mosaic structure, breaking its continuity, its visual linearity. Many times this resource confuses the (linear?) comprehension of the film. The fragmented image cuts out the film in different time and space; it also cuts out the narrative thread, when distant moments of each one’s life are presented. These moments are memory flashes. A memory fragmented by the situation which suggests all the time what is left to those lives. Fragmented lives.

“Limite” is itself a fragmented story; it begins with what is left of a shipwreck after; a boat and three survivors. It silences the fact – the shipwreck; would it have been a shipwreck? It leaves implicit the search for life: how could the three of them have reached the boat? What has made those people search for the boat? The will of death, or surrender of life?

The fragmentation cuts out moments and at the same time, erases the real time thread. There is no moment, there is no time ahead. Only past. As a discursive resource, the fragments provide the spectator with the insertion of particular cutouts, interrogations and at the same time suggest the lack of life perspective. They suggest the film’s incompleteness in its materiality and, by this very reason, establish the void, the nothingness of those characters. They are synesthesic images that contaminate the spectator with the grief of those lives. It is interesting to observe once more the dimension of the discursive heterogeneity of the film cited in the image rupture work.

Finally, all elements composing the film reiterate its aspect of antithesis which is cited in the two time dimension: the real (the no-time) and the psychological (the memory). Time reiterates the great conflict: life x death.



Life and death are reiterated all over the film, and the image of the dead elements of the film as the fish in the basket, for instance, and many others are always a form of silence, of the implicit quality, of the fragment, the relationship of constitution with elements of life. The death of the fish, the water in the barrel, the cut on the finger, etc. mean the search for life. Death and life are mutually constituted.

To see “Limite” in terms of text from the polychromy concept allows visualizing it as a net of formulations, built by the implicit quality, by the silenced and/or fragmented images, giving room to the film’s weave, as image and not as verbalized narrative. As a form of language.

To draw up the film in the language scope, here the non-verbal language, is to search for a wider sense, beyond the narrative concept. It is to search for a particular place, to interpret, to provide meaning. The images do without the word as a form of language. The images provide meaning (to the spectator), they do not speak. They are language, texts to be visualized, interpreted. They are, in their visual materiality, discourses.



AUTHIER, J. 1980 Heterogeneidades enunciativas (xerox copy)

DUCROT, O . O Dizer e o Dito. São Paulo, Pontes, 1987.

ORLANDI, E Efeitos do verbal sobre o não-verbal, Encontro Internacional da interação entre linguagem verbal e não-verbal, Brasília, March 1993.

PÊCHEUX, M. Semântica e Discurso. Campinas, UNICAMP Editora, 1988.

SOUZA, T.C.C. de Imagem e Sentido, texto-apostila utilizado no curso ANÁLISE DO DISCURSO do Instituto de Arte e Comunicação Social, Niterói, first semester of 1995.

SOUZA, T.C.C. de. Discurso e Imagem: perspectivas de análise do não verbal. Conferência no. II Colóquio de Analistas del Discurso, Buenos Aires, 1997.

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