Cinema has always been very popular in Brazil. By the 1930s, even the smallest towns in the northeastern interior had their own modest movie palaces screening Hollywood flickers. In Rio, Praça Floriano became known as Cinelândia after the elegant downtown square was lined with sumptuous art deco movie palaces.
Rio was also the birthplace of the Brazilian film industry. In 1930, Cinédia studios began churning out a series of popular romances and burlesque musical comedies known as chanchadas, some of which satirized Hollywood fare. A few of these films featured a very young Carmen Miranda, then at the height of her fame as a recording star. In the 1940s, both Atlantida and Vera Cruz also appeared on the scene to produce popular melodramas along with chanchadas.
During the 1950s, Vera Cruz attempted to attract viewers by emulating Hollywood’s tradition of commercial genre films. A massive soundstage was built where the studio could churn out highly popular detective stories and westerns. Production values were high, but young independent directors chafed at the degree of commercialization and Americanization of the final product.
Dreaming of a cinema novo (new cinema), and inspired by Italian Neo-Realism, directors such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Ruy Guerra, and Anselmo Duarte took to making low-budget films, many shot on location in the arid Sertão, that highlighted the stark realities of the Brazilian Northeast in expressive black and white imagery. If not wildly popular at home, these films were a hit with international critics. Lima Barreto’s O Cangaceiro (1953) brought to the screen the story of the legendary Sertanejo bandit, Lampião. In 1962, Duarte’s O Pagador de Promessas scooped up a Palme d’Or award for best film at the 1962 Cannes Festival.
One of the most daring and experimental figures of the movement dubbed Cinema Novo was a brilliant Bahian director by the name of Glauber Rocha. In groundbreaking films such as Terra em Transe and Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, “Glauber” drew on French New Wave influences to tackle pressing sociopolitical issues such as hunger, violence, and poverty, once again using the Northeast as a metaphorically charged setting. Combining wonderful mise-en-scene with an absence of conventional narrative, Glauber’s films were adored by intellectuals, but difficult for the public to watch.
In 1964, the beginning of the military dictatorship caused Cinema Novo to experience a sudden demise. Government hardliners censored any criticism of Brazil and forced many directors into exile. Instead, in 1969, the government created Embrafilme, a state-run production company whose goal was to develop Brazilian filmmaking.
Although censorship, bureaucracy, and favoritism severely limited artistic expression, Embrafilme did provide enough capital to maintain a small industry that funded the production of important films by major directors such as Bruno Barreto’s Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, 1976), Cacá Diegues’s Bye Bye Brasil (1979), Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981), and Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Memórias do Cárcere (Memories of Prison, 1984).
The end of Brazil’s military dictatorship also meant the end of Embrafilme and a state-subsidized film industry. By the early ’90s, only three or four Brazilian films a year were being released. Fortunately, things improved under the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, with the introduction of new incentive laws whereby private companies that invested in film productions would receive tax breaks.
In 1993, Carla Camurati’s whimsical historical comedy Carlota Joaquina (about the Portuguese royal family’s picaresque adventures in 19th-century Brazil) was a big hit and signaled the beginning of Brazilian cinema’s resurrection. Eager to see their lives depicted onscreen, Brazilians flocked to the cinema in record numbers, despite the fact that, since the 1970s, more than two-thirds of movie theaters had been closed down (and often converted into evangelical churches)-the result of the popularization of television and the increased price of movie tickets.
Not only did the number of films produced gradually grow, but the quality was on par with the best of world cinema, and was recognized as such by foreign critics, who showered awards on productions such as Bruno Barreto’s O Que É Isso Companheiro? (Four Days in September, 1998), an Oscar-nominated film that told the gripping true story of the kidnapping of the U.S. ambassador to Brazil by left-leaning guerillas.
Walter Salles, one of Brazil’s most important new directors, succeeded in taking home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film the following year for Central do Brasil (Central Station), the story of a curmudgeonly elderly woman (played by Oscar-nominated Fernanda Montenegro) who makes a living writing letters for illiterate migrants in Rio’s Central Station and ends up accompanying a young homeless boy on a search throughout the Northeast to find his father.
His follow-up film, Abril Despedeçado (Behind the Sun, 2001), was a dark, brooding tale of vengeance among rival families in the Northeast, starring acclaimed young actor Rodrigo Santoro. Another big hit set in the Sertão was Andrucha Waddington’s 2000 comedy Eu, Tu, Eles (Me, You, Them), based on the true story of a woman with three husbands, whose lively soundtrack by Gilberto Gil did much to popularize traditional forró music.
Waddington’s more recent Casa de Areia (House of Sand) (2005) is a hauntingly poetic film about a mother and daughter (played by Fernanda Montenegro and her real-life actress daughter, Fernanda Torres) sent to live for years in the middle of the isolated desert of the Lençóis Maranhenses.
Aside from being entertaining, many of these films are loyal to Cinema Novo’s mandate of offering critiques of Brazil’s many social problems. While many films have chosen the Brazilian Northeast as a backdrop to portray the trials and tribulations of contemporary Brazil, others have taken to the urban jungles of Rio and São Paulo to offer glimpses of the violence and poverty.
One of the most accomplished new directors to tackle such themes is Fernando Meirelles. With a background in advertising, Meirelles started his cinematic career with Domésticas (Maids, 2001), which offered a humorous yet realistic glimpse into the lives of the many women who work as maids for wealthy and middle-class families. His follow-up film Cidade de Deus (City of God, 2002) took both Brazil and the world by storm in with its brilliantly acted story of survival amid the gang warfare typical of a Carioca favela. The fragmented editing, hurtling pace, and use of favela dwellers as actors was inspired and brought Meirelles (who then went on to direct the English-language film The Constant Gardener) an Oscar nomination for best director.
In 2007, José Padilha—director of the harrowing documentary Ônibus 174 (Bus 174, 2002), which was based on the 2000 hijacking of a municipal Rio de Janeiro bus in broad daylight and the police’s bungling of the rescue of passengers—created another uproar with his controversial fictional feature debut. The film, entitled Tropa da Elite (Elite Squad), provided a shocking glimpse at the armed warfare between drug lords and a special squad of Rio’s military police created to “protect” favela residents.
Buzz about the film (based on very true events) was so great that when a prior cut was released via the Internet, an estimated 12 million Brazilians purchased pirated copies in the street, making the film (which later took home the Golden Bear award for best film at the Berlin International Film Festival) one of the most widely watched Brazilian films of all time.
Brazil’s burgeoning feature film industry has been accompanied by a renaissance in the production of documentary films. Many delve into social themes, such as Eduardo Coutinho’s excellent Edifício Master (2002), which offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of 37 families that inhabit a crowded 12-story Copacabana apartment building.
An extraordinary number of documentaries pay homage to Brazil’s musical legends, among them Carmen Miranda, in Helena Solberg’s Bananas Is My Business (1994); Vinícius de Morais, in Miguel Faria Jr.’s Vinicius (2005); and Lírio de Ferreira and Hilton Lacerda’s Cartola (2006).
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition