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The Brazilian Cinema: Much More Than Just Soap Operas

Brazil takes a special place in the cinematic landscape of South America. The roots of Latin American cinema itself came from Brazil. In spite of many storms and spells of stagnation, it is also the most significant cinematographic power on the continent.

In 1886 in Rio de Janeiro the first films were made and shown the same year. In 1906 Antonio Leal shot the first Brazilian movie based on police reports. During the age of silent cinema, the movie market was dominated by mass-produced and distributed Hollywood pictures. There were a few native movies drawn mainly from the belles-lettres and the dramas.

In 1925 Humberto Mauro made his debut with an adventure short film, Validiao, o Cratera, he went on to become one of the most important directors in the history of Brazilian cinema. His most famous movie was Ganga Bruta, produced in 1933. The psychologically complex melodrama, shot using innovative imaging techniques which were ahead of their time, was years after considered a masterpiece of the Brazilian cinema.

The introduction of sound to the movies seemed to bring the Latin music film to life. Called ”chanchadas”, this sort of comedy with elements of native music and dance became extremely popular during those times. Thanks to the mass production of ”chanchadas” in the 1930s, home singers such as Carmen Miranda and Oscarito previously only known from the radio, became pretty big stars of the Brazilian cinema.

The Second World War caused, as in many other countries, a stagnation of the cinema business. In 1950 restoration of the Brazilian cinematography was placed into the charge of the world-renown Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. As part of his strategy, he managed the Vera Cruz Company along the same lines as the production companies of Hollywood.

In response to the commercialised movie production by the Vera Cruz Company and their Hollywood styled movies there started a movement of young Brazilian filmmakers known today as ”cinema novo”. This trend had been gaining ground since the mid-1950s, and by the 1960 ’s it dominated mainstream cinema, becoming one of the most interesting cinema phenomena in the world. A fledgeling movie of the ”cinema novo” was Rio, 40 grams (1955), the debut picture of Nelson Pereira dos Santos, one of the main representatives of that trend. The movie set the new trend and became an inspiration for ”cinema novo” followers. Dos Santos, under the influence of the French New Wave and Italian neo-realism works, showed in his movie a day in the life of the favela (the poor districts) from the perspective of the most impoverished dwellers of Rio de Janeiro.

However for the real turmoil in Brazilian cinema and its full aesthetic revival according to the wording ”camera in a hand, the idea in ahead” it was necessary to wait up until 1963, when three movies were made that seemed to initiate the flowering of the new cinema: Vidas Secas by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Os fuzi by Ruy Guerra and Deus e o diablona terra do sol by Glauber Rocha. Rocha was the main theorist of the trend. ”Cinema novo” postulated a revival of Brazilian cinema while unveiling the everyday problems of the country (social differences, poverty), through the introduction of elements of native folklore and reference to Latin mysticism and symbolism. The new Brazilian cinema existed in intellectual opposition to the official dictatorial regime. Of course, it mattered when it came to the subject matter, and the formal experimental side used. The most prominent representatives of the movement were, aside from above mentioned Pereira dos, Santos and Glauber Rocha, also Luiz Carlos Barreto, Carlos (Caca) Diegues and Walter Hugo Khoury.

In 1968 one of the most original and the best-known pictures in Brazilian cinema history was made. It was Macunaima, directed by the classic proponent of ”cinema novo” Joaquim Pedro de Andrade. The film was an adaptation of Mario de Andrade’s novel published in 1928 under the same title. The main character, Macunaima, is a figure from the Indian legends, a mythical child-adult never growing up. He travels to Brazil meeting the weirdest creatures right from Brazilian legends and experiencing the most amazing adventures that lead him to the big final… from which nothing resolves for Macunaima. Well, that’s not quite true, he changes from a nasty Black into a white man. Apart from the colour of his skin, he’s as stupid and lazy as he was in the beginning. The movie is ridiculous, grotesque, trashy and bizarre. It refuted all stereotypes coded in the viewer’s mind. It’s not as it seems at first a story about the initiation journey where the protagonist is an anti-hero from the beginning to the end. Macunaima grows out of a festive tradition, rooted strongly in Brazilian society. He is the personification of ambiguity, looking for his own identity. Macunaima is Brazil. As the director said it’s ”a story about a Brazilian devoured by Brazil”.

Macunaima is a leading picture of the ”tropicalism”, an artistic movement that dominated overall fields of Brazilian art in the late 1960’s. ”Tropicalism” was supposed to express and to highlight all that was explicitly Brazilian and to transform all artistic creations, from the folk to the high art, into one coherent national piece of art.

In the 1980s there came a long crisis related to the economic stagnation and battle was lost to the television mass-producing the proverbial and extremely popular Brazilian soap operas. In 1990 the President, Collor de Mello, closed down the national company Embrafilm. The movie business in Brazil ceased existing.

1995 brought the breakthrough. The debut film of Carla Murata Carlota Jaquina, Princesa do Brasil, a surreal, fairytale story about the royal family in the XVIIIth century launched retomada – a revival of the Brazilian cinema. New creators and new movies emerged and won recognition worldwide. The door to that was open by Walter Salles’ Central do Brasil (1998), the movie awarded widely at different film festivals, both home and abroad (i.e. Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film). It tells the story of a retired teacher Dora, who travels across Brazil together with Josue looking for his father. The picture, shot as a road movie with a warm and touching humanitarian attitude, shows the poverty and suffering of a modern Brazil searching, like its inhabitants, for its own identity. Salles, one of the most prominent Brazilian filmmakers of the past few years has also made such movies as Terra Estrangeira (1995) about the collapse that touched the society after 30 years of the authoritarian regime; Abril Despedacao (2001) about a quarrel between two families living in the Brazilian wilds; Diarios de motocicleta (2004) telling about the journey across Latin America that a young Che Guevara, together with his friend, took in 1952; and Linha de Passe (2008) about the problems of people from the lowest social class.

The second name of Brazilian retomada is Fernando Meirelles. His most famous film Cidade de Deus (2002) is the story of a young boy growing up in a favela, a poverty block ruled by a drug mob, one of the thousands operating within the Brazilian cities. Retomada means “multiplicity of subjects and styles”. It’s not possible to tell about the specific features of this trend. The particular character of Brazilian cinema lies there, in the multiplicity of subjects and styles. Amongst many films produced over the few last years and that deserve mentioning for particular attention are the following: Carandiru (2003) by Hektor Babenco telling the story of a mutiny in the most significant Brazilian prison in Sao Paulo and Tropa de elite (2007) by Jose Padilhi, winner of The Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s an adaptation of the novel written by ex-officer of BOPE, the militarised police troops against drug crimes, in which corruption and violence reign. There is also an outstanding film by Bruno BarretoUltima Parada 174 (2008), based on the very famous Brazilian homicide of a homeless boy who was suspected of criminal activity, who in a moment of dismay terrorised the passengers of a bus and took them hostage. Caught by the police, he was brutally murdered while being taken to the precinct. The Barreto film was based on the documentary Onibus 174 by Jose Padilhi which reconstructed that event.


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Magda Olchawska is an award-winning independent filmmaker, writer and screenwriter. She writes not only about making films and writing but also about financially independent and sustainable lifestyle. Her current projects include Ecotopia Universe and School Runs.

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