Brazilian cinematic traditions are as diverse and transformative as the country’s great geographical expanse
What comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘Brazilian film’? Perhaps it could be the gangster kids of City of God, or Carmen Miranda’s fruit-bowl hat. Maybe this would be to underestimate you, and your first thoughts turn to Glauber Rocha’s ‘aesthetic of hunger’ and the 1960s Cinema Novo group, whose hopes for the global liberation of the oppressed produced landmarks of world cinema like Barren Lives and Black God, White Devil. Or perhaps you’ve heard of Madame Satan, one of Brazil’s recent commercial successes, a film about the injustices faced by a malandro (street-tough) of African descent and his/her transvestite cabaret act, based on a real story from the 1930s and 40s. Madame Satan should not be an entirely surprising film in a country with a history of politicised cinema, the country of carnival, tropicália, bossa-nova, the country that as long ago as 1959 had Academy Award success with Black Orpheus’s innovative setting of the ancient legend of Orpheus in a Rio favela.
The World Cup this year and then the Olympic Games in 2016 will see no shortage of images aimed at characterising Brazil: Christ the redeemer in Rio, some barefoot favela kids kicking a ball around, or a multi-coloured street reveller would be good bets for becoming the most-relayed emblem of those events. But there is no single, characteristic ‘Brazil’, and its film history attests to this.
The most populous Catholic country in the world is also the second most populous Protestant one, while its films show lifestyles from syncretist religions to urban hip-hop and rock communities, each demonstrations of the continual development of homegrown cultures and belief systems in a country that has as much claim to be a ‘melting pot’ as anywhere.
Brazil’s national cinema is as diverse as the country that produces it. Recurring trends across its history include the presence of comedy and of music, which give a glimpse into a century of changing fashions and attitudes in popular life. On the other hand, it also has strong traditions of documentary and of literary adaptation, which show how cinema has been used to interpret the world around it as well as to diffuse national cultures and subcultures.
Brazil’s films show the artistic potential of the country’s great geographical expanse, notably in their adoption of that most typically American of genres, the road movie, which also offers further examples of the domestic adaptation of international influences. A keenness to win Brazil’s international audience is perhaps personified in the figure of the Brazilian-born Walter Salles, who has mastered the attraction of international co-production to finance films. He is almost a modern entrepreneurial version of the protagonist of his The Motorcycle Diaries, which details South American icon of global revolution Che Guevara’s expedition across the continent. Meanwhile a different kind of independence is found in the Cinema de Bordas (‘Border Cinema’), a category not before introduced to English language readers. These playful, low-budget pastiches rarely make it out of their own local distribution circuits, such as those starring Aldenir Coti, the Amazonian sawmill worker who takes the Sylvester Stallone rip-off roles in Rambú III: o rapto do jaraqui dourado (Rambú III: the Rape of the Tropical Golden Fish) and Roqui, o boxeador da Amazônia (Roqui, the Boxer of the Amazon).
Brazilian cinema has also played a part in constructing identity. Some films have historically included changing representations of the Brazilian Indian, who have been colonised across centuries of settlement, and are important to ideas of Afro-Brazilian identity and of diaspora, for Brazil has, much like the rest of the Americas, been a historical destination for migration. As well as charting a century of changing attitudes to gender, personal relations and sexuality, Brazilian films cover topics which are often fraught with questions of power, marginalisation and resistance.
That Brazil now has the world’s eyes upon it is testament to a global repositioning of what used to be thought of as the ‘First’ and ‘Third World’. Brazil provides the first two letters of the BRIC economies, and such change is why its cinema has experienced a recent retomada, a renaissance or ‘re-taking’. Well-produced films with ambitious scope like Elite Squad, The Invader, or City of God can now find worldwide distribution, but it wasn’t always this way. Across decades that span democracy, dictatorships, and often intense political struggle, filmmakers have frequently used cinema as a radical ‘de-elitising’ tool, and there are those who wonder if the current success of the country’s cinema is at the expense of the uncompromising radicalism of the 1960s. Brazil’s long-lasting ‘early years’ of cinema were perennially stuttering, through experiments in silent modernism in the 1920s, as well as the commercial cinema of the chanchada (Brazilian musical) which made Carmen Miranda a star, and the establishment of the Vera Cruz studios in an attempt to create a Brazilian Hollywood. Miranda ended up of course in the real Hollywood, and Vera Cruz foundered, indicating the difficulties of sustained success.
Across each of these periods however, Brazilian cinema has found material to delight and challenge audiences.
To find out more, read The Directory of World Cinema: Brazil edited by Louis Bayman and Natália Pinazza.
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