IN preparing for the Olympics, I don’t imagine Rio’s marketing team has relied too much on local films to promote their image. It’s not that Brazilian movies are bad, simply that the best ones don’t focus on sea, samba and song, but on the country’s very pronounced problems.
It’s always been that way. In the Sixties and Seventies the Cinema Novo movement of directors, led by Nelson Pereira dos Santos and Glauber Rocha, regarded it as their revolutionary duty to make films about the extreme poverty in the country’s urban favelas and drought-ridden backlands of the northeast.
Such fervour was quelled when in 1964 the country entered 21 years of military dictatorship. With political censorship, the period’s movie-going is best summed up by the popularity of the pornchinchadas, or soft porn musicals.
It took a new generation of filmmakers to bring Brazilian cinema back to life, in the late Nineties and Noughties. Directors like Walter Salles and Fernando Meirelles proved themselves to be just as socially conscious as the Cinema Novo crowd, but also far better at getting bums on seats. And now, as well as inequality to think about, there was crime. Led by City of God, favela films became box office sensations.
The diversity of today’s Brazilian cinema is reflected by directors such as Karim Aïnouz exploring questions of sexuality and identity (Futuro Beach) and Kleber Mendonça Filho the tensions created by changing communities. And in a country where truth is invariably stranger, and often more dangerous than fiction, they could never be short of inspiration.
Rio 40° (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1955)
A turning point in the history of Brazilian cinema. Pereira borrowed the semi-documentary style of the Italian neo-realists – filming on the streets, using ordinary people as his actors, and revealing a whole new perspective on his country. A day-in-the-life of the city is told through the eyes of young, black peanut vendors as they roam from the favelas to Copacabana to Sugarloaf Mountain. The depiction of Rio’s underclass led to the film being banned. The stated reason: the temperature in Rio never rose to 40°.
Black God, White Devil (Glauber Rocha, 1964)
Set in the barren sertão of the northeast in the Forties, this follows an oppressed farmer who kills his exploitative boss then goes on the run with his wife, first falling in with a religious mystic, then a group of bandits. The second film by the enfant terrible of Cinema Novo, this was a typically idiosyncratic affair – at once realistic and stylised, part western, part allegory, with a madcap flair that is deeply odd and wholly fascinating.
Central Station (Walter Salles, 1998)
When Central Station won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 1998, it heralded the return of Brazilian cinema to the international scene after years in the doldrums. And Salles’s bitter-sweet road movie brought everyone up to date with the parlous state of his country after years of dictatorship and corruption. It’s also an enormously moving, universal story. Fernando Montenegro was Oscar-nominated for her performance as a retired Rio school teacher who reluctantly helps a homeless boy search for the father he’s never known.
City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)
This dazzling account of the rise of drug gangs in a Rio favela has all the customary features of crime drama – psychotic hoods, corrupt cops, power struggles, betrayal, violence – but also a vividly-expressed milieu that had never been seen on screen, not even in Brazil. Meirelles and his collaborators devised a bravura narrative style, at the heart of which are the mesmerising performances from real-life favela kids, a veritable choir of angels with dirty faces.
Elite Squad (José Padilha, 2007) and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within 2 (Padilha, 2010)
A former documentary maker, Padilha sparked controversy with Elite Squad, a violent crime thriller that exposed corruption in the Rio police force, as well as its shoot to kill policy against drug dealers. While the police hated it, many critics felt that it glamourised them – Padilha had succeeded in waking everyone up. His sequel was a better, if even more depressing film, suggesting that politicians, cops and gangsters together would drive Rio society towards oblivion. It is the highest grossing film in Brazil’s history.
Neighbouring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012)
Filho is one of the shining lights of current Brazilian cinema. His immensely assured first feature sits in a tradition of Latin films that mine the class tensions created by the moneyed penchant for domestic servants and high security. A mysterious and increasingly tense thriller, it’s set in a gentrifying neighbourhood in the north-east coastal town of Recife, whose paranoid burghers enlist a security firm, not realising that its boss may pose the biggest danger to them. Filho’s latest, Aquarius, was a big hit in Cannes this year.
This article first appeared in The Times