The international success of Cidade de Deus (City of God) has
left a number of foreign viewers and those of Brazilian origin with the impression
their nationally created cinema works represent the homeless and the hopeless
above all. On the fortieth anniversary of the 1964 coup d'état, and
the fiftieth anniversary of the presidential suicide of Getúlio Vargas,
the moment seems right to consider Brazilian culture in the wake of twenty-one
or twenty-five years (depending on how you count) of military dictatorship
that only came to an end in real terms in the 1990s.
In a recent interview
published by the Jornal do Brasil (April 3, 2004), Caetano Veloso unequivocally
stamped the dictatorial period with the charge of destroying the bossa
nova, Tropicalismo and Mineira art movements. After 1968,
and Institutional Act 5 (AI-5), civil liberties were suspended, and parliament
forced into permanent recess. As successor to President General Arthur da
Costa e Silva, President General Emílio Garrastazu Médici would
soon impose an anti-communist national security terror state on Brazil. It
would last for ten years.
Scores of artists, intellectuals
and political organizers were forced into exile, when they were famous. Those
not as lucky were imprisoned, often tortured and sometimes killed. Lyndon
Johnson supported the 1964 coup, and offered American military assistance.
Throughout Latin America's darkest periods, the US helped organize intelligence
networks, such as the Plan Condor (aka Operation Condor), to quell popular
Though hardly comparable
in scale to Stalin's rule, the effects wrought by Brazil's military dictatorship
were similar: the creative edge of Brazilian culture drifted into hibernation.
The phoenix has again
risen from its cinders. Spearheaded by the rising tide of cinema masterpieces,
Brazil can nowadays be said to be riding a solid wave of cultural production.
Nowhere is there a figure to be found akin to Gláuber Rocha, one of
Brazil's greatest artistic innovators. Nor is there interest on a broader
scale in the monumental work of the Cinema Novo.
However, a second film
on Gláuber's life has just been released. His films are now available
on DVD. Many of his counterparts from Cinema Novo (Ruy Guerra, Julio Bressane,
Rogério Sganzerla and others) have continued with an exceptional output.
For the past five years, Cable-TV subscribers have had the opportunity to
view the gamut of Brazil's cinema productions on Canal Brazil.
This is not to say there
isn't continual interest in foreign films, American ones especially. The
Lord of the Rings, The Passion of the Christ, the Matrix series, and the
recent spate of kiddy films have all been run-away box office hits. By contrast,
depending on where you live in Brazil, American pop music may lag far behind
the strong interest in Brazilian pop, rap, reggae and samba.
The American Connection
Brazil's population ranges
at 175 million. Even in tabling a proportion of that tally, which basically
represents the country's middle classes, entertainment business entrepreneurs
find themselves with a huge market. Commercial film circuit theaters are either
owned by American subsidiaries, or run in partnership with them.
This partly explains the
stranglehold on distributing and attracting interest in national film productions.
Big-dollar publicity and American distribution machines vow to convince Brazilians
how American films are more worthy of their attention than their own.
The country is no blind
follower of American pop culture. Brazilians are known to generally despise
the latter's arrogance. Recent Brazilian films have thus filled cinema venues,
though mainly in south-central and southern regions, which includes metropolitan
São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Deus é Brasileiro
and Carandiru, two huge successes, have allowed Brazilian films
to spread out centripetally from the generously disposed art film houses in
the Estação, Espaço Unibanco and Centro Cultural do Banco
do Brasil networks. Even as difficult a film, however, as Luiz Fernando Carvalho's
masterpiece, Lavoura Arcaica, held course for weeks, whereas the most
recent French arrivals or Lars von Trier's films generally fail to make it
past the month-long mark in first run theaters.
Still, the current cinema
tide is neither Cinema Novo nor a New Wave. In fact, the subjects portrayed
and discussed are so pressing even in the middle classes that films rarely
if ever provoke scandals upon being released. An exception may be City
of God particularly due to its aesthetic and stylized editing.
It gave many viewers the
sensation of either parasitically making art on the back of favela residents
or romanticizing the violence of urban youth gangs linked to the drug
trade. The content was no source of controversy as the spill out from the
country's vast inequality in wealth distribution is such that even the lower
middle classes are tormented by unceasing theft and violence.
The international success
of City of God, however, has left a skewed image of Brazil for foreign
viewers lacking curiosity to seek out more of the nation's recent productions.
For one thing, its plot is set in the sixties and seventies. Despite being
described as weaving an "aesthetics of hunger", it really does resonate
more to an anesthetized picture of poverty. For instance, there has yet to
be a film success on the theme of the Landless Peasant's Movement (the so-called
But Vicente Amorim's latest
film, O Caminho das Nuvens (Clouds' Way), does follow the plight
of a typical rural family leaving behind the sertão backlands
to seek out a new life in Rio's urban setting and the guarantee of worker's
rights. While he could have stressed the all-too-smooth flow between semi-forced
eviction from rural territories into the overpopulated urban slums, Amorim
focused instead on the country's immensely tight family ties.
Despite its taut family
body that North Americans of English stock can only look upon with saudade,
Brazil has a fragile middle class. Signs are pointing to its dramatic
shrinking on a yearly basis. The country's GDP has slid in rank from eighth
in the world 10 years ago, to fifteenth in 2003. Needless to say, you do not
encounter the rabid anti-middle class sentiments of Northern artistic and
intellectual innovators here.
A strong middle class
in the country is the guarantee for democracy to prevail. Throughout its diversity,
there is a breed of parental assistance quite unusual to find in wealthier
countries, with the exception, perhaps, of the Jewish communities and certain
recently immigrated Asian peoples.
The very poor reaches
of society are afflicted by typically Northern traits of poverty: broken homes,
single families, kids forced to get money at an early age, prostitution, drug
addiction and trafficking, parents in moral and economic collapse, squalid
living conditions, and a very low price placed on a human life.
American audiences especially
are so primed on violence, sex and sensationalism, with blond-haired siliconed
Barbie dolls spreading cleavage for cross-eyed flat bellied hulksters that
it is almost unreasonable to expect them to be interested in the middle class
life of the second largest country of the Americas. Sad to say, they are missing
out on a lot of interesting material.
Recent Brazilian films
have been shot in the cities of Porto Alegre and Recife, in the states of
Minas Gerais, Amazonas, and Pernambuco. They have focused on the rural and
the urban, on youth artist types and MBA shirt-and-ties. Films have dealt
with Blacks and Indians, and Italian immigrant groupsall of whom call
Reaching for the Past
Historical dramas stand
out in their exploration of the earliest times of Portuguese and New Christian
(i.e. converted Marrano Jews) settlements. Brazilians express a deep and continuous
interest in their earliest heritage. Four years ago, the country's five-hundredth
anniversary led to an impressive exhibition organized in São Paulo
spanning the country's most outstanding art works, even from pre-Cabralian
What was the last drama
set in the seventeenth-century to be shot in the US? The country of the western
and its fast-forward replacement, science-fiction, prefers the magical to
the history of land-grabbing from, and betrayals of, the native peoples, and
the slave industry used to build its agricultural power. Star Wars long
ago overrode Roots.
To be fair to the laziness
of American movie-buffs, the great Brazilian family and its trials and tribulations,
love affairs and breakdowns, are all given nightly airing in enormously popular
novelas, or `soap opera/series/sitcoms'. To appreciate these, perhaps
you have got to live here. While some of them are also historical dramas,
the most successful novela in recent years was The Clone.
Shot in Morocco and Brazil
in the style of an Arabic musical, with a strong sub-theme of drug addiction
in Rio's upper middle class youth, the novela spun a tale of disaster
struck by parental absence. Brazilian families view themselves through novelas,
and are molded in relation to the representations portrayed in them. This
shifts the cycle another quarter, as it feedbacks onto families with new ideals
and pressures on Brazilian identity as a whole, which future novelas
then go on to explore.
Still, it is difficult
for artists not to be politically aware and motivated in this country. Even
The Clone was driven by social critique. This attitude shows a significant
change in policy at the country's largest media conglomerate, Globo, whose
television network snatches up to 80 percent of market share per day. Throughout
the social criticism, Brazilians play off against their acerbic humor. Perhaps
the film to have most succeeded in projecting this to screens was Cronicamente
Inviável (Chronically Unfeasible).
Set mainly in São
Paulo, the film portrays several upper middle class couples and families dealing
with the absurdities of daily life in the world's second most populated city.
It also gives a sense of how powerful the Italian gift of self-mockery has
shaped Brazilian consciousness. Neither Saturday Night Live nor Friends
has ever approached the self-parody Brazilians draw from as if it were a font
Heaven and Hell
Despite how powerful religions
are in Brazil, and how successfully they have deformed the economic causes
that lie behind popular sufferingas if it really were a question of
awaiting one's day in paradisemost Americans tend to portray their very
country as a transfigured heaven: Brazilians understand that even their hell
is only to come in some distant future.
After barely a year in
power, it is next to impossible to expect President Lula and the Workers'
Party (PT) to have left their traces on cultural production. Shortly before
the 2002 elections, a slew of Globo talent organized a fundraising dinner
for the PT. Nowadays, like anyone else, they would like to see Lula's government
claim some victories on the reform front.
While Gilberto Gil remains
at the helms of the Culture Ministry, it is unlikely for the government to
be squarely attacked by the artistic set. Reminding Lula's government of its
obligations and popular expectations is a different story. But the harshest
political criticism addressed by Brazilian artists, as in Onibus 174 (Bus
174), is aimed at State governments, feudal landlords and, especially,
The future of Brazilian
cinema is obviously impossible to predict. Were the country to encounter a
destructive economic and political crisis, there could be a return to a low-budget
Cinema Novo type of political tropicalismo-type documentary. Still,
the social and economic antagonism stretching Brazil's fiber, which is something
felt within the government itself, has made cinema the country's leading art
On the other hand, there's
really no reason not to expect the release of several other masterpieces.
Judging by the acclaim it has received at Sundance and at pre-screenings,
Walter Salle's portrait of the young Che Guevara in Diários de Motocicleta
(The Motorcycle Diaries), (only opening here on May 7),
is set to be one.
After all, the country
houses one of the world's greatest cinematographers, Walter Carvalho. In upcoming
years, as awareness builds of the foreign economic strictures preventing the
country from developing in sustainable fashion from within, one can also expect
increased analytical sophistication behind the political and economic criticism
now widespread among many of Brazil's finest artists and writers.
Norman Madarasz teaches and writes on philosophy, art and international
political economic relations. He lives in Rio de Janeiro, welcoming comments