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Brazzil - Culture - April 2004

New Brazilian Cinema

Brazil, in the Lasting Picture Show

American audiences especially are so primed on violence, sex
and sensationalism, with blond-haired siliconed Barbie dolls
spreading cleavage that it is almost unreasonable to expect them
to be interested in the middle class life of Brazilians. Sad to
say, they are missing out on a lot of interesting material.

Norman Madarasz

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 uprisings.

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 Sem-Terra).

Family Ties

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 groups—all of whom call themselves Brasileiros.

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 times.

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 of wisdom.

Heaven and Hell

Despite how powerful religions are in Brazil, and how successfully they have deformed the economic causes that lie behind popular suffering—as if it really were a question of awaiting one's day in paradise—most 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 police.

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 form today.

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 at nmphdiol2@yahoo.ca

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