Roads to Rio


Cinema Novo was a call to arms. “Our generation is writing the pre-history of Brazilian cinema,” said Glauber Rocha in the early 1960s. He and other members of that remarkable movement saw their mission as nothing less than the decolonization and regeneration of their country’s cinema.

Reacting against a domestic studio system that specialized in escapist fare and the near monopoly of Brazil’s screens by American films, the socially committed Novo directors modeled themselves on the techniques of both the Italian neorealists and the French New Wave. The movement they founded is surveyed in
MOMA’s humongous retro, which includes 59 features and covers four decades; the show also takes in the work of a post-Novo generation.

Although their political objectives were identical, there was great diversity of style among the directors who would form Cinema Novo. The two outstanding figures in the movement, Glauber Rocha (who died at 42, in 1981) and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, both made films on the subject of the disadvantaged in the sertão— the arid backland of northeastern Brazil— in the early ’60s. Dos Santos’s austere Barren Lives (1963) tells the story of a poor migratory family’s attempts to survive, filmed in a style indebted to Italian neorealism; Rocha’s Black God, White Devil (1964), also concerned with an exploited peasant couple, is an allegorical work of great theatricality in which time is often dilated and scenes punctuated by Eisensteinian montage effects.

After the military coup of 1964, Cinema Novo moved away from the sertão to explore the corrupt political culture of the urban elite. Rocha’s Earth Entranced (1967) is set in a not-so-mythical Eldorado— read Brazil— where a coup d’état has just taken place. This aggressive film portrays what Rocha has called “the tragic carnival of Brazilian politics” through a feverish, intermittently incoherent, but unforgettable flux of images. With Antonio das Mortes (1969), his last major work, Rocha returned to the territory of the sertão. The film’s central figure, who has been hired by a land-owning colonel to murder the leaders of a peasant revolt, haunted by past crimes, finds his mission ignoble and changes sides. An ecstatic song of violence, Antonio is as flamboyantly operatic as any Sergio Leone western. The picture’s success in Europe infuriated the rightist political establishment. When the repression intensified, Brazil’s greatest director went into exile in protest and worked abroad for most of the rest of his life.

Cinema Novo managed to remain cohesive until about 1970, when some of its practitioners, like Rocha, fled the authoritarian regime to work abroad, while others remained in Brazil, where a tacit alliance had developed between Cinema Novo and the state. The most provocative Novo film of the 1970s, São Bernardo (1972), directed by Leon Hirszman (who died of AIDS at 49, in 1987), is based on a novel by Graciliano Ramos, author of Barren Lives, and was released at a time when Brazilian porno films were beginning to flood the market. Shot with a lean visual style that recalls Bresson, São Bernardo is an absorbing morality play about cutthroat capitalism whose protagonist, a brutal plantation owner, had come to power through force and murder, like the military rulers of Brazil. After its release, the director lived abroad for several years.

Other highly recommended films in the series: Carlos Diegues’s finely observed The Big City (1966), about migrants adrift in Rio; Rogério Sganzerla’s seminal, Godardian underground movie, The Red Light Bandit (1968); Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Macunaíma (1969), a carnivalesque fable about consumerism as cannibalism, starring the great veteran black actor Grande Otelo; Hector Babenco’s devastating Pixote (1980); Hirszman’s They Don’t Wear Black Tie (1981), a closely focused tale of working-class life; Suzana Amaral’s The Hour of the Star (1985), starring Marcélia
Cartaxo as the most endearing heroine in all Brazilian cinema; and José Araújo’s Landscape of Memories (1996).

Araújo’s evocative film, set in the sertão, pays tribute to Cinema Novo while forging a poetry of its own. It stands out as one of the rare noteworthy Brazilian films of the lamentable ’90s. After a serious slump, due to the country’s catastrophic economic condition, the industry was rescued in extremis by a resumption of state support. Concurrently a new and disturbing production strategy has emerged— a number of films are being made partially or entirely in English and using non-Brazilian actors in an attempt to make gains in the international market. What this bodes for the character of Brazilian cinema remains to be seen.