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The Brazilian Invasion

With four compelling new Brazilian features hitting US theaters in the early weeks of 2008—including TFF ’07 titles The Year My Parents Went on Vacation and Santiago—Brazil’s national cinema is the strongest it has been since Cinema Novo flourished in the 1960s.

by Michael Talbott

Ask the average moviegoer to name one Brazilian film, and there’s a good chance they’ll mention Black Orpheus, the 1960 Oscar winner which retold the Greek Orpheus myth against the backdrop of Brazil’s annual Carnival celebration. With its dazzling photography and infectious bossa nova score, Black Orpheus is widely considered a classic (it was one of the first DVDs issued by The Criterion Collection). The only catch is that it was actually made by a French director. What's more, it has also long been criticized by Brazilian filmmakers for misrepresenting of favela life and fetishizing Afro-Brazilian culture.

Still, Black Orpheus’ massive success helped ignite international interest in the country’s burgeoning Cinema Novo movement, which had emerged the previous decade when a new generation of Brazilian filmmakers began independently producing low-budget, black-and-white social-realist films that focused on the plight of the country’s poorest and most oppressed citizens. After the 1964 military coup which toppled Brazil’s leftist government, state censorship forced Cinema Novo filmmakers to begin masking their critiques with abstracted narratives and wild Tropicalist aesthetics. This new allegorical style resulted in works like Glauber Rocha’s frenzied agitprop Land in Anguish (1967), which earned worldwide acclaim, and Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s cannibalist comedy Macunaîma (1969), one of the rare films to achieve both critical and commercial success. Though no Cinema Novo film ever received as much attention as Black Orpheus, the movement has come to define Brazilian cinema, with filmmakers from Werner Herzog to Martin Scorcese citing it as a source of inspiration.


While Brazil kept churning out movies during the 1970s and ‘80s, the quality of the work suffered, thanks to the county’s political situation. Many of the country’s best filmmakers had been forced into exile by the military regime, so lowbrow sex comedies dominated screens. By 1989, when democratic elections were held for the first time in a quarter of a century, Brazil’s film industry was at its lowest ebb. It would take nearly a decade to recover, a period dubbed the retomada da produção, or “retake.” But with new funding systems in place, a fresh group of filmmakers eventually emerged, forging a new style of Brazilian cinema that is again grabbing international attention.

Leading the charge was Walter Salles, whose 1998 film Central Station, a road movie about the friendship between a bitter middle-aged woman and a homeless boy, drew praise around the world and earned a pair of Academy Award nominations. Central Station provided the model for a filmmaking approach that seems calculated to appeal to both domestic and international audiences. While Salles and his colleagues pack their films with exotic Brazilian locales and culturally specific details, they seek to tell universal tales of family, loss, love, and survival. Visually, their films speak in the global language of arthouse realism: atmospheric landscapes, graceful handheld camerawork, pumped-up color levels, plenty of graininess. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s 2001 film City of God epitomized this approach, and became a surprise success in Brazil and abroad, paving the way for more than a dozen Brazilian films to come out in the US since then.

Brazilian Films at the Tribeca Film Festival
Two new Brazilian features in American theaters this month, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation and Santiago, played at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, and represent the latest in a long line of compelling Brazilian work to screen at the festival. Here's a complete filmography.

American distributors’ interest in Brazilian cinema seems to be at an all-time high in early 2008, with three new features hitting theaters, plus a fourth screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Already out, Alice’s House depicts a lower-middle-class apartment in São Paulo where middle-aged manicurist Alice, played with understated naturalism by newcomer Carla Ribas, lives with her husband and teenage sons. As the tedium of their existence begins to fray the family, she finds herself tempted by the reappearance of an old flame. The adultery plot is nothing new, but Alice’s House’s depiction of average middle-class existence is a welcome departure from the gritty slums and arid desert expanses that have dominated so many recent Brazilian films.
Opening next week is The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (TFF ’07), a family drama chronicling the turbulent year of 1970 through the eyes of 12-year-old Mauro, who is consumed by Brazil’s progress towards the World Cup Final until his activist parents suddenly have to go “on vacation,” tuning his life is turned upside down. While the film may be too sentimental for some viewers, it’s nevertheless an exquisitely art-directed and photographed recreation of a fateful moment in Brazilian history. And while Afro-Brazilian and indigenous characters have often appeared in Brazilian films, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation is unique in offering a glimpse into the Jewish community of São Paulo’s Bom Retiro district, where Mauro awaits his parents’ return. 

Shifting settings to Rio de Janeiro, City of Men (opening February 29) is the feature film adaptation of the Brazilian television series of the same name. Produced by Meirelles, it’s intended as a companion piece to City of God, exploring the same culture of poverty and violence that made the 2001 film a runaway hit. Two lifelong friends fast approaching their 18th birthdays struggle with impending adulthood—one seeking his absent father while the other learns to raise a son—as gang warfare threatens to destroy the favela they call home. Director Paulo Morelli weaves the stories together and builds momentum with skill equal to Meirelles while avoiding his predecessor’s misstep of glamorizing the violence he seeks to expose. City of Men’s protagonists aren’t gang members, but rather average favelados struggling to make their own way while resisting the easy money and camaraderie of gang life.

The most impressive new Brazilian film is Joâo Moreira Salles’ documentary Santiago (TFF ’07), which will screen as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s annual Documentary Fortnight later this month. Director Salles—Walter’s brother—began working on the film more than 15 years ago by recording interviews with his well-to-do family’s charismatic butler. After abandoning the project for a dozen years, Salles returned to the footage, seeking to reflect on both the servant, now deceased, and the naivete with which he himself had previously approached filmmaking. What initially seems like merely a charming portrait of an eccentric old man ultimately reveals itself as a critical examination of the inescapable power relationships between employer and employee, and between documentary filmmaker and subject.     


Though a black-and-white essay film like Santiago will never receive a wide release, it signals a new period of Brazilian cinema, one that can support popular, arthouse, and avant-garde styles. The flurry of February releases isn’t an aberration either—the Weinstein Company just picked up Elite Squad, Bus 174 director José Padilla’s new film about the violent clashes between Rio police and drug cartels, which was a box office and bootleg sensation in Brazil. Meanwhile, Salles is readying his first Brazilian filim since 2001, Linha de Passe, about a group of brothers in São Paulo, and last summer the always-ambitious Meirelles filmed his English-language adaptation of Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago’s acclaimed 1995 novel Blindness.

Production in Brazil is once at again at a fever pitch, with more than 70 films produced there last year. And while it’s unlikely that Brazilian cinema will ever dominate American arthouses, it’s exciting to see so many of the most accomplished new works get some screen time. And with the temptation so high for successful foreign directors to set up shop in Hollywood, it’s refreshing to see that filmmakers like Salles and Meirelles remain interested in making Brazilian films. If the country’s film industry continues to grow, providing opportunities for new filmmakers and original projects, perhaps Brazil will even produce a film of its own to rival Black Orpheus in the global consciousness.


In New York, Alice's House is currently playing at the Angelika Film Center. The Year My Parents Went on Vacation opens February 15 at City Cinemas Village East, and City of Men opens February 29 at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Santiago will screen February 24 at MoMA as part of the museum's Documentary Fortnight series. The screening is co-presented by Cinema Tropical, an essential resource for New Yorkers interested in Brazilian and other Latin American film, as part of their Janeiro in New York mini-festival.


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