Cinema Novo (and similar movements in theater and popular music) grew out of a process of cultural renovation which began as early as 1955, coinciding with the election of Juscelino Kubitschek as President of Brazil. The period of his presidency was somewhat atypical in terms of the general tendencies of Brazilian political life since the Revolution of 1930 when Getúlio Vargas took power; atypical, especially, in its relative stability. Kubitschek was the only civilian President in the 1930-1964 period to remain in office, legally, through his designated term. His administration, characterized by economic expansion and industrialization, was stable for several reasons, but primarily because he managed to unite the Brazilian people behind a common ideology: developmentalism.
Developmentalism must be seen in the context of the longer political tradition of Brazilian populism. This tradition goes back at least as far as Getúlio Vargas, who became president in 1930, who decreed the corporatist New State in 1937, and who was deposed by the military in 1945, only to be elected president in 1950, finally governing until his suicide in 1954. Populism employed a quasi-socialist language but in fact constituted, in Hélio Jaguaribe’s words, a kind of capitalism which had a certain ability to incorporate the masses and redistribute income. (9) A powerful catalyst for popular mobilization, populism was also an effective way of controlling and defusing social and political conflict. It generated popular support by promising a more just distribution of the benefits of development. But since these benefits were not in fact distributed equally, populism had to rely on demagoguery and simplistic slogans. The Kubitschek government, for example, fanned nationalist sentiment, but based its economic policy on foreign investment.
The Kubitschek administration’s open-handed generosity to foreign investors increasingly alienated the left, and the end of Kubitschek’s presidency was marked by vocal opposition from many sectors. By 1959, virtually all governmental crises revolved around economic questions such as inflation — one result of developmentalist policies — and the role of foreign capital in the nation’s economy. The middle class became increasingly politicized, and power became consolidated in the hands of the industrial bourgeoisie. In the Northeast, Peasant Leagues led by Francisco Julião pressed for agrarian reform.
We are dealing, then, with a period of apparent economic expansion based on foreign investment, a period of political militancy, strong nationalist sentiments and increasing social polarization. The Kubitschek years and the early sixties were essentially optimistic; Brazil, it was felt, was on the verge of escaping underdevelopment. The ultra-modern architecture of Brasilia symbolizes the euphoric mentality of the period. The euphoria subsided as deeply-rooted class antagonisms resurfaced and the veneer of populism began to wear thin. In the early Sixties, Goulart, under intense popular pressure, moved to the left, thus alienating the bourgeoisie and its foreign allies, both of which felt threatened by labor militancy, agrarian reform, and new legislation controlling the profits of multinational corporations. These events culminated in the U.S.-supported coup d’etat in 1964.
For the purposes of this general overview, we will break down the Cinema Novo movement into several phases, each corresponding to a specific period of Brazilian political life. After a preparatory period running roughly from 1954 to 1960, we see three main phases: a first phase going from 1960 to 1964, the date of the first coup d’etat; from 1964 to 1968, the date of the second coup, within-the-coup; and from 1963 to 1972. After 1972, it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of Cinema Novo; one must speak, rather, of Brazilian Cinema. This latter period is marked by esthetic pluralism under the auspices of the state organ Embrafilme. While such a posteriori divisions are artificial and problematic, they are also broadly useful, because they illustrate the inseparable connection between political struggle and cultural production. While on one level Cinema Novo remained faithful to its initial project — to present a progressive and critical vision of Brazilian society — on another, its political strategies and esthetic options were profoundly inflected by political events.
The first signs of a new awakening in Brazilian cinema occurred several years before the official beginnings of the movement, specifically with Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ RIO 40 GRAUS (RIO 40 DEGREES, 1955). Its independent production and its critical stance toward established social structures marked a decisive step toward a new kind of cinema. It is difficult to overestimate the contribution of Nelson Pereira dos Santos to Brazilian cinema. His practical contribution to the formation of Cinema Novo includes, besides RIO 40 GRAUS, the film RIO ZONA NORTE (RID NORTHERN ZONE, 1957), the production of Roberto Santos’ O GRANDE MOMENTO (THE GREAT MOMENT, 1958), and the editing of several early Cinema Novo films like Rocha’s BARRAVENTO (THE TURNING WIND*, 1962) and Leon Hirszman’s PEDREIRA DE SÃO DIOGO (SÃO DIOGO QUARRY, 1961). The latter was incorporated into the feature-length CINCO VEZES FAVELA (FAVELA FIVE TIMES, 1961), an early landmark of Cinema Novo, produced by the leftist Centers for Popular Culture of the National Students’ Union, whose goal was to create through cultural production a link with the working class. [More important, dos Santos became a kind of generous presiding spirit, the “conscience,” in Glauber Rocha’s words, of Cinema Novo.
The initial phase of Cinema Novo extends from 1960 to 1964, including films completed or near completion when the military overthrew João Goulart on April 1, 1964. It is in this period that Cinema Novo coalesced as a movement, making its first feature films and formulating its political and esthetic ideas. The journal Metropolitano of the Metropolitan Students’ Union became a forum for critics like David Neves and Sérgio Augusto and for filmmakers like Rocha and Diegues. The directors shared their opposition to commercial Brazilian cinema, to Hollywood films and Hollywood esthetics, and to Brazilian cinema’s colonization by Hollywood distribution chains. In their desire to make independent non-industrial films they drew on two foreign models: Italian Neo-Realism, for its use of non-professional actors and location shooting, and the French New Wave, not so much for its thematics or esthetics, but rather as a production strategy. While scornful of the politics of the New Wave — “We were making political films when the New Wave was still talking about unrequited love,” Rui Guerra once said — they borrowed its strategy of low-budget independently-produced films based on the talent of specific auteurs. Most important, these directors saw filmmaking as political praxis, a contribution to the struggle against neocolonialism. Rather than exploit the tropical paradise conviviality of chanchada, or the just-like-Europe classiness of Vera Cruz, the Cinema Novo directors searched out the dark corners of Brazilian life — the favelas (slums) and the sertao (backlands) — the places where Brazil’s social contradictions appeared most dramatically.
The most important films of the first phase of Cinema Novo include CINCO VEZES FAVELA (FAVELA TIMES FIVE); the short ARRAIAL DO CABO (1960) and the feature PORTO DAS CAIZAS (THE PORT OF CAIXAS, 1962) by Paulo César Saraceni; BARRAVENTO (1962) and DEUS E O DIABO NA TERRA DO SOL (BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL*, 1964) by Glauber Rocha; OS CAFAGESTES (THE HUSTLERS, 1962) and OS FUZIS (THE GUNS, 1964), by Mozambican-born Rui Guerra; GANGA ZUMBA* (1963), by Carlos Diegues, and VIDAS SECAS (BARREN LIVES*, 1963), by Nelson Pereira dos Santos.
The films of this phase deal typically, although not exclusively, with the problems confronting the urban and rural lumpen-proletariat: starvation, violence, religious alienation and economic exploitation. The films share a certain political optimism, characteristic of the developmentalist years, but due as well to the youth of the directors, a kind of faith that merely showing these problems would be a first step toward their solution. BARRAVENTO exposed the alienating role of religion in a fishing community. THE GUNS and BARREN LIVES dealt with the oppression of peasants by landowners, while BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL demystified the twin alienations of millennial cults (the black god) and of apolitical cangaceiro violence (the white devil). GANGA ZUMBA memorialized the 17th Century slave republic of Palmares and called, by historical analogy, for a revolt of the oppressed against their oppressors. Made for the people by an educated, middle-class, radical elite, these films occasionally transmitted a paternalistic vision of the Brazilian masses. In BARRAVENTO, as critic Jean-Claude Bernardet points out, political salvation comes from the city; it is not generated by the community. Esthetically, these “sad, ugly, desperate films” showed a commitment to what Rocha’s manifesto called “An Esthetic of Hunger,” combining slow, reflexive rhythms with uncompromising, often harsh, images and sounds.
The second phase of Cinema Novo extends from 1964 to the “coup-within-the-coup” of 1968. The military takeover and its subsequent hardening constituted an historical cataclysm, which left democratic institutions and the political style of populism in ruins. Between 1964 and 1968, the military junta expelled radical members of congress, decreed indirect elections, banned all existent political parties, and created two new parties (often referred to by Brazilians as the “Yes” and “Yes, Sir” parties), and deprived many Brazilians of their political rights. Democratic forms were replaced by authoritarian military rule; the social gains of the previous era were reversed; laws were signed assuring foreign corporations high profits; and Alliance for Progress money, withheld during the Goulart period, flowed into Brazil. Due to this closing of the political system, certain sectors of the left began to favor strategies of urban and rural guerrilla warfare. (10)
Many filmmakers, not surprisingly, poked around the smoldering ruins of populism in an attempt to disentangle the causes of a disaster of such magnitude. If the films of the first phase were optimistic, those of the second phase are anguished cries of perplexity; they are analyses of failure — of populism, of developmentalism, and of leftist intellectuals. Paulo César Saraceni’s O DESAFIO (THE CHALLENGE, 1966), Rocha’s TERRA EM TRANSE (LAND IN ANGUISH*, 1967), Gustavo Dahl’s O BRAVO GUERREIRO (THE BRAVE WARRIOR, 1968), and dos San Santos’ FOME DE AMOR (HUNGER FOR LOVE*, 1968) all dissect the failures of the left. Gustavo Dahl, writing of his own BRAVO GUERREIRO, sums it up:“In O DESAFIO, in TERRA EN TRANSE, and in GUERREIRO, there wanders the same personage — a petit-bourgeois intellectual, tangled up in doubts, a wretch in crisis. He may be a journalist, a poet, a deputy, in any case he’s always perplexed, hesitating, a weak person who would like to tragically transcend his condition.”
Although the left, unprepared for armed struggle, was politically and militarily defeated in 1964, its cultural presence, paradoxically, remained strong even after the coup d’etat, exercising a kind of hegemony despite the dictatorship. Marxist books proliferated in the bookstores, anti-imperialist plays drew large audiences, and many filmmakers went from left reformism to radical critique. One senses in these films an angry disillusionment with what Roberto Schwarz calls the populist deformation of Marxism, a Marxism that was strong on anti-imperialism but weak on class struggle. The contradictory class-alliances of left populism are satirized in Rocha’s LAND IN ANGUISH, where pompous senators and progressive priests, Party intellectuals and military leaders, samba together in what Rocha calls the tragic carnival of Brazilian politics.
If the films of the first phase displayed — Glauber Rocha being the obvious exception — a commitment to realism as a style, the films of the second phase tend toward self-referentiality and anti-illusionism. While the films of the first phase tended to be rural in their setting, films of the second phase were predominantly urban. Luiz Sérgio Person’s SÃO PAULO S.A. (1965), with its punning title — S.A. means both Incorporated and Anonymous Society — deals with alienated labor and alienated love in São Paulo; Leon Hirszman’s A FALECIDA (THE DECEASED WOMAN, 1965) explores the spiritual torments of the urban middle class; and Carlos Diegues’ A GRANDE CIDADE (THE BIG CITY*, 1966) treats the fate of impoverished Northeasterners in Rio de Janeiro. At the same time, many films were drawn from Brazilian literary classics, notably: Andrade’s O PADRE E A MOCA (THE PRIEST AND THE GIRL*, 1966), based on a poem by Carlos Drurmond de Andrade; Walter Lima Jr.‘s MENINO DE ENGENHO (PLANTATION BOY*, 1966), based on a novel by Jose Lins do Rego; and Roberto Santos’ A HORA E VEZ DE AUGUSTO MATRAGA (MATRAGA*, 1966), based on a short story by Guimaráes Rosa.
During the second phase of Cinema Novo, filmmakers realized that although their cinema was “popular” in that it attempted to take the point of view of “the people,” it was not popular in the sense of having a mass audience. Although the policy of low-budget independent production seemed sound, nothing could guarantee the films’ being shown in a market dominated by North American conglomerates. If the masses were often on the screen, they were rarely in the audience. The filmmakers linked to Cinema Novo consequently began to see the making of popular films as, in Gustavo Dahl’s words, “the essential condition for political action in cinema.” (12) In cinema as in revolution, they decided, everything is a question of power, and for cinema existing within a system to which it does not adhere, power means broad public acceptance and financial success.
In their efforts to reach the public, Cinema Novo adopted a two-pronged strategy. First, with producer Luiz Carlos Barreto, they founded a distribution cooperative: Difilm. Second, they began making films with more popular appeal. Leon Hirszman’s GAROTA DE IPANEMA (THE GIRL FROM IPANEMA, 1967), the first Cinema Novo film in color and the first to attempt the new strategy, explored the myth of the sun-bronzed “girl from Ipanema” in order to demystify that very myth. Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s MACUNAÍMA (1969), however, was the first Cinema Novo film to be truly popular both in cultural and box-office terms, offering a dialectical demonstration of how to reach the public while aggressively advocating a left political vision of Brazilian society — and this in a situation of intense repression.
MACUNAÍMA is generally classified as part of the third phase of Cinema Nova, the so-called “cannibal-tropicalist” phase. (13) Tropicalism in the cinema begins around the time of the 1968 coup-within-the-coup and the promulgation of the Fifth Institutional Act (initiating an extremely repressive period of military rule) and extends roughly to the end of 1971. Because of rigorous censorship, the films of this period tended to work by political indirection often adopting allegorical forms, as in Andrade’s MACUNAÍMA, Rocha’s ANTÔNIO DAS MORTES* (1968), dos Santos’ AZYLLO MUITO LOUCO (THE ALIENIST, 1969), Guerra’s OS DEUSES E OS MORTOS (THE GODS AND THE DEAD*, 1970), Diegues’ OS HERDEIROS (THE HEIRS, 1970), dos Santos’ COMO ERA GOSTOSO MEU FRANCÊS (HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMAN*, 1970), and Jabor’s PINDORAMA (1971). An artistic response to political repression, Tropicalism, at least in the cinema, developed a coded language of revolt. THE ALIENIST, for example, made subversive use of a literary classic. Based on the novella The Alienist by Machado de Assis, it tells the story of a mad psychiatrist who constantly changes his standards for placing people in the local madhouse, a story with obvious implications for military-ruled Brazil. HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMAN, a kind of anthropological fiction, suggested that the Indians (i.e., Brazil) should metaphorically cannibalize their foreign enemies, appropriating their force without being dominated by them. At the same time it criticized the government’s present-day genocidal policies toward the Indian by making analogies to 17th Century massacres.
Tropicalism, a movement that touched music and theater as well as the cinema, emphasized the grotesque and the gaudy, bad taste and kitsch. It played aggressively with certain myths, especially the notion of Brazil as a tropical paradise characterized by colorful exuberance and tutti-fruti hats á la Carmen Miranda. The movement was not without its ambiguities. Roberto Schwarz, a Brazilian intellectual then living in Paris, interpreted the movement in an article published in Les Temps Modernes, “Remarque sur la Culture et la Politique au Brésil, 1964-1969.” Tropicalism, he suggests, emerges from the tension between the superficial “modernization” of the Brazilian economy and its archaic, colonized and imperialized core. While the Brazilian economy, after 1964, was becoming even more integrated into the world capitalist economy, the petite bourgeoisie, threatened by economic marginalization, was returning to antiquated values and old resentments.“The basic procedure of such a movement consists in submitting the anachronisms (at first glance grotesque, in reality inevitable) to the white light of the ultra-modern, presenting the result as an allegory of Brazil.”
Concurrent with the third phase of Cinema Novo, there emerged a radically different tendency — Udigrudi, the Brazilian pronunciation of “underground.” Just when Cinema Novo decided to reach out for a popular audience, the Underground opted to slap that audience in the face. If the public did not appreciate “the most interesting files on this planet,” Júlio Bressane shouted, “too bad for you, idiots” As Cinema Novo moved toward technical polish and production values, the Novo Cinema Novo, as it also came to be called, demanded a radicalization of the esthetics of hunger, rejecting the dominant codes of well-made cinema in favor of a “dirty screen” and “garbage” esthetics. A garbage style, they argued, is appropriate to a Third World country picking through the leavings of an international system dominated by monopoly capitalism. The Underground proclaimed its own isolation in the names they gave their movement: marginal cinema, subterranean cinema. Although they were intentionally marginal, identifying socially downward with rebellious lumpen characters, they were also marginalized, harassed by the censors and boycotted by exhibitors.
The movement nurtured an Oedipal love-hate relationship with Cinema Novo, at times paying homage to its early purity, while lambasting what it saw as its subsequent populist co-optation. In THE RED LIGHT BANDIT, Rogério Sganzerla symbolically puts to flame the St. George triptych from ANTONIO DAS MORTES, while he spoofs the multilayered soundtrack of LAND IN ANGUISH. Some of the important names and titles in this diverse and prolific movement are: Rogério Sganzerla’s O BANDIDO DA LUZ VERMELHA (THE RED LIGHT BANDIT, 1968); Júlio Bressane’s MATOU A FAMILIA E FOI AO CINEMA (KILLED THE FAMILY AND WENT TO THE MOVIES, 1970); João Trevisan’s ORGIA OU O HOMEM QUE DEU CRIA (ORGY, OR THE MAN WHO GAVE BIRTH, 1970); Andrea Tonacci’s BANGUE BANGUE (BANG BANG, 1971); André Luiz de Oliveira’s METEORANGO KID, O HEROI INTERGALACTICO (METEORANGO KID, INTERGALACIIC HERO, 1969); José Mojica Marins’ A MEIANOITE ENCARNAREI NO TEU CADAVER (AT MIDNIGHT I WILL INCARNATE YOUR CORPSE, 1967); Ozualdo Candeias’ MEU NONE Ê TONHO (MY NAME IS TONHO, 1969); Neville Duarte d’Almeida’s JARDIM DE GUERRA (WAR GARDEN, 1970); and Luiz Rosemberg Filho’s AMERICA DO SEXO (AMERICA OF SEX, 1970).
Toward the end of what we have called the Tropicalist phase, Cinema Novo entered into a politically-engendered crisis of creativity which reached its nadir in 1971-1972. As censorship and repression worsened, Glauber Rocha, Rui Guerra and Carlos Diegues left Brazil for Europe. As funding became more problematic, several directors undertook co-productions with other countries or financed their projects completely abroad. Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s brilliant OS INCONFIDENTES (THE CONSPIRATORS, 1972) was produced by and for Italian television. Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ QUEM Ê BETA? (WHO, IS BETA? 1973) was a co-production with France. Gustavo Dahl’s UIRÁ, UM ÍNDIO A PROCURA DE DEUS (UIRA, AN INDIAN IN SEARCH OF GOD, 1973) was a co-production with Italian television. (Robert Stam and Randal Johnson)
THE BRAVE WARRIOR
LUIZ SERGIO PERSON
SÃO PAULO S.A.
WALTER LIMA JR.
THE GIVEN WORD
05Nelson Pereira dos Santos
06Nelson Pereira dos Santos
07Nelson Pereira dos Santos
08Nelson Pereira dos Santos
11Joaquim Pedro de Andrade
12Luís Sérgio Person
13Joaquim Pedro de Andrade
14Joaquim Pedro de Andrade
15Walter Lima Jr.
16Joaquim Pedro de Andrade
24Paulo Cesar Saraceni
25Luís Sérgio Person