Vinícius de Oliveira and Fernanda Montenegro in Central
(1998), an international hit for Brazilian director
Walter Salles.

Moviemaking came to Brazil only seven months after
the first projection in Paris by the Lumi?re Brothers. The first
public showing-via the “omnigraph”-took place in Rio de Janeiro
on July 8, 1896. The first shoot was apparently footage taken in
the summer of 1898 by an Italian immigrant, Affonso Segreto, arriving
in Rio by sea. He filmed Bulwarks and Warships in
Guanabara Bay. Gifted with one of the most spectacular natural harbors
in the world, it’s fitting that Rio was fated to become the first
‘location’ in the saga of Brazilian film. The development of moviemaking
in Brazil is a saga, a rich and varied tale of big dreams, rising
and falling with the shifting tides of the country’s mercurial destiny.
Happily, the country’s cinema is now returning to top form as a
new generation of talent offers up some of the finest work produced
for the domestic screen in years.

“Brazilian cinema,” says veteran director Carlos Diegues,
“is very similar to Brazil itself.” Diegues, who began making movies
in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1960s as a member of the country’s
Cinema Novo movement, is one of Brazil’s living masters. “The movie
industry in Brazil sort of lives in cycles-periods where we are
vocal, excited and optimistic-and then suddenly something happens
and Brazilian cinema disappears. During the 1970s we lived in what
may be considered a ‘golden age’ between the Brazilian movie industry
and its audience.” These periods of rising and falling fortunes
point to an ongoing commitment to cinema which Brazilian artists
have never fully relinquished. The thread of domestic moviemaking
in this diverse country-a country which houses a rich mosaic of
cultures and landscapes-coils back to the silent era, revealing
many high points along the way.

The first so-called belle ?poque of Brazilian cinema
was between 1908 and 1911. It was then that the first cycle of films
was unwound, supported by a solid system of distribution and exhibition.
Production was not centered in any one place just yet, and moved
among the regions.

The 1920s saw Luiz de Barros begin a prolific career
as director, writer, editor, cinematographer and more. Humberto
Mauro, who is largely recognized as the country’s first great director,
came of age in the later part of the decade. In 1930, journalist
Adhemar Gonzaga left the magazine trade to set up Cin?dia, the first
significant national studio; it was a venture that ultimately did
not last. But the high point of this period is represented by Limit
(1931), made by 21-year old M?rio Peixoto and considered by many
to be a treasure of international cinema.

Then came sound, bringing a period of musical comedies
laced with slapstick. Though, overall, it was not a period of great
movies, director Humberto Mauro did manage to make some important
pictures in the 1940s. Ultimately, attempts to create a studio system
like the ones that existed in the U.S. and Europe were unworkable,
and by the mid-1950s moviemakers turned their attention to the production
of low-budget, independent pictures. Like many countries, Brazil
has in a way been blessed with certain limitations-barriers that
have often given rise to creativity. Brazilian moviemakers have
become masters of the essential. Carlos Diegues laughs about this
perennial predicament, which largely remains a fact of life for
Brazilian producers. “We never have had huge budgets in film. We
were making Dogme films before Dogme existed. For us Dogme is not
a theory, but a necessity. In Brazil we never make the films we
dream of making; we make the films we can make. We don’t make the
ideal films; we make the possible films. It’s kind of a style.”

Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1980) displays a
genuine love of the Brazilian people, an attitude that pervades
the work of most Brazilian directors.

In the 1950s this ‘style’ was given a boost, in part
by what was happening in Italy. The films of Rossellini, Antonioni
and De Sica made a powerful impression on Brazil’s nascent film
community. A series of pivotal pictures were made in the 1950s that
responded to the wake-up call of the new Italian masters. Needle
in a Haystack
(1953) by Alex Viany, The Road (1957) by
Oswaldo Sampaio and The Great Moment (1958) by Roberto Santos
are a few of the better titles. The energy of these films was felt
far north of Rio in the state of Bahia, where several pictures were

One of Bahia’s rising stars was a young man named
Glauber Rocha. Rocha formed links with like-minded film enthusiasts
in Rio-including Diegues, Arnaldo Jabor, David Neves, Leon Hirszman,
Ruy Guerra and Joaquim Pedro de Andrade-and the Cinema Novo movement
was born. “We didn’t have a leader as such,” recalls Diegues, “but
we had a master: Nelson Pereira dos Santos.”

Dos Santos, who was 10 to 12 years older than most
of the others in that circle (and is still making movies at the
age of 74) started directing films in the 1950s. “He made the famous
Rio, 40 Degrees (1955),” adds Diegues, “which is an icon
of Brazilian cinema. We loved that movie.”

Stirred by a passion for cinema and very much alive
with the fever of their times, Brazilian moviemakers created a succession
of powerful films dealing with the often explosive social and political
realities of their beautiful country. Results were mixed, and some
of their efforts would seem na?ve and awkward from a contemporary
vantage point. But there is an undeniable ambition and vitality
in the work of Brazilian directors around this time. This was a
period of courageous and original moviemaking, as film artists began
to bring the story of Brazil back to its people. Movies like Rocha’s
Black God, White Devil, Guerra’s The Fun and dos Santos’
Barren Lives were all made in 1963 and 1964.

In the early 1960s, Brazil experienced an extraordinary
flowering of cultural expression in all the arts, particularly cinema,
literature and music. “Cinema Novo was a continuation of what modernism
was for literature,” Brazilian cinematographer Affonso Beato points
out. Beato entered the industry at the time and shot several pictures
for the Cinema Novo crowd. “In the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, we had people
trying to do American style cinema in Brazil. After the war we were
influenced by different cinemas: by American and French cinema and
by Italian neorealism.” It was a time when Brazilian artists were
beginning to find their own voice and assert an identity that could
draw inspiration from the outside, but was still confident enough
to tell its own stories and express its own views. Moviemakers in
Brazil were spreading their wings.

“For us Dogme is not a theory, but a necessity. In Brazil
we never make the films we dream of making;
we make the films we can make. We don’t make the ideal
films; we make the possible films. It’s kind of a style.”

This momentum wasn’t helped by the installation of
a military dictatorship in 1964, a tragic downturn in the nation’s
evolution which nevertheless did not initially manage to silence
all creativity. The first response from moviemakers was to move
their cameras away from the universe outside of Rio and Sao Paulo-from
the regions-and focus on what was happening in the cities. Diegues’
The Big City, Paulo C?sar Saraceni’s The Challenge,
Gustavo Dahl’s Brave Warrior and Rocha’s Land in Anguish
stand out from this second front by the Cinema Novo. When censorship
and political oppression intensified in 1968, the Cinema Novo moved
into its last and most allegorical phase with films like Brazil
, A Very Crazy Asylum and Pindorama, in an
attempt to get around the limitations placed on expression. Other
directors chose to go into exile in Europe.

Ironically, it was the military government, in an
appeal to nationalism, that put some incentives in effect in the
1970s to spur production on. For about a decade there was relative
peace and prosperity in the industry. The box office hit, Dona
Flor and Her Two Husbands
, directed by Bruno Barreto and starring
Sonia Braga, was released in 1976. “We occupied 35 to 40 percent
of the market share,” recalls Diegues. “We were making about 100
films a year-a lot for a Latin American movie industry.” Some of
this success was due to erotic, low-budget comedies that were popular
in the major cities, but the masters of the Cinema Novo remained
active. The open sore of street children-an ongoing problem in Brazil-was
put on screen by Hector Babenco with Pixote (1980). For all
its shortcomings, the moviemaker’s tender and compassionate stance
toward the subject is clear, and is indicative of a general attitude
that pervades the work of Brazilian directors: a genuine love of
the Brazilian people.

Things went bust in the early 1980s, when the country’s
first democratically elected president in 20 years, Fernando Collor,
extinguished the protections which had been put in place for the
industry, in the name of free market economics. “In 10 years,” recalls
Diegues, “we went from 100 films a year to four or five.” But there
is a kind of justice in the world: Collor was impeached several
years later, and the gentleman who replaced him, President Fernando
Henrique Cardoso, has been a friend to the industry ever since.
His government brought in a system of laws which allows private
investors and corporations tax deductions for film investments.

We are now witnessing a rebirth of Brazilian cinema,
with a promising new generation (and a few of the veterans) making
some great pictures; pictures that meet and sometimes surpass international
norms. Directors like Walter Salles, Andrucha Waddington and Beto
Brant are making their marks with surprising panache. All relatively
new to narrative moviemaking-though most have assisted one or more
of the Cinema Novo directors-they are doing masterful turns behind
the camera.

José Wilker and Sonia Braga in Dona Flor and Her
Two Husbands

Walter Salles’ picture, Central Station (1998),
was the first big hit for a Brazilian moviemaker in years. The film
has become the flagship of a new generation. It won prizes at Cannes
and Berlin and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film-and
it was a hit on the home front. More impressive even than the wonderful
cinematography and generally high level of craft that the picture
exhibits is its sensitive treatment of complex characters and themes.
Very much representative of a new chapter in Brazilian cinema, it
also carries forward some great traditions from the Cinema Novo:
the inspired use of real locations and non-professional actors.
Salles’ latest picture, Behind the Sun, was quickly snatched
up by Miramax and will be released in North America this fall.

Andrucha Waddington’s Me You Them (2000), which
also saw wide distribution, is a charming, poignant picture that
loves its characters, but at a certain distance, allowing their
story to unfold at its own measured tempo, never stooping toward
forced or tidy resolutions. The actual resolution of the film is,
in fact, beautifully enigmatic. Beto Brant’s The Trespasser
(2001) is another new film that’s winning praise. Comments Diegues,
“I think that these new movies are very much representative of what
Brazil is today; very much involved with the social and political
realities of Brazil.” Diegues is a big fan of the new talent. “We
are turning back to Brazilian themes and trying to understand what
we are and what is happening in the country-not only socially speaking,
but also ethically and morally.”

The Cinema Novo generation of Brazilian moviemakers
can point to the fact that, whatever setbacks they may have suffered
along the way, their passion and commitment set the stage for this
new stage of growth. “I’m very proud of Cinema Novo,” Diegues concludes.
“We were very young-22, 23 years old-when we met each other in the
university in Rio. What brought us together was our love of movies.
We dreamed of making movies about Brazil because there was no industry
in Brazil at all. That passion for films plus our interest, our
curiosity, about Brazil kept us going-discovering our own country
through movies.” MM