The secret history of Brazilian resistance cinema

We chart the hidden underground of Brazil's innately political cinematic consciousness

Bus 174 (Jose Padilha)

Think of Brazilian cinema and you probably think of 2002's City of God (Cidade de Deus), but whilst Meirelles’ film was the first for a long time to achieve success on such a global scale, it is part of a long tradition of socially conscious, political and really good cinema being made in Brazil. In the 1960s, Brazil attracted attention internationally with "Cinema Novo", a movement inspired by Italian Neorealism, and intended as a cinema that was uniquely Brazilian – rebelling against foreign dominance in the film market, to awaken Brazilian people to their repression and incite them to resist. Since then, the political has never quite left Brazilian cinema. Coming out of a country that, in all its diversity, is impossible to pinpoint culturally, Brazilian cinema is rich in variety, but can be classified as a cinema of resistance. We’ve compiled a list of some of the best moments in Brazil’s cinematic resistance.

VIDAS SECAS (BARREN LIVES) – NELSON PEREIRA DOS SANTOS (1963)

A realist portrayal of an impoverished family struggling to survive in Brazil’s arid Northeast region, a setting that became a trope in Brazilian cinema. The unforgiving aesthetic was a rebellion against the exoticised image of Brazil perpetuated in the musical comedies (chanchadas) popular at the time. In Barren Lives, Dos Santos, sometimes called the pope of "Cinema Novo", laid bare the country’s corrupt and inescapable hierarchies. It was intended as a mirror to the common man but, despite doing well internationally, ultimately failed to reach its audience at home.

Barren Lives (Nelson Pereira dos Santos)
Nelson Pereira dos Santos

TERRA EM TRANSE (ENTRANCED EARTH) – GLAUBER ROCHA (1967)

In 1964, a coup overthrew the Brazilian government, beginning a 20-year period of authoritarian military dictatorship. The left-wing Cinema Novistas entered a period of disillusionment that, combined with new censorship restrictions, forced a change in artistic approach. The result was films like Rocha’s Entranced Earth, the fictional story of Paulo Martins, said to represent Rocha himself, a politically confused poet, part activist, part oppressor. Rocha exposed hypocrisy and futility in the mind of the Brazilian left. Later, Rocha supported the military regime – something that, as one of the Cinema Novo founders, was so shocking many of his peers assumed he’d gone mad.

ESTA NOITE ENCARNARAEI NO TEU CADAVER (THIS NIGHT I WILL POSSESS YOUR CORPSE) – JOSE MOJICA MARINS (1967)

Welcome to the strange world of Coffin Joe, a long-nailed, cape-wearing horror icon created and played by B-movie director Marins. In This Night I Will Posses Your Corpse, the second in the Coffin Joe trilogy, the rapist and murderer Coffin Joe continues his quest for a woman evil enough to sire his son. Joe kidnaps beautiful women and subjects them to a series of tests of courage. All culminates in a psychedelic trip to a technicolour hell (the rest of the film is in black and white). With small budgets and dire production values, Marins’ films are entertaining in their ridiculousness, but are also astute critiques on Brazilian society, on poverty and the repression caused by common religious fanaticism. The nihilist Coffin Joe is an emblem of patriarchal repression. Marins, who is known even now to wander about in full Coffin Joe attire, is a controversial figure, apparently subjecting his cast to tests and games that bordered on torture. In one scene, Joe lets lose hundreds of poisonous spiders onto his sleeping brides, which was rumored to be un-staged. The screams are real. Somehow this makes the whole thing even more enjoyable.

COPACABANA MON AMOR (COPACABANA MY LOVE) – ROGERIO SGANZERLA (1970)

Big time rebels of Brazilian cinema, Sganzerla and Júlio Bressane founded the Belair production company in 1970 in opposition to their Cinema Novo peers who alienated the public with an over-intellectual approach. With a free-spirited, improvisational style that has been likened to free jazz, Belair released three features in a matter of months. In Copacabana My Love, a prostitute called Sonia Silk wanders Rio’s beaches, crossing an array of Brazilian social stereotypes, including her panty-sniffing gay brother. Kitsch, sexy, totally deranged and often baffling, it is a critique on the misrepresentation of Brazilian cultural identity and on dysfunction in that society. Musical legend and political activist Gilberto Gil made the film’s soundtrack. The film was rejected by left-wing cinema purists and the military-right, was banned, like many Belair productions, and Sganzerla and co. were exiled.

Copacabana My Love (Rogerio Sganzerla)
Rogerio Sganzerla

A QUEDA (THE FALL)OS FUZIS (THE GUNS) – RUY GUERRA (1976 & 1964)

Two tales of resistance in the lives of the same set of characters, one set a decade after the other. In The Fall, Mario, a construction worker in São Paulo, fights his bosses after a friend and fellow worker falls to his death on the job. Using innovative documentary and fiction elements, Guerra exposed the unbridgeable gap between the authorities and the common working man, whose lives are at the mercy of the former.

Nelson Xavier in The Fall (Ruy Guerra)
Ruy Guerra

A OPÇÃO (AS ROSAS DA ESTRADA) (THE OPTION (ROSES ON THE HIGHWAY)) – OZUALDO RIBEIRO CANDELAS (1981)

Truck driver turned filmmaker Candeias was a real-life marginal who fought the oppression of the Brazilian lower class. In The Option, a group of women from the northeast decide to become prostitutes and move to the city. An unrestrained picture of rural life, where prostitution is inevitable rather than an “option”, the film is wild, messy and technically shoddy, in the best way possible. An experimental and inventive filmmaker, once making a film where all dialogue was replaced by the sounds of animals and birds (A Herança (1970), Candeias combined fiction with documentary, which became a trend in Brazilian national cinema.

The Option (Ozualdo Ribeiro Candeias)
Ozualdo Ribeiro Candeias

BOCA DE LIXO (THE SCAVENGERS) – EDUARDO COUTINHO (1990)

The Collor government (1990-1992) saw the withdrawal of funding in many areas of Brazilian society, including cultural, leading to the closing of Embrafilme, which had been the national production and distribution house, in 1990. In Collor’s short government, film production in Brazil pretty much stopped. The recovery period that did eventually begin, dubbed the Retomada, saw the return of political themes, and the unexpected rise in popularity of documentary film. Eduardo Coutinho, who was tragically killed earlier this year, was the country’s leading documentarian, releasing 20 films confronting the realities of life in Brazil. In The Scavengers, Coutinho turns his cinema verité eye to the garbage dumps outside São Paulo, where some of the country’s poorest live, making their living selling scraps dug out of Brazil’s disease-ridden waste mountains. The Scavengers reveals Brazil through what it throws away, including the socially discarded scavenging people. The film confronts Brazilian inequality, whilst retaining the humanity of its subjects who themselves frequently take control in the film, guiding Coutinho’s reportage, consciously proving their own dignity and validity in society, and resisting the common public perception that says otherwise.

ÔNIBUS 174 (BUS 174) – JOSÉ PADILHA (2002)

Documentary about a real-life hijacking of a bus in Rio de Janeiro in 2000. The incident was broadcast live by Rio’s media which, through the shambolic approach of an incompetent police force, had constant access to the bus and to the hijacker, Sandro Nascimento, and which became central to the incident as it progressed. Padilha’s film is both a document of Nascimento’s act of rebellion against the media and public who marginalize him and those like him, and a protest in itself against the media that perpetuate social inequality in Rio, and in wider Brazil, with scandalized portrayals of the country’s marginalized class.

O PRISONEIRO DA GRADE DE FERRO (THE PRISONER OF THE IRON BARS) – PAULO SACRAMENTO (2003)

Continuing the documentary trend, The Prisoner of the Iron Bars visits the Carandiru prison, an institution that became infamous following a massacre in 1992, where police murdered 111 inmates during a riot. Realising the bias of his middle-class upbringing, Sacramento gave his cameras to the prisoners, trained them up, and let them speak for themselves. The prisoners accept the task with relish, showing the occasional joys and frequent inhumanities of life in this most despicable of Brazilian jails, with insight and access Sacramento could never have had. The prisoners use the camera like a megaphone, talking directly to the audience beyond the iron bars, protesting their oppression.

The Prisoner of the Iron Bars (Paulo Sacramento)
Paulo Sacramento

FEBRE DE RATO (RAT FEVER) – CLAUDIO ASSIS (2011)

Set in modern day Recife, Rat Fever is the anarchic love story of Zizo, a poet and political polemicist who spends his time working on a self-published anarchist zine, screwing his elderly neighbours, and reciting poetry to his bohemian outcast friends. The arrival of the beautiful Aeneid and her refusal to make love to him sends Zizo into a frenzy of lust and self-disillusion. Though, at its core, Rat Fever is a love story, Zizo is a pure anarchist and the film culminates in a protest that, though small in scale, is grand in gesture, where Zizo and his band of weirdos chant for the progress of anarchy and sex and to the end of their repression. 

WHAT'S NEXT?

Many of the filmmakers in this list are dead now. Others have moved away from Brazil professionally, for example José Padilha, who directed the Hollywood re-make of Robocop released earlier this year. Resistance has definitely become less prominent in Brazilian film, especially in fiction. This probably has something to do with its greater presence internationally, with films like Futuro Beach (Karim Ainouz) doing well in the festival circuit this year, and there being less of a sense of Brazilian film being under-appreciated and basically ignored globally. It also probably has a lot to do with a greater influence of Globo Organizations, which runs Brazil’s biggest TV network, in the country's film production. But the current protest movement shows that resistance is still a part of the Brazilian conscience and documentary filmmakers have inevitably been recording this resistance as it progresses. Last year MUDA, an audiovisual collective of politically activists, released online, in collaboration with Samsara films, Beneath 20 Cents (Gustavo Canzian & Marco Guasti), recounting the protests that took place in São Paulo last year over a rise in bus fares. MUDA continues to produce short independent documentaries as the protests against injustice in the city and in Brazil continue. So, even if the commercial film market and its directors are steering away from the political, Brazilian resistance cinema continues, with the camera in the hands of the Brazilian people engaging in and spreading their own message of resistance. Which is exactly what those "Cinema Novo" guys were preaching about all those years ago. 

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