Have you ever noticed how even the most commercially-oriented Brazilian films somehow manage to incorporate some element of social critique? From the penetrating sociological insight of José Padilha’s Elite Squad to the sensitive reflection on poverty and crime in Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, Brazilian filmmakers seem to keep it real like no one else these days. But this isn’t by accident. In fact, one of Latin America’s greatest contributions to world cinema has been the socially-critical, anti-colonial aesthetic that sprung up from Cuba to Argentina over the course of the 1960s. While these movements were independent and stylistically diverse, they shared a radical political orientation that insisted on the importance of cinema in overcoming the region’s endemic social problems.
For its part, Brazil was the first country to start theorizing this new approach to filmmaking with a movement called Cinema Novo. Inspired by avant-garde European movements like Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave — both of which took film from the studios into the streets and broke long-established rules — young Brazilian directors like Glauber Rocha and Carlos Diegues insisted that Latin American cinema had to find its own voice rather than merely copying international trends from Hollywood or Europe.
With his 1965 manifesto, The Aesthetics of Hunger, Rocha expressed the driving sentiment behind the work he and his Cinema Novo peers had been producing since the late 50s, proclaiming: “Wherever there is a filmmaker prepared to film the truth and… stand up against commercialism, exploitation, pornography and the tyranny of technique, there is to be found the living spirit of Cinema Novo.” And indeed, this open, inclusive belief allowed for a number of different styles to develop under the umbrella of Cinema Novo.
In the movement’s earliest phase, from roughly 1960-64, Cinema Novo filmmakers focused almost exclusively on representing the social problems faced by the urban and rural poor classes, using a raw, black-and-white documentary style. Yet paradoxically, their films were hardly seen outside of the European art festival circuit. This lack of connection with the Brazilian people eventually led to a lot of self-reflection and internal debate, and ultimately gave birth to a much more flamboyant, colorful style with roots in popular folklore and deep connections with the Tropicália musical revolution being led by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.
Yet while politics was always a central concern to Cinema Novo, the more polished, traditional look of these later films was seen by some as a betrayal of the movement. Whether or not this is true, by the late 1970s Cinema Novo had essentially been absorbed into the broader concept of “Brazilian cinema” and ceased to exist as a coherent movement.
Nevertheless, 30 years later filmmakers like Walter Salles began laying the foundation for a rebirth of Brazilian cinema that consciously or unconsciously carried on the great tradition of their Cinema Novo forebears and, some could argue, finally achieved their elusive goal of creating a cinema both political and popular.
Here are some essential films.