Best in the World: Brazil

RvR’s world cinema expert Lord Ian O’Itall has seen every film ever made, ever. With the release of the bright, colourful, vibrant, funny, kid-friendly Rio, Lord Ian takes a look at the top five Brazilian films, and reveals why Rio is not exactly typical of the country’s cinema…

5. Terra em Transe (Land In Anguish/Land Entranced) [1963]

The ambiguity of the English title tells us a lot about this film from the Cinema Novo stable whose leading light was Glauber Rocha. He was at the forefront of a new, experimental movement in Brazilian cinema, but before you say it, it’s not all bad. His films are engrossing and important works that held political critique and social commentary at their heart, inspiring almost every Brazilian filmmaker of note ever since. Though his earlier Cannes-nominated film Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun) is considered by many to be his masterpiece, this Orwellian look at the absurdity of politics and the masses who swallow whole whatever partisan rhetoric thrown at them is deemed most palatable tops it. It’s the type of film you would get from a script by Charles Dickens directed by Sergei Eisenstein, following a poet-journalist in a fictitious but thinly-veiled nation of Eldorado as he sways between the powerful influences of two opposing politicians and finds himself confounded by the sheer absurdity of what he sees – being said, acted upon, and taken as given by the vast majority. It’s a little over-emphasised at times, and it may not find itself on repeat viewing, but it’s a film you’ve just got to see at least once.

4. Abril Despedacado (Behind The Sun) [2001]

If Rocha is the Big Daddy of Brazilian cinema, Walter Salles is the Golden Boy. The story of a young man caught in an ongoing family feud and torn between his duty and his sense of what is right is masterfully depicted in a stunningly beautiful story that plays out as if Hamlet has wandered into Romeo and Juliet while working on a sugar mill in the middle of rural Brazil, straight after watching Nick Cave’s The Proposition. It’s got a beautiful setting, brilliantly captured by excellent cinematography, beautiful people (you need a map and compass at the ready not to get lost in Rodrigo Santoro’s eyes), and a heartwarming message of love and forgiveness over vengeance and hate, with an ending that ultimately shows the futility of violence. Walter Salles captured the sights, sounds and smells of his surroundings so well you can almost taste the sugar and the hot, dry air, but at the same time he hammers home his message with stark imagery that illustrates how unfitting ugly acts are in such a beautiful world. The fact that this film was adapted from an Albanian novel and transported to exotic Brazil shows that while some people may be more beautiful than others, we can all be as ugly as sin.

3. Cidade de Deus (City Of God) [2002]

Yes, it’s basically a Brazilian Boyz N The Hood, a South American Menace II Society, but even if it’s been seen before in countless Hollywood storylines, City Of God is still a great, stylish film, and for most people their introduction to Brazilian cinema, and for that reason alone it deserves to be on this list. Adapted from a novel by Paolo Lins, directors Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund take us on a disjointed, fast-paced Scorsese-style tour through the favelas of Rio, showing within this poverty-stricken slum the difficulties faced by those trying to escape the ever-present threat of violence and the ruthless and inevitably short life of a criminal there. What makes it remarkable is that almost the entire cast is made up of real favela-dwellers, not actors, and most of them do a brilliant job to flesh out memorable characters. None more so than the child hoodlums turned gang bosses and coca-eeeen dealers, Benny – the coolest gangster you could ever meet – and Lil’ Ze – the ugliest Brazilian since Stevie Wonder did his wife’s bikini line. It was nominated for a whole host of Oscars but came away empty-handed, somewhat unfairly, but then you could argue it is in some ways simply an updated version of earlier crime movie Pixote, and you might be right, which is why it isn’t higher up this list.

2. Onibus 174 (Bus 174) [2002]

You can’t escape films dealing with the bloody effects of a life lived in poverty-stricken conditions when it comes to Brazilian cinema, and this documentary is one of the finest examples of how the desperation felt by those simply left outside the system can lead to horrific violence and tragedy. Having witnessed his mother being killed in front of him as a boy, Sandro di Nascimento was left homeless, and survived the infamous Candelana massacre of the early 1990s when the police murdered countless street children, only to be sent to a reform unit where the conditions were beyond atrocious. When he left an understandably angry young man, he turned to a life of petty crime, with no other path to take, and this message is hammered home in the interviews that intersperse the drama in this harrowing tale of seriously bad social injustice. After a bungled robbery, Jardim hijacks a bus in the wealthy suburb of Jardim Botanico and threatens to kill everybody on board in a cry for help and a futile attempt at escape. The whole event was caught on camera and watched by record TV audiences as it unfolded, with the police making dreadful errors that led to an inevitably violent conclusion. It’s tough and gritty, but brilliantly shot, interspersing the hijack footage with interviews with those who knew Jardim and those involved in the tragic event of that day – it makes for compelling viewing. The opening shot sums up Brazil in a quite brilliant nutshell – a high-angle overhead view of the stunningly beautiful beaches of Rio, the mountains looming over them, gliding over the wealthier suburbs before zooming in on one of the world’s biggest slums, slap bang in the middle of all this beauty and wealth. It shows in no uncertain terms how the cripplingly poor have to live so close to wealth and beauty, and yet so far away socially, making the Brazil we would recognise seem a world away to those who live on its doorstep.

1. Central do Brasil (Central Station) [1998]

This lovely, bittersweet film was a Brazilian-French co-production, and you can smell the Gallic influence all over it. Where poverty and hard lives are depicted as always, there is a certain tender melancholy to the story that eases the harsh realities of living without money or hope and lifts this into the world of touching drama. It’s an offbeat road movie of sorts, but unlike any other you will see. The relationship between a boy searching for his long-lost father after his mother is killed outside a train station and the bitter old woman who takes care of him for her own selfish reasons is at times tragic and unsettling, but it’s also wonderfully told by that man Walter Salles, who once again manages to make the simple, everyday and mundane appear as beautiful as the picture postcard images we call up in our minds when we think of Brazil. The chemistry between the boy and the old woman is stunningly believable and their bickering is funny and disarmingly charming, leaving you by the end with a sort of joyous sorrow and a major lump in your throat. But Salles never shies away from dealing with the issues of social injustice and poverty, and subtly highlights the deplorable actions of those trying to take advantage of those in dire need of help. – the older woman, gives the boy to an adoption agency, but has to rescue him soon after when she discovers all they want is his organs. It is at times as sweet as papaya, and at others as prickly as, well, a prickly pear, but it is simple yet effective, plain yet beautiful, stark yet funny, and is a delightful film your heart and soul will thank you for seeing. Outstanding.



2 Responses to “Best in the World: Brazil”

  1. Damn… I’ve only seen City of God… It’s one of my favorite movie though 🙂

  2. lordianoitall Says:

    It’s a good one. If you like City Of God, try get your hands on Pixote (though it may be difficult) – it’s more or less the same story told 20 years earlier
    but definitely watch central station when you can

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