Cinema Novo is a monumental movement that gained momentum in Brazil during the ’60s and the ’70s. It raised valid objections against the conventions of popular Brazilian cinema at the time which was mostly modelled on Hollywood epics.
Influenced by the cinematic experiments of the French New Wave and the political power of Italian neorealism, Cinema Novo filmmakers set out to create a body of work that would reflect the revolutionary desires of the common people.
In his manifesto, The Aesthetics of Hunger, Cinema Novo pioneer Glauber Rocha wrote: “Cinema Novo teaches that the aesthetics of violence are revolutionary rather than primitive. The moment of violence is the moment when the coloniser becomes aware of the existence of the colonised. Only when he is confronted with violence can the coloniser understand, through horror, the strength of the culture he exploits. As long as he does not take up arms, the colonised man remains a slave.”
Adding, “Wherever there is a filmmaker prepared to film the truth and to oppose the hypocrisy and repression of intellectual censorship, there will be the living spirit of Cinema Novo. Wherever there is a filmmaker prepared to stand up against commercialism, exploitation, pornography and the tyranny of technique, there is to be found the living spirit of Cinema Novo.”
In order to understand the unique sensibilities of this vastly influential period in the history of world cinema, we take a look at some of the indispensable works from the Novo Cinema movement.
10 essential films from the Cinema Novo movement:
Barren Lives (Nelson Pereira dos Santos – 1963)
Based on Graciliano Ramos’ eponymous 1938 novel, Barren Lives is one of the landmark achievements of the Cinema Novo movement. Set in the wasteland of northeast Brazil, it tells the story of a poor family who endure a lot of hardships in order to survive.
While looking back at his upbringing and the environment in which he grew up, the director said: “My family has humble origins. My father was a tailor and I was the fourth child. My brothers all had different professional careers. They were never thinking about literature.”
Black God, White Devil (Glauber Rocha – 1964)
Another masterpiece from that period, Black God, White Devil is a fascinating sociocultural exploration of the political climate of Brazil in the ’60s. Through the use of subversive violence and shocking images, Rocha launches a symbolic investigation of Brazilian history and mythology.
Rocha fervently believed that his works represented the aspirations of his people: “My Brazilian films belong to a whole period when my generation was full of wild dreams and hopes. They are full of enthusiasm, faith and militancy and were inspired by my great love of Brazil.”
The Guns (Ruy Guerra – 1964)
One of the first films that brought international recognition to Brazilian cinema, The Guns forms a part of the “Golden Trilogy” of the Cinema Novo movement along with Barren Lives and Black God, White Devil. It was filmed in the northeastern part of Brazil instead of the initial plan of shooting in Greece.
The Guns exhibits impressive stylistic techniques used by Guerra, fuelled by visually effective documentarian sensibilities. The film oscillates between two separate tales, each focusing on the profound hunger of impoverished citizens who do what it takes to feed themselves and their families.
The Dare (Paulo Cesar Saraceni – 1965)
A masterpiece by one of Brazil’s most influential filmmakers, The Dare is an engaging translation of personal and political turmoil. Set during the oppressive regime of a military dictatorship, the film revolves around a journalist who has to deal with political censorship as well as an illicit affair.
Glauber Rocha once said of Saraceni: “Saraceni is a filmmaker with insight and sensitivity, one of the rare artists of contemporary cinema. He has the gift of photographing the essence of the real. This is the legacy of Rossellini, which Saraceni does not deny, but, on the contrary, acknowledges as a stimulating influence.”
The Red Light Bandit (Rogério Sganzerla – 1968)
Based on the historical figure of João Acácio Pereira da Costa who was an infamous burglar, The Red Light Bandit is an interesting exploration of human morality and crime. As opposed to Cinema Novo’s affinity for naturalism, Sganzerla uses postmodern techniques in order to elevate its unique stylisations.
The director famously said: “I believe cinema is an inferior art. I don’t think I would even call cinema an ‘art’, you know? I actually like this pulp side of cinema, this nearly-vulgar side, this popular and visionary side that I have seen a lot of in American cinema. So I agree that cinema is an inferior art, and that’s why I make inferior films.”
Killed the Family and Went to the Movies (Júlio Bressane – 1969)
A bonafide cult-classic, Killed the Family and Went to the Movies is an essential part of the history of Cinema Novo. Featuring multiple plots that run parallel, this 1969 gem proves just how powerful the spectacle of cinema can be if utilised properly.
Bressane’s work continues to influence newer generations of artists, including the iconic musician Arto Lindsay who said: “Cuidado Madame, which means ‘Caution Madame,’ was a film made in 1970 by a guy who was really important to me, kind of a mentor when I moved to New York: a Brazilian filmmaker called Júlio Bressane.”
Macunaíma (Joaquim Pedro de Andrade – 1969)
Macunaíma is a unique blend of comedy and fantasy, following the misadventures of a man who is born to an old woman by some miraculous occurrence. He embarks on a peculiar journey with the body of a full-grown man but the heart of a silly child.
While discussing his own work, the filmmaker claimed that his projects dealt with the core conflicts of the common people in Brazil: “I make films about the problem of living in Brazil, and my understanding of this problem at different times generates very different kinds of films.”
São Bernardo (Leon Hirszman – 1972)
An adaptation of Graciliano Ramos’ novel, this largely forgotten gem from 1972 focuses on the life and times of a Brazilian landowner who gets consumed by his own ambitions. Starring Othon Bastos in an award-winning performance, the film is a sombre reflection on humanity’s inability to be at peace.
Labelled as “a true masterpiece” by Contracampo, São Bernardo is a timeless example of Hirszman’s cinematic genius. The filmmaker passed away at the early age of 49 due to AIDS-related complications but his legacy is kept alive through this films like São Bernardo which was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in 2012.
All Nudity Shall Be Punished (Arnaldo Jabor – 1973)
A brilliant adaptation of Nelson Rodrigues’ play, All Nudity Shall Be Punished follows the lives of an affluent widower and his son. The film won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and is still cited by many as one of the best films from the Cinema Novo movement.
Jabor recalled: “There was a strong culturalist pressure on Brazilian cinema. Every time a filmmaker was going to place the camera, s/he would muse: Straub would put it here, Godard would put it there, Losey would have a travelling shot, Janice would have a ten-minute travelling shot, Welles would take a wide-angle lens and put it on the floor … in short, there was a certain hesitation at the level of cinematic language.”
Bye Bye Brazil (Carlos Diegues – 1979)
A riveting work by one of the most important figures of Brazilian cinema, Bye Bye Brazil is a scathing indictment of modernity in which Diegues examines how humanity has lost itself in its quest for never-ending progress. It earned a nomination for the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
“I think there is only one hope for Brazilian cinema: to be Brazilian,” Diegues said in an interview in the mid-90s while speaking about what the future holds for aspiring filmmakers who wish to contribute to the legacy of Brazilian cinema. “If it tries to copy or be like world cinema, it will lose out.”