Brazil has a long tradition in moviemaking: the art was introduced to the country in the early twentieth century, and during the first decades emerged local cycles in key states. From the 1940’s, Brazilian cinema gained strength, and established itself as a source of popular entertainment; during the 1960’s onward, the Cinema Novo craved to create a new Brazilian culture.
However, from the 1980’s onwards, the Brazilian cinema was becoming increasingly dependent on government funding, and on the early 1990’s, when the economic crisis hit the country, the official funding for the film practically ceased to exist. During those years, no feature film was produced in the country – interestingly, Brazil has been submitting films for the Foreign Language Film Oscar since 1960, and after 1990 (ironically a movie titled Dias Melhores Virão, or Better Days Ahead), will only return to present candidates in 1996.
In 1995, Carlota Joaquina – Princess of Brazil’s release meant the rebirth of Brazilian cinema: it was the Retomada (Resumption) which inaugurated the New Brazilian Cinema. This new Brazilian cinema continues with several traditional themes: the sertão (the hinterland), poverty; on the other hand, new subjects emerge: the analysis of the traumas of Military Dictatorship (1964-1985), urban chaos, human sexuality.
Currently there is a tension in film production: films produced by Rede Globo (Brazil’s largest media conglomerate) with ample resources, famous actors and immense propaganda, are blockbusters but are generally considered low artistic quality; on the other hand, alternative filmmakers who produce small films are in need of distribution and visibility. The following list shows some of the most representative motion pictures of this period.
1. Carlota Joaquina – Princesa do Brasil aka Carlota Joaquina – Princess of Brazil (1995)
For about three years, no feature film was produced in the Brazil; in this context, the release of Carlota Joaquina was a landmark: it was the reboot of Brazilian film industry. This film chronicles the life of Carlota Joaquina (Marieta Severo), from childhood to old age. A princess from Spain, she was given in marriage to the heir to the Portuguese throne, Dom João, an extremely unsuccessful marriage.
In 1808, the menace of invasion by Napoleonic troops forced the Portuguese court to flight from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, and in this city they established a new court, and the royal family had to get adapted to their new country, on which Carlota was able to appease her insatiable sex appetite. Based on 19th century documents, this comedy was a huge blockbuster in Brazil.
2. O Quatrilho (1995)
Until the 1990’s, only one Brazilian film had been nominated for the Academy Award of Best Foreign Language Film: The Payer of Promises in 1963. 33 years later, Brazil returned to Hollywood with O Quatrilho, directed by Fabio Barreto, a film about the Italian colonization in southernmost region of the country.
Two couples of Italian origin buy a farm together and go live in the same house. The coexistence makes one of the husbands feel attracted by the wife of another, and vice versa, ultimately leading to the formation of two new couples. The name Quatrilho is the name of a card game, in which players choose new partners during the match.
3. Terra Estrangeira aka Foreign Land (1996)
The first film directed by Walter Salles, who became famous a few years later with Central do Brasil and Daniela Thomaz, Foreign Land is the perfect requiem for the Brazil of the early 1990’s: after losing his mother, a young man leaves the country and goes to Portugal, where he wants to get a new life; in Portugal, he falls in love with a Brazilian, an immigrant like him.
Its black and white photography and melancholic approach frustrated many who expected a more cheerful story, but the disappointment and the feeling of not belonging are characteristic of a generation that could not find its space in a country amidst deep crisis.
4. O Baile Perfumado aka Perfumed Ball (1997)
In addition to the films produced on the most important centers, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo states, the Retomada was also a landmark for the resumption of cinema from other states, and Perfumed Ball was one of these aliens from distant lands: it came from the state of Pernambuco, and resumed a familiar theme of culture and brazilian cinema: the cangaceiros, outlaws who dominated the sertão (hinterlands) of the Northeast region.
The most important of these bandits was Lampião, commander of the largest gang, and this film chronicles the passage of a Lebanese immigrant, Benjamin Abrahão, who begins selling products such as perfume to them (hence the scent of the title) and ends up taking a camera camcorder with which records their images. Based on true events, this was one of the most visceral films of the Retomada.
5. O que é isso, companheiro? aka Four Days in September (1997)
A new Oscar nomination, just two years after O Quatrilho: Four days in September, directed by Bruno Barreto (brother of Fábio Barreto, both members of a traditional family linked to Brazilian cinema) chronicles the true story of the kidnapping of the US ambassador to Brazil, Charles Burke Elbrick (Alan Arkin), in 1969, by the MR8, a resistance group that fought dictatorship.
Four days in September is a political thriller that examines tensions during the Dictatorship and investigates the violence of this period, trying to grasp the motivations of the kidnappers as well as of the torturers who served the military regime.
6. O Caminho dos Sonhos aka Avocado Seed (1998)
A small film, simple, barely seen even in Brazil, but certainly one of the best this decade: Avocado Seed, based on the semi autobiographical book by Moacyr Scliar, shows the youth of a Jewish boy in Porto Alegre, the state capital of Rio Grande do Sul, and the world around him: the Military Dictatorship, the heyday of rock and roll, and new social roles (against everything his family planned, the young man dates a non-Jewish black girl with leftish tendencies). The reference to the avocado seed is a beautiful metaphor for the dreams immigrants bear.
7. Central do Brasil aka Central Station (1998)
The first great movie of Retomada, a landmark for the final return of the Brazilian public to Brazilian cinema, Central Station, directed by Walter Salles, tells the story of two people – a boy, Josué, and an elderly woman Dora – who leave in search for the boy’s father, in a trip that will take them from Rio de Janeiro to Northeast’s sertão. Dora, initially, is tough, cynical and amoral, but is progressively touched by Josué’s life story, and in doing so becomes more and more human.
Great international success, Central Station won the Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival, the BAFTA and the Golden Globe of Foreign Language Film and was nominated for an Oscar in the same category. The interpreter of Dora, Fernanda Montenegro, the greatest Brazilian actress, received the award for interpretation in Berlin and was nominated for a Golden Globe and the Oscar for actress in a leading role (first Latin American actress to get the nomination).
8. Eu, Tu, Eles aka Me You Them (2000)
The hinterland of the Northeast region has been, throughout the history of Brazilian cinema, the setting for several stories, and this is one of the most unique: in such a miserable vicinity, Darlene (Regina Casé) a single mother, marries a much older man, who promises her and her son a better life.
Married, Darlene has affairs with a cousin of her husband and with a young worker: bear children of three men and everyone end up living together with her and her husband under the same roof. A great box office success in Brazil, it had some decent repercussion abroad, and as a critic wrote, Darlene “redefines the role of Latin American women on cinema”.