Buena Onda: New Brazilian Film
by Demetrios Matheou
Prizes at film festivals rarely have as much significance as the Golden Bear won by Walter Salles's Central Station in Berlin in 1998. The success of this bitter-sweet road movie literally heralded the return of Brazilian cinema to the world stage.
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Its film industry had been buffeted by 21 years of dictatorship, followed by democracy marred by corruption and economic disarray. The biggest blow was struck in 1991 when the first democratically elected president withdrew all state support for culture. Not one Brazilian film was made that year, leading director Hector Babenco to declare "Brazilian cinema is dead".
Salles's breakthrough eight years later was part of the rebirth of the country's cinema as a new generation of highly motivated directors drew on their country's difficult but colourful recent history for their stories. And if Salles nudged the door ajar in terms of international awareness, Fernando Meirelles's City Of God blew it open in 2002.
A vibrant account of the drug war in Rio's favelas, it was a massive hit in Brazil and abroad and followed an old tradition of looking at the country's social problems, but reflecting the new phenomenon of drugs and heavily armed gangs. It was the trailblazer for a new kind of crime movie.
Then came Hector Babenco's prison drama Carandiru and José Padilha's Elite Squad, which dealt with police corruption. Elite Squad 2 is now the highest grossing film in Brazil's history. And that, for us, has become a problem. In reality, favela films are just a few of the 100-odd movies made each year in what is now an economically upbeat country. But they are the only ones unadventurous distributors and cinema owners tend to present to the British public.
Truth be told, Brazilian comedies, especially those influenced by the telenovelas so popular in Brazil, are never likely to work with our audiences: they can be awful. There is also a penchant for music biopics too whimsical and parochial to catch on abroad. But there is a huge variety of Brazilian films which have nothing to do with crime or TV. Some of my favourites include The Year My Parents Went On Vacation, which combined dictatorship, soccer and a young boy's coming of age; House Of Sand, a historical, romantic drama set in the desert; Lower City, a visceral and vibrant portrait of street hustlers and prostitutes in Salvador; the unsettling Happy Desert, about a young woman's yearning to escape her dreary life; Adrift, a subtle family drama; and Suely In The Sky, about a woman's attempt to control her destiny in the country's dusty, deprived north-east.
Those films encapsulate some of the themes and characteristics of the best Brazilian cinema: an engagement with the country's history, regions and landscape, the poverty of the north and disillusionment of the young, in stories spun with style and imagination. Brazil also has some of the best documentary makers in the world, not least Padilha, who balances his high-octane Elite Squad movies with documentaries which engage with his society's many iniquities.
This diversity is in evidence in the Buena Onda Brazilian strand of the Glasgow Film Festival. The documentary The Day That Lasted 21 Years is an absorbing, revelatory account of the US backing of Brazil's military dictatorship. Also harking back to the dictatorship, but with a typically Brazilian quirkiness, Prime Time Soap's characters seek escape from repression through telenovelas and disco.
A different kind of period piece, Xingu is an uplifting true account of three brothers trying to create a national park as a means of protecting the indigenous people.
Southwest is a mysterious fable, shot in widescreen black-and-white, at the centre of which is a female character whose whole life passes in a single day. In stark contrast, and more in keeping with the buoyant Brazil we think we know, the GFF programmers are screening the 1959 Oscar-winning Black Orpheus, set during the Rio carnival – before whisking punters off for a night of samba. If only they could throw in some Brazilian weather.
For screening details, see www.glasgowfilm.org/festival