Brazil through Film

The construct of Brazil through film is dynamic and multi-faceted: from being objectified to caricature figures, to figures of ‘exotic’ color, and so forth, it is impossible to define the role film has in constructing the image of Brazil in absolute terms [1]. Brazil is the most racially diverse Latin American country, with a rich and complex history. Film in Brazil is made by the most wealthy members of the population. Thus, cultural knowledge of Brazil gained through the movies made there is an interpretation of life made by a particularly affluent group. These films would not exist without the Brazilian masses that are said to be the emotional core of the culture. Therefore, while learning the actual reality of Brazil impossible, general trends can be deduced from the analysis of Brazilian films [3].  After all, these general trends are what distinguish Brazil as a nation from the rest of the world. Through movies, the Brazil emerges as The Land of Carnival, a ‘Racial Paradise’, and as a nation possessing a distinctly Brazilian form of modernization.

The Brazilian Carnival is a massive annual festival known for its music, dance, elaborate costumes and floats, giant parades and smaller blocos parades. Carnival’s strong association to Brazil is linked to its image as a tourist destination, it is an aspect of Brazilian culture that is easily marketable and therefore helps to increase the nation’s economic power.

Carnival in films is exoticized and eroticized for market gain but it also illustrates an unsettling dimension of the Brazilian life. Orfeu negro, a film by a joint Franco-Brazilian project in 1958, illustrates Carnival as a time where differences between cultures, subcultures, and socio-economic backgrounds are lifted in order solidarity to emerge. Orfeu negro points to the realities behind the image. It shows the ubiquitous poverty many

English: Brazil Português: Brasil Русский: Бра...

English: Brazil Português: Brasil Русский: Бразилия (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Brazilians experience and how the working classes see Carnival as a momentary escape from it. Watching the working classes work for an entire year, saving for an elaborate Carnival costume only to return to that poverty once Carnival is over emphasizes the truth about the suspension of differences that lies behind the illusion. In the film the lives of those on the morro hilltops is juxtaposed with that of those live in the metropolitan areas where the parades take place. Thus, on a superficial level Carnival reinforces the stereotype of the “happy fun-loving Brazilian” but may also be read as a means for escapism of a less marketable reality. According to Robert Stam and Ismail Xavier, Carnival in films can variously fuse social critique with popular cinema or recycle the clichés while avoiding the exploration of conflict. The statement is true in cinematography but also resonates within everyday Brazilian life.

As Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes states, “nothing is foreign to [Brazil] because everything is”. Racial diversity is also a strong presence in the Brazilian cultural identity, and this is explored further in film, although indirectly. The notion of being both foreign and non-foreign, of knowing that many people in Brazil speak languages that are perhaps foreign even to themselves, makes Brazilians fortunate in that they are relatively open-minded in social terms but they are also unfortunate because they experience a deep-rooted identity crisis. The cultural mélanges brings forth differences which may be dynamically both synergetic but also conflicting.

The film Macunaíma, by director Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, depicts a “characterless hero”. Brazil is represented by the protagonist, Macunaíma, part African, Indian, and European. The complexities of the Brazilian mélange are explored when he undergoes race-mixing rituals, rites of passages, and transformations, inhabiting and experiencing the stereotypes and stereotyping of his transformed race. From this, it can be suggested that the director intended to portray Brazil as a nation that has a synergistic absorption of the best of all cultures, and whether intentional or not, this synergy is imperfect. In Macunaíma’s ‘black’ transformation he is greeted with ‘How ugly!’ and yet the protagonist is not called “beautiful” until he transforms into a ‘white’ Prince, illustrating the still-present biases towards whiteness, and revealing that racial diversity in and of itself does not exactly mean racial equality in Brazil. This film adds to Brazil’s identity as one which is fragmented, with differences that need to be constantly reconciled, analyzed, and explored.

Finally, via the local film industry, Brazil is presented as a world as having its own modernism. Films depicting this are the result of Brazil’s conscious rediscovery and re-evaluation of what is ‘authentically Brazilian’ in a climate of intellectual freedom. Cidade de Deus directed by Fernando Meireles and co-directed by Kátia Lund, like many successful Brazilian films, presents a vision of intense and dramatic slum life. Cidade de Deus is emblematic of certain cultural characteristics of the Brazilian life and of story-telling. The Latin American testimonio tradition is used in this film, amongst many other devices for example the voice over. This technique, which in American films is viewed as a cop-out, is used in Cidade de Deus to signal that Brazil is beyond mainstream American production values. Cacá Diegues’ re-make of Orfeu (1999) is another example of a film which heavily focuses on making slum life dramatic and romanticized. It focuses on drug trafficking and crime to bring the original Orfeu negro (1958) up to date. In these films music often presents Brazil’s strong ties to the United States, through cultural hybrids of American and Brazilian music thus stressing the continuity of dialogue between two. And, Orfeu negro, the subalterns’ character emblematizes how all Brazilians are manipulated by government, law enforcement, and foreign influences and how injustice is normalized.

These films provide a representative example of the desire to promoting and sustain a new aesthetic trend of presenting reality without distortion. However, such intentions are not without effects. After seeing the enormous success of slum life films, local authorities began to see the issues only in market terms; they continued to ignore the reality of violence in favour of a fiction with ‘untold appeal.’ Only what the controllers of cinematic resources deem worthy and marketable as a reality receives mass distribution. This limits the image of Brazil to extremes and results in the distortions of what is ‘ordinary’ and ‘typical’ in Brazilian culture. The image of Brazil is exaggerated in the minds of the non-Brazilian as a result.


[1] Due to considerations of length, the only a select number of films will be considered in this entry.

[ 2] Various forms of censorship affect Brazilian cinematography considerably. For instance, many characterize Brazilian films as “surreal” or “fantastic” but it is difficult to determine whether film- makers actually intend to be categorized in this way or not. Many directors purposely make their films appear surreal as a device to not raise suspicion from the censoring authorities as being politically suggestive.

Helen Bui

Fall 2011

Works Consulted

Afolabi, Niyi. Afro-Brazilians: Cultural Production in a Racial Democracy. Rochester, New York: University of Rochester Press, 2009.

Avellar, Jose Carlos. Backwards Blindness: Brazilian Cinema of the 1980s. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 1997.

Fusco, Coco, ed. Selections from New Latin American Cinema. Buffalo, New York:  Hallwalls, Inc., 1987.

Martin, Michael T. Suzana Amaral on Filmmaking, the State, and Social Relations in Brazil: An Interview. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

Stam, Robert and Xavier, Ismail. Transformaiton of National Allegory: Brazilian Cinema from Dictatorship to Redemocratization. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

Woll, Allen L., and Miller, Randall M. Ethnic and Racial Images in American Film and Television: Historical Essays and Bibliography. New York and London: Garland Publishing,Inc, 1987.

This entry was posted in blocos, Brazilian Carnival, carnival, Cidade de Deus, Macunaíma, movies, Orfeu negro, Racial Paradise, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Brazil through Film

  1. agogo22 says:

    Reblogged this on msamba.


  2. Mr. Wapojif says:

    Great piece! There’s the recent documentary film Senna which was superb.


  3. e2thec says:

    I wonder how films like Madame Satã, Casa de Areia, Eu tu eles (and similar) fit into the discussion?


  4. lusin11 says:

    Reblogged this on Platiquemos.


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