Neither the Sertão or the Favela

A Look at Brazilian Film

By Denilson Lopes

To frame the poetics of the ordinary in terms of subtlety and delicateness is to propose an antidote both for cynicism and for what I call Neo-Naturalism. Its appearance, at least in Brazilian cinema and literature, has been clearly identified, ranging from peripheral subjects such as rap to the film-and-book phenomenon City of God, to the works of Marçal Aquino, Fernando Bonassi, Luiz Ruffato, Marcelo Mirisola and the first films by Beto Brant. Neo-Naturalism features an aesthetics of excess, of violence and cruelty, that is considered to be more suited to dealing with our times.

The contemporary reality is unidimensionalized in a double commonplace cliché: the fight against terrorism, from a conservative viewpoint; the opposition to a society of control, from a more radical viewpoint. At the national level, civil wars, multi-ethnic urban conflicts, and narco-trafficking emerge as themes to represent an apocalyptic and hopeless barbarism of our times.

Faithful to the weight of Naturalism in Brazilian literary tradition, public space is represented in the cinema by images of the sertão (the arid, inhospitable rugged interior) or the favelas (slums), at least since the outset of the Cinema Novo (New Cinema). The trend continues in much of the Cinema da Retomada (Brazilian Cinema from the second half of the 1990’s to nowadays) and has served as a way to recover visibility abroad, in festivals and with a movie-going public. Alongside this movement, another cinematography, grounded on a poetics of everyday life, has emerged, which I shall call the lineage of a lost delicateness. Films like Eu tu eles by Andrucha Waddington position the sertão within the context of everyday life and intimacy. Without sounding like a nostalgic Bossa Nova, I think this trend seeks to recover the subtlety that is so present in the songs by Chico Buarque and Paulinho da Viola. For, far from mere escapism from a cruel reality, they translate into ethical and aesthetic alternatives.

From the viewpoint of the modern Brazilian movies, it is important to remember, in this initial reflection about the ordinariness of intimacy, that a long tradition marks the home by the nostalgia of colonial spaces, of a lost rural environment. Its latest examples are Lavoura Arcaica by Raduan Nassar, adapted to the screen by Luiz Fernando Carvalho, and O Viajante(1998) by Paulo César Saraceni. The motif of the torn-apart home is present in Saraceni’s great moments, ever since his debut in Porto das Caixas (1965) to A Casa Assassinada (1970), the trilogy under the sign of Lúcio Cardoso. The archaic rural world, close to nature and taking place in another time, contains the rich landscapes shown in São Bernardo (1971) by Leon Hirszman. There is much lyricism in the account of the home, regardless of the decadence of rural patriarchy.

Two other works in this genre deserve further analysis. One is that of David Neves, whose debut in Memória de Helena(1969) is a unique revisitation of Humberto Mauro, with his short stories about the middle class in Rio de Janeiro in Fulaninha(1984/5) and Jardim de Alah (1988). Within Modern Cinema, if Glauber Rocha were our Godard, then David Neves could well be our Truffaut. That would be more praise than criticism.

Domingos de Oliveira is another 1960s director distanced from Cinema Novo, which might explain his not being highly regarded. He may be the most successful cinematographer of the sort of family drama and romantic comedy that both older and younger directors try to achieve (Bossa Nova by Bruno Barreto, 1999; Pequeno Dicionário Amoroso and Amores Possíveis by Sandra Werneck; Como ser Solteiro no Rio de Janeiro by Rosane Svartman; A Dona de História, 2004, by Daniel Filho).

Another New Cinema director is Carlos Diegues. Having created a more fluid Brazil in Bye Bye Brasil (1979), Diegues has reached, in Chuvas de Verão (Summer Rains, 1977), another great moment in his career. Because of its delicate approach to old age in Rio de Janeiro’s middle class, it can very well dialogue with O Outro Lado da Rua (The Other Side of the Street, 2004) by Marcos Bernstein, much more successful than Copacabana by Carla Camurati (2000).

Noites do Sertão (1984) by Carlos Alberto Prates Correia dilutes rural patriarchy with delicateness, a legacy of Guimarães Rosa’s original, a strategy previously used by Carlos Diegues in Joanna Francesa (1973). At the same time, Nunca Fomos Tão Felizes (1984) by Murilo Salles was breaking ground in this genre, an alternative to the Neo-Realism of Wilson de Barros, Chico Botelho and Guilherme de Almeida Prado. Murilo Salles’ earlier movies were centered in frankly urban homes, loaded with violence and clashing inhabitants, as best seen in Tata Amaral’s films. This work had an equivalent in feminine roughness in Ana Carolina’s trilogy (Mar de Rosas, 1979; Das Tripas Coração, 1982; and Sonho de Valsa, 1986/7), not to mention the more recent films, such as Durval Discos by Anna Muylaert (2003).

Also in the 80’s, the Z company released a new generation from Rio Grande do Sul; from the trilogy Verdes Anos (1983) by Giba Assis Brasil; Me Beija (1984) by Werner Schünemann and Aqueles Dois (1985) by Sérgio Amon, among many other short subjects, and the most talented of its representatives, Jorge Furtado, who has only just recently released a feature film.

Delicateness—would it have vanished from the more recent Brazilian cinematography, except for its presence in documentaries such as Nós que aqui estamos por vós esperamos by Marcelo Masagão, Edifício Master by Eduardo Coutinho, and Nelson Freire by João Moreira Salles? Films such as Dois Córregos (1998/9) and Alma Corsária (1992/4) by Carlos Reichenback, Coração Iluminado (1997/8) by Hector Babenco or O Príncipe (2003) by Ugo Giorgetti deserve a more careful look, beyond the nostalgia that shrouds them.

I hope to have been straightforward in expressing my interest in the ordinary: I am looking at small things, small dramas, without falling into Naturalism or into allegories such as those present in the revisited and reconstructed families with preciously banal gestures in Luis Humberto Pereira’s photos, or in João Carrascoza’s short stories in Dias Raros, or in the works of Michel Laub, Adriana Lisboa and Paloma Vidal. This is neither about perverting the family as in the work of Nelson Rodrigues, nor about over-privileging representations, but about retrieving family affection in its fragility. Not the violated, but the sheltered, protected body.

This journey is just beginning. A search for a poetics of everyday life, one that envisages, at the threshold, the exceptional, the transfiguration, the sublime, all the while being aware that these are only moments—moments that show the ordinary as the real, as in Otacília’s death in Sinfonia em Branco by Adriana Lisboa (2001: 144), which presents everything I have said better and more freely:

Otacília finished eating with her two daughters. She greeted her husband when he walked in at the end of the day, and asked him about his meeting at the office, but as soon as he finished replying, she could no longer remember what she had asked him.

Having put on two drops of her precious Chanel no.5, one behind each ear, she went back to bed to rest again.

When that unique peacefulness penetrated the room, semi-lit by a dim table lamp, she knew she was dying.

She heard her daughters’ voices talking in the next room, in Maria Inês’ room. Then, she could hear a bit less, and felt a dizziness like a ship in a sea storm. And when the dizziness was gone, and she opened her eyes, she smiled because, actually, it was all so simple.

Denilson Lopes ( is Professor at the School of Communications at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and President of the Brazilian Society of Cinema and Audiovisual Studies (SOCINE). He is the author of The Delicateness: Aesthetics, Experience and Landscapes (2007), The Man who Loved Young Men and Other Essays (2002), We the Dead: Melncholia and Neo-Baroque (1999), co-editor of Image and Sexual Diversity (2004) and editor of The Cinema of the 90s (2005).