In the 1960s, Latin America was a contested field of struggle. From the Cuban Revolution in 1959 to the death of Che Guevara in 1967, from the massacre of Tlatelolco in 1968 to the Cordobazo uprising in 1969, from the landing of US Marines in the Dominican Republic in 1965 to the series of military coups that prepared the terrain for neoliberal policies in the Southern Cone countries, Latin American societies were shaken by social conflict, political revolt, and military intervention. The failure of developmental modernization showed the true face of neocolonialism, as unveiled by the formidable critique of the theories of dependency, internal colonialism, and cultural imperialism, which proved the coming of age of Latin American social thought, revealed in an astounding cultural movement, from theater to literature, from popular music to cinema, from the social sciences to philosophy and religion. Filmmakers were actively involved in this movement in order to invent alternative modes of distribution and exhibition, create different cinematographic languages, and intervene artistically in the modernizing, revolutionary, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist politics of the times.

Cinema Novo (New Cinema) developed in Brazil in the early 1960s through the heterogeneous production of young filmmakers such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos (b. 1928), Glauber Rocha (1931–1981), Ruy Guerra (b. 1931), Carlos Diegues (b. 1940), and Joaquim Pedro de Andrade (1932–1988). "Cinema Novo is only part of a larger process transforming Brazilian society and reaching, at long last, the cinema," wrote Diegues in 1962 ("Cinema Novo," in Johnson and Stam, p. 65). Theirs was a political intervention against neocolonialism, bred by the revolutionary wave that shook Latin America under the spell of the Cuban Revolution (1959), the expectations generated by the developmental policies of President Juscelino Kubitschek (1955–1961) and the radical populism of Jânio Quadros and João Goulart (1961–1964), who, in alliance with the left intelligentsia, projected ambitious social reforms. (Under the pressure of traditional landowners and transnational corporations, Goulart was finally deposed by the military. The coup inaugurated the era of "authoritarian" regimes responsible for introducing the neoliberal adjustments that would convert the region's national economies to the demands of global capitalism.) But theirs was also a countercultural strategy in search of an alternative aesthetic to the mass consumption of genre films churned out in Hollywood, and an alternative mode of production to the industrialized studio system, whose high costs of production and dependence on large markets made it utterly inadequate for Brazil, as the failure of the Vera Cruz studios had dramatically demonstrated.

Film journals and cine clubs fostered a critique of Brazilian cinema and a debate about whether to build a strong film industry with state support or to pursue a low-cost production system that would encourage experimentation. The new strategy, based on location filming, intensive camera work, and nonprofessional actors, was part of Italian neorealism, whose bare aesthetic captured so vividly the complexity of social reality, and French Nouvelle Vague, whose avant-garde aesthetic and philosophical musings offered a seductive critique of Western modernity. Adapted to the Brazilian milieu through the lens of Third World anti-imperialism, European avant-garde ideas became a means for political antagonism. Differing from both Hollywood films, which were conceived as entertainment and instilled passivity in the consumer, and European auteur cinema, which was conceived as art and portrayed existential angst and social alienation, Brazilian cinema produced a social and political critique of colonialism and neocolonialism. It was, as Diegues alleged, a committed and critical cinema: "Brazilian filmmakers have taken their cameras and gone out into the streets, the country, and the beaches in search of the Brazilian people, the peasant, the worker, the fisherman, the slum dweller" ("Cinema Novo," in Johnson and Stam, p. 66). While Hollywood aestheticized politics and the Nouvelle Vague politicized aesthetics, Cinema Novo, alongside Cuban Imperfect Cinema and Argentinean Third Cinema, tried to forge a dialectics of avant-garde aesthetic and revolutionary politics.

Contrary to the soothing continuity of classical films, Cinema Novo assailed the spectator and her or his most unquestioned values, through the extensive employment of Brechtian and Eisenstenian techniques of distancing (such as discontinuous and vertical editing), jump-cuts and image saturation, and theatrical acting and social symbolism. The spectator was not allowed to remain passive or relaxed but instead was disturbed and interpellated by "films of discomfort" made out of "crude images and muffled dialogue, unwanted noise on the soundtrack, editing accidents, and unclear credits and titles" (Rocha, "The Tricontinental Filmmaker," in Johnson and Stam, p. 77). "Guerrilla" Cinema Novo demanded a noncontemplative, aesthetically active, and politically committed viewer.

Of course, this is the core of Cinema Novo's fundamental paradox: it attempted to become a popular art form and a tool for political liberation through a nonpopulist and nonpaternalistic strategy. However, despite the filmmakers' awareness that the basis for a revolutionary cinema is its capacity to build a sustainable public, their films were only popular among intellectuals, connoisseurs, and film critics worldwide. They rarely succeeded in attracting "the masses." Moreover, they naively overestimated their ability to penetrate foreign markets beyond the festival circuit, and, because of their lack of resources, they paradoxically came to depend on distributors and exhibitors for postproduction financing, that is, on those agents who ultimately controlled the market (Johnson and Stam, Brazilian Cinema , p. 380). Theirs was, in a nutshell, a strategy of political awareness (Paulo Freire's " concientizaçao ") and aesthetic modernization in which politics and aesthetics became one through radicalizing Western avant-gardism, while rejecting its direction.

b. Maceió, Alagoas, Brazil, 19 May 1940

Carlos "Cacá" Diegues is a leading figure of Brazilian cinema. One of the first filmmakers to define Cinema Novo in 1962 as part of a larger cultural movement transforming Brazilian society, he was also one of the first to declare its dilution into Brazilian cinema. A staunch supporter of auteur cinema, Diegues believed that Cinema Novo's social commitment and political criticism would be possible only through unqualified artistic freedom, cinematic heterodoxy, and cultural pluralism. This conception of Cinema Novo as a collective of individual artists more than as an aesthetic school led him to explore very different cinematic styles, from his neorealist, pseudo-ethnographical, and didactic films of the 1960s, unmistakably related to the first phase of Cinema Novo and its aesthetic of hunger, to his embrace in the 1970s of Tropicalism's spectacular aesthetics and his denunciation of the submission of art to party politics, or what was called the "ideological patrols."

His first professional films, Escola de samba, alegria de viver ( Samba School, Joy of Living , 1962, a segment of Cinco vezes favela , or The Slums Five Times ) and Ganga Zumba (1963), frame Diegues's thematic and aesthetic concerns: the recovery of the historical roots and the contemporary expressions of Afro-Brazilian culture, and its influence on popular music (samba), religion (candomblé), and carnival. In Quilombo (1984), he returned to these themes, this time in the form of a spectacular super-production that further stressed the mythical elements of the story. Xica da Silva (1976), a carnivalesque rendition of historical events in colonial Brazil, tells the story of a female slave who shapes politics and the economy through sex, fantasy, and eroticism. The film, which sparked a fertile national debate on the issue of "the popular," became a box-office hit. Its music, dances, eroticism, and carnivalization of traditions and reversal of history all fit into the commercial formula of Tropicalism.

Diegues's lengthy filmography also includes Agrande cidade ( The Big City , 1966), Os herdeiros ( The Heirs , 1968), and Joanna Francesa ( Joanna the Frenchwoman , 1973). Bye Bye Brasil (1980), his first film to be a commercial success abroad, is perhaps Diegues's most complex film, both thematically and theoretically. It tells the story of Salomé, Lorde Cigano, and Andorinha, three traveling artists who tour the Northeastern countryside with the Caravana Rolidei ("Circus Holiday"). Their shows attract an audience of peasants and Indians in isolated and impoverished towns where television has not yet arrived. Accompanied by an accordionist and his wife, the three artists try to find places still uncontaminated by modern technology and global culture. They head to the Amazonia, where they discover the most dramatic contradictions brought by globalization. Years later, they will meet again in Brasília to illustrate metaphorically two divergent paths toward modernization. The film shows a country caught between uneven and incomplete modernization and cornered by economic globalization. It is perhaps one of the funniest and saddest reflections on the cultural impact of globalization on Latin American culture, including its films.


Ganga Zumba (1964), Quando o Carnaval Chegar (1972), Joanna Francesa ( Joanna the Frenchwoman , 1973), Xica da Silva (1976), Bye Bye Brasil (1980), Quilombo (1984), Orfeu (1999), Deus é Brasileiro (2002)


Diegues, Carlos. "A Democratic Cinema." In Brazilian Cinema , edited by Randal Johnson and Robert Stam, 99–101. Expanded edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995 [1977].

Xavier, Ismail. Allegories of Underdevelopment: Aesthetics and Politics in Modern Brazilian Cinema . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Ana Del Sarto

Abril Trigo

Carlos Diegues.

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