The history of Cinema Novo can be divided into three phases linked to major political events. The first phase lasted until the coup of 1964. It was a formative period dominated by a sense of political urgency aptly captured by neorealist, documentary-style narratives that went out to the streets to film popular subjects. Pereira dos Santos's Rio 40 graus ( Rio 40 Degrees , 1955) and Rio zona norte ( Rio Northern Zone , 1957) followed the daily life of peanut-seller boys and a samba composer in the slums of Rio, while Rocha's Barravento ( The Turning Wind , 1962) laid bare the alienating function of religion and its clash with modern ideas in a traditional fishing community. Several seminal films were released in 1963, many of them located on the sertão , the mythical locus of uncontaminated Brazilianness in the Northeastern backland: dos Santos's Vidas secas ( Barren Lives ), Guerra's Os fuzis ( The Guns ), and Rocha's Deus e o diabo na terra do sol ( Black God, White Devil ). Although Carlos Diegues's Ganga Zumba retraces the roots of Afro-Brazilian culture, based as it is on the seventeenth-century maroon community of Palmares, it shares with the other films a similar concern with the socially and ethnically downtrodden and a similar optimism about the revolutionary creativity of the national-popular. As Rocha summed it up, these films "narrated, described, poeticized, discussed, analyzed, and stimulated the themes of hunger: characters eating dirt and roots, characters stealing to eat, characters killing to eat, characters fleeing to eat" ("Esthetic of Hunger," in Johnson and Stam, p. 54). These are the bases for his aesthetics of hunger: "Economic and political conditioning has led us to philosophical weakness and impotence.…It is for this reason that the hunger of Latin America is not simply an alarming symptom: it is the essence of our society" ("Esthetic of Hunger," in Johnson and Stam, p. 56).
Based on the homonymous novel by Graciliano Ramos and released amid widespread debates on land reform, Vidas secas tells the story of a family of landless peasants forced to migrate to the modern cities by cyclical droughts, endemic poverty, and quasi-feudal socioeconomic relations. Os fuzis tells the allegorical story of the conflicts that arise between the soldiers sent to a village in the sertão to protect the warehouse of the landowner and the starving peasants, whose initial passivity and fatalism seem to give way to some form of symbolic rebellion that will also change the soldiers' minds. Deus e o diabo is a condensed allegory whose narrator, the blind singer-poet of cordel literature (Northeastern broadsheets), traverses tradition and modernity to tell the story of a peasant couple torn between following the messianic call of a religious leader shaped after the historical figure of Antônio Conselheiro and adhering to the murderous rage of the last cangaceiro (a social bandit). Neither morality nor rationality prevails in this apocalyptic society shaped by colonial insanity. Deus e o diabo , its sequel, Antônio das Mortes, matador de cangaceiros ( Antonio das Mortes, 1969), and Terra em transe ( Land in Anguish , 1967), all by Rocha, show an avant-garde experimentalism at its peak.
Cinema Novo's second phase lasted from 1964 to 1968, when the AI-5 (Fifth Institutional Act) radicalized the repressive nature of the military regime. Despite this, during those years the counterculture and Cinema Novo continued to flourish. This uneasy marriage of convenience was due to the growth of state funding through the Instituto Nacional do Cinema (National Film Institute), which was established after GEICINE (Executive Group of the Film Industry), which provided financial support for the importation of equipment and the production of films and established compulsory exhibition quotas for films. These nationalistic policies divided the field, and the improbable alliance inspired some films that directly addressed the role of middle-class intellectuals in social struggle, such as Rocha's Terra em transe , O desafio ( The Challenge , Paulo Saraceni, 1967), and O bravo guerreiro ( The Brave Warrior , Gustavo Dahl, 1968).