Pictures for the People

A series at the Walker reveals the revolutionary power of Brazil's Cinema Novo

"I, Gypsy Lord, Master of Clouds and Time, can work miracles with life." So proclaims the magician and emcee of a wandering carnival that has just rolled into a small town in northern Brazil. "I can make the dreams of all Brazilians come true," he declares. "I can make snow fall in Brazil!" Then he gives the command, and suddenly, there in the little tent, accompanied by the strains of "White Christmas," snow indeed falls in Brazil--although the snow tastes suspiciously like flaked coconut.

This moment near the beginning of Bye Bye Brazil, directed by Carlos Diegues in 1979, exemplifies many of the artistic tenets of a Brazilian film movement called Cinema Novo. We're among mostly poor people, watching a performer who mediates the worlds of fiction and reality. He puts on a somewhat silly show that celebrates Brazilian life in all its complexity, before leading us through the netherworlds of art, crime, and politics. Sixteen Brazilian films will be screening throughout the month of October at the Walker Art Center, and though they range widely in style and content, almost all feature a similar sense of fierce independence and political engagement.

Cinema Novo rose out of the ashes of Vera Cruz, a São Paulo-based studio that flourished briefly in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Consciously modeled on MGM, Vera Cruz produced a handful of polished pretty-people pictures in imitation of the films from the north that ruled the market then as now. The critics, polemicists, and filmmakers who emerged followed Vera Cruz's demise in a period of optimistic "developmentalism" and asserted their independence from this studio system. Instead of embracing glamour, they flaunted their connections to poor and rural people, and their attraction to indigenous traditions. Leaving the soundstage behind, they at all times maintained the right to pick up the camera and reveal the world around them, no matter what the outcome or consequence.

As Glauber Rocha put it in a 1965 essay (anthologized in Randal Johnson and Robert Stam's excellent Brazilian Cinema): "Wherever one finds filmmakers prepared to film the truth and oppose the hypocrisy and repression of intellectual censorship there is the living spirit of Cinema Novo; wherever filmmakers, of whatever age or background, place their cameras and their profession in the service of the great causes of our time there is the spirit of Cinema Novo." This statement continues to animate Brazilian filmmakers, including Walter Salles Jr., the director of Central Station, who selected the films for this Walker series.

Rocha put his own camera to the contemplation of popular revolt in 1964's Black God, White Devil (7:00, October 13), which tracks a beaten-down cowherd and his spouse across the vast Brazilian backcountry. The pair are fleeing a murder rap across the sertão, in order to join an Afro-Catholic resistance party led by Saint Sebastian, the "Black God" guru. The "hypocrisy and repression" here come from the dominant, white church, which acts in the interests of the landowners. This conflict leads to an apocalyptic showdown--a shootout full of blood and fury. Then alliances suddenly shift and nothing is as it has seemed. In the end, everyone sets off once again through Rocha's magnificent wide-angle landscape. The film's profound connection to the Brazilian people and land also emerges through Heitor Villa-Lobos's vibrant guitar playing and singing on the soundtrack, which comments on the action as it happens, responding to the features of the land and the sea coast.

Bye Bye Brazil (introduced by Walter Salles, 7:00, October 16), produced a decade and a half later in 1979, takes place in much the same landscape, and finds writer-director Carlos Diegues celebrating the small acts of independence that persist during the pillaging of the country's cultural and natural resources by foreign interests. The Gypsy Lord's traveling carnival is a colorful crew, comprising a smoldering sexpot named Salomé, a strong mute man named Sparrow, and a young accordionist with his bulbously pregnant wife. Yet they find themselves powerless to entertain in towns that have been occupied by the talisman that is television. Wherever they can scare up an audience, they continue to stage their bumptious show. Even when they can't, they sometimes put on the show anyway; in one town a public television that is claiming the townspeople's attention is magically destroyed as the Gypsy Lord claims the space for himself.

This fictional wandering carnival exemplifies many of the populist goals--and low-rent techniques--of the Novo filmmakers. Just as the Gypsy Lord strives to pull audiences away from superficial, foreign entertainment, Cinema Novo attempted to radically reshape what many people consider Brazilian cinema--and even Latin American cinema. And, to some extent, they succeeded. In part because of this movement, the Latin American image on film could no longer be reduced to a giant extension of Tijuana, where everyone wears tutti-frutti hats and dances the tango for the whims of vacationing playboys from the north. (This image is presented critically in director Helena Solberg's Carmen Miranda, Bananas Is My Business, screening at 8:45 on October 29.) Where Vera Cruz and runaway Hollywood productions of the 1940s and 1950s (like those of today) would visit lower-class cultures to give their work some Latin spice, Novo filmmakers have fundamentally changed the ingredients for their art. In Black God, White Devil and Bye Bye Brazil, and, more recently, Belly Up (7:00, October 29) and Perfumed Ball (7:00, October 30), we see a wide spectrum of skin tones, classes, behaviors, and geographies--a great and messy portrait befitting a country as complicated and diverse as Brazil.

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