10 great Brazilian films

As City of God returns to cinemas, we present a 10-film introduction to the best of Brazilian cinema.

22 February 2024

By Filipe Furtado

City of God (2002) © Buscapé/Luiz Otávio

Like many important filmographies of the global south, Brazilian cinema doesn’t circulate much in the UK, which can make the prospect of discovering it even more daunting. Sometimes there is an arthouse hit like Kleber Mendonça Filho and and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau (2019), or a restoration such as Antonio Carlos da Fontoura’s queer gangster classic The Devil Queen (1974) shows up at a festival, and people react strongly to it: “Where was this great movie before?” Of course, back in the 1960s and 70s, international critics were very interested in Cinema Novo, Brazil’s politically-minded version of a new wave, but not in much of anything else.

There’s a rich tradition of cinema in Brazil, which runs from musical comedies (known as chanchadas) to crime movies, and an auteur cinema that often blurs the line between experimental and popular. Tropicalismo has long been popular among world music fans, but few foreigners know that the movement expanded to other arts, including movies (particularly those linked to Cinema Marginal, an experimental, more cinephile reaction to Cinema Novo, as likely to embrace Howard Hawks as Sergei Eisenstein).

The richest period of Brazilian film probably ran paradoxically close to the 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship, in part because the period inspired filmmakers, in part because the industry was at its most well-funded and commercially successful. There was a near halt in production around 1990 when the neoliberal government ceased funding, and things slowly picked up this century until exploding thanks to digital cinema, which offered some ageing masters and many new voices opportunities.

City of God is back in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 23 February 2024.

Limite (1931)

Director: Mario Peixoto

Limite (1931)

Mario Peixoto was a 23-year-old fascinated with the European avant-garde when he made this experimental late silent film about three people adrift at sea. Limite has haunted Brazilian cinephiles ever since, regularly topping or near topping best of lists, while its filmmaker never managed to complete another one until his death in 1992, a reminder of the difficulties of making films in a country like Brazil.

It’s a stunning, beautiful movie with beguiling editing and poetic black-and-white cinematography; its logic remaining closer to music than narrative. Indeed, although there’s barely an intertitle, it keeps up a constant momentum as the idea of an escape haunts the action and Limite gets lost in the mystery of its own images. Most consider its seductive nature impossible to resist, while some find it bafflingly obscure, but it is the natural starting point of Brazilian film.

Rio, zona norte (1957)

Director: Nelson Pereira dos Santos

Rio North Zone (1957)

A samba composer goes through many indignities while dealing with the exploitative music industry. He finally manages to catch the popular singer Angela Maria and show her his new song. Midway through, she joins in, and his expression of joy is likely the most beautiful moment in any Brazilian movie. The composer was played by Grande Otelo, a popular comedian, singer and do-it-all of Rio de Janeiro art, and the movie feels like a tribute to his strengths as a performer as much as those of the composers it was inspired by.

It was the second feature of Nelson Pereira dos Santos, the pioneer of Cinema Novo and someone with a great gift to capture Rio’s everyday life. He usually never used two shots when one could do, which makes the moments of flourish even more powerful.

Black God, White Devil (1964)

Director: Glauber Rocha

Black God, White Devil (1964)

Filmmaker, critic and all-around agitator Glauber Rocha was the main figure of Cinema Novo and, to this date, the most critically acclaimed Brazilian filmmaker. Black God, White Devil was his second feature and major breakthrough. It’s a western of sorts about an exploited small-time farmer who remains a major follower, first of a Black religious leader and then of a white regional bandit – both characters are fictional versions of real-life figures in Brazil’s northeast.

The movie’s great creation is the hired gun Antonio das Mortes, who works for the local wealthy and shows up both times to kill the insurrection while feeling very attracted to it. Rocha is like a 1960s Brazilian John Ford, exploring local myths and their contradictions. He would make better movies (Entranced Earth, 1967; The Age of the Earth, 1980), but Black God, White Devil has a unique sense of discovery. 

The Red Light Bandit (1968)

Director: Rogério Sganzerla

The Red Light Bandit (1968)

Brazilian film has a long history of ripped-from-the-headlines crime movies, none better than this one, inspired by a series of sensational robberies in São Paulo. Critic turned filmmaker Rogério Sganzerla described his movie as a “western for the Third World,” and it’s a discourse about underdevelopment, creation and resistance. In some ways his ideas aren’t that far from Rocha’s, but his reference points can be more varied and populist, and, like the musical Tropicalismo movement, he shows a strong influence of modernist poet Oswald de Andrade’s concept of anthropophagy, the way the ‘third world’ artist can eat his northern hemisphere influences for their own political and artistic needs.

The result is a desperate, at times bitter and funny movie that mixes true crime, Godard, Welles (whose time in Brazil for the sabotaged It’s All True project would become a later Sganzerla obsession), populist newspapers and flying saucers.

The End of Man (1971)

José Mojica Marins

The End of Man (1971)

One of the few things Rocha and Sganzerla did agree on was that José Mojica Marins, the creator of the popular Coffin Joe character and horror series, was one of the true masters of Brazilian cinema. Marins has a knack for absurd imagery, an ingenuity while dealing with few resources (his movies were popular, but financiers found them too vulgar, so he was always scrapping), and very little interest in realism or traditional narrative, preferring to use his own presence as an organising principle. He was hardly a progressive, but he was an anarchistic artist during a dictatorship.

The End of Man is my favourite of his movies, but it is not horror: an apt description might be what if Chaplin adapted Stranger in a Strange Land? For maximum egotism, Marins cast himself as the new messiah that arrives at a televised pop culture wasteland. A lysergic and wild personal trip that justifies its title.

Bang Bang (1971)

Director: Andrea Tonacci

Bang Bang (1971)

Brazilians used to call westerns ‘bang bang movies’ because of the sound of a gunshot, so the title announces Andrea Tonacci’s movie as an adventure of sorts made from other movies. It’s not that far off some of the New Wave pastiches of American film, but it has even less plot than those (whatever there is involves a guy getting entangled with a very strange family of criminals), and its persecution fantasy is more bitter comedy than morbid.

There are many recognisable signifiers: the hero uses a monkey mask out of Planet of the Apes (1968), and Tonacci remakes the rhino hunt scene from Howard Hawks’ Hatari! (1962) complete with Henry Mancini’s score, and, of course, chases, shootouts, music, verbal comic sparring out of Groucho Marx, and anything else Tonacci happens to like. It’s united by some robust camerawork and some of the finest low-budget travelling shots around.

Twenty Years Later (1984)

Director: Eduardo Coutinho

Twenty Years Later (1984)

In 1964, Eduardo Coutinho was making a movie about the real-life murder of a peasant leader, with locals playing the roles and often themselves. The military coup happened, and the movie was halted, and many of its principals went into hiding. By the early 1980s, Coutinho decided to do something with the footage; he organised and screened it to survivors (those scenes have some pointed self-criticism about the limits of well-meaning leftist filmmaking), and he found out that Elizabeth Teixeira, the peasant leader’s widow and his lead actress, was still living in hiding away from her family. So he set to document her current life and her efforts to get her identity back.

Released at the tail end of the dictatorship, the resulting film is a chronicle of an interruption, a tale of cinema failing and then succeeding over history, and one that came to symbolise the effect of dictatorship itself.

Fake Blonde (2007)

Director: Carlos Reichenbach

Fake Blonde (2007)

The best movie made during the Lula years – Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was president between 2003 and 2010 – is, appropriately, this one about the illusions of the proletarian imagination in the new century. It concerns a beautiful factory worker who gets involved with two wealthy men and finds her wit is no match for their ability to commodify her. It’s very respectful of her dreams and often very willing to let its images be overtaken by them, while remaining very tough about their limitations in an exploitative world.

A melodrama with a rich visual style that has little to do with political movies of the last couple of decades, Carlos Reichenbach’s film plays itself straight even if it is obviously the work of a cinephile filmmaker. If anything, it suggests an Italian drama of the 1950s or 60s that allows large waves of feeling to resonate. The scenes of the women working at the factory and then in their free time are remarkable.

Kid (2015)

Director: Júlio Bressane

Kid (2015)

An elemental couple-on-the-run movie adapted from Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan’, Kid has many basic movie pleasures: a very good-looking couple played by local stars (Marjorie Estiano and Gabriel Leone, more recently the doomed driver in Michael Mann’s 2023 film Ferrari), a murder, a chase and great natural locations. The movie is austere but surprisingly seductive; one doesn’t know if the mystery of the land is generating the fiction or if the fiction is returning towards it.

Júlio Bressane is by now probably Brazil’s greatest living filmmaker and has been making exciting, very personal work since the late 1960s. His work suggests a history of movie forms (an idea explored in last year’s seven-hour walk through his filmography, The Long Voyage of the Yellow Bus). He has moved through many registers, while remaining faithful to the idea of cinema as the music of light.

Light in the Tropics (2020)

Director: Paula Gaitán

Light in the Tropics (2021)

One of the problems of thinking about movies through national cinemas is that we often find a movie such as Light in the Tropics that doesn’t fully fit. It’s a Brazilian movie, but it belongs to the whole of the American continent and concerns a trip to the Americas, as a land, an experience, and the ways it exists and survives through five centuries of colonialism and exploitation.

Paula Gaitán treats cinema like the flow of a river. If Kid is an epic in miniature, Light in the Tropics reaches meaning through the monumental; its images are as large as its 259-minute running time and the all-over-the-continent locations. Along with Mariano Llinás’ La flor (2018), this is the most ambitious Latin American movie of the last decade, and while Gaitán is more concerned with a physical reality than fictional games, the way they set a labyrinthine web isn’t so dissimilar.