Foreign Films Spotlight: Brazil

Brazilian films are among my favourite foreign language films. There is a Western-centric feel to their storytelling, acting, cinematography and direction, while at the same time, they possess unique qualities which allow them to stand-out as films which are “culturally significant”. For these reasons, Brazilian directors have made successful and/or critically acclaimed films in Hollywood, including Fernando Marreillas (The Constant Gardener) and José Padilha (Narcos, RoboCop). This blog lists five of my favourite Brazilian movies that I would recommend to any film-lover who is interested in experiencing Brazilian cinema.

1.     City of God (Cidade de Deus)

Filmgoers interested in Brazilian cinema should definitely begin here. City of God is a shocking and intense depiction of the abject poverty and crime that plagues Rio de Janeiro’s worst slums. The filmmakers auditioned slum-kids to appear in the film, while having to ensure their safety during filming by receiving the permission of a jailed drug lord in order to film in certain locations. This film is not for the faint of heart, and is certainly not a travelogue for the city of Rio de Janeiro. Rather, the film is a cautionary tale of the conditions under which a corrupt and impoverished society will continue to breed violence and criminal activity, including the impact on children who have been exposed to the slum’s criminal ways from a very young age. The film also demonstrates, through its narrator, the difficulty residents experience in trying to leave the slum due to insufficient resources and lack of work opportunities, having had little or no education or exposure to life outside of their drug trading, crime-filled slum.

2.     Elite Squad

From the screenwriter of City of God, Elite Squad shifts focus from the criminal underworld of Rio’s worst slums to that of the city’s top law enforcement service personnel who are faced with the most dangerous and controversial tasks and how they are viewed in their role by both the criminal underworld and the upper/middle classes. The film follows main character and narrator Nascimento (Elysium star Wagner Moura), a BOPE (Brazil’s equivalent of SWAT) soldier who is looking to quietly retire and raise his child after the Pope makes a planned visit to Rio. In order to retire, Nascimento has to recruit his own replacement. Through his narration, the viewer is provided with the character profiles and backstories of two possible candidates who have very different goals and opinions when it comes to the importance of law enforcement and the role they see themselves in when becoming a BOPE officer. Fast-paced, heart-thumping and highly informative, the film, Elite Squad is one of my personal favourite “cop-films”, with a setting and characters that are completely unique in comparison to Hollywood films. The characters are placed in far more dire circumstances than that seen in an American city, making Elite Squad stand out as uniquely Brazilian, despite its Hollywood-esque filmic elements.

3.     Central Station

Moving away from the ultraviolent nature of the previous two films, Central Station is among Brazil’s most beloved films. A touching tale, the film follows retired teacher Dora, who works in Rio de Janeiro’s train station as a letter writer for illiterate townspeople. When a former customer loses his mother and is left without any close relatives, Dora reluctantly takes him under her protection and takes him in search of the father that he has never met – and the only family he may still have. This film advanced the careers of writer/director Walter Salles and lead actress Fernanda Montenegro, and earned both Oscar nominations for their work on this film. Central Station is a moving film about family, society, religion, and how even a hint of compassion towards those in need, goes a long way in this often unforgiving world.

4.     Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

I realize that the mention of a film and its sequel in a list of only five films limits the amount of scope in the Brazilian film spectrum I can address. Nevertheless, this film is so gripping, and so intense, that I may be inclined to suggest that Elite Squad; The Enemy Within is actually a better film than its predecessor. The sequel follows Nascimento as he finds himself among the ranks of Rio de Janeiro’s government officials, coming into contact with corruption at the highest levels, that at times, causes greater damage to the people of Rio than that of the drug-filled slums of his BOPE days. Despite his best efforts to reform the city as the head of public security, he cannot avoid the many levels of corrupt officials who will stop at nothing to ensure that their positions of power are maintained. Elite Squad 2 is a more topical, polished and in-depth look at the societal shortcomings of Rio de Janeiro than the first film, and also places more focus on its main character/narrator’s story than its predecessor film. This is also the first film that I have seen in which Socialist political figures are not treated as heroes as often seen in other Hollywood or European films.

5.     Carandiru

Carandiru is a filmic adaptation of the memoirs written by Dr. Drauzio Varilla, which recount his time as a doctor at Carandiru prison, Sao Paolo, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, leading up to the infamous prison riot which evoked a violent police raid that later became known as the Carandiru Massacre. The film depicts the day-to-day lives and back stories of the various inmates he came to know, and the corrupt officials who were running the prison and how they treated the inmates. Excellent performances are delivered throughout the film, each portraying a variety of different characters whose stories reveal the darker and tragic sides of life and crime in Brazil. Carandiru is one of the most powerful, thought-provoking and eye-opening films that I have ever seen, and is a moving social commentary not to be missed!