The Best Brazilian Films of All Time

By 24 May, 2011

It’s always difficult to make a “best of all time” list. First, I had to decide which qualities were important when making the final choices of films to appear on the list. I decided to use three main factors: success with the public, historical importance and my personal preferences for some films. Here are my choices for best Brazilian films of all time.

Criteria decided, now I had to think of how many films I was going to put on the list. It seemed impossible to think of only a top five list and a bit unfair to make a list of ten, so I decided that fifteen was a good enough number to include a range of some of the greatest Brazilian films of all times.

Apart from watching the films, it is necessary to go through the history of Brazilian cinema in order to understand the context in which the films were made. The Brazilian film industry has been historically dependent on government funding; hence why the relationship between film-makers and the government had to be reformed in the mid 90s through the Retomada.

After the success of the chanchadas, a type of Hollywood inspired comedy that launched stars such as Carmen Miranda, Oscarito and Grande Otelo, it was only in the mid 50s and 60s that Brazilian cinema really started to make films that were typically Brazilian. Despite the fact that most of them were low-budget productions and often conceptual, there were some remarkable films made in this period of history, in a movement known as Cinema Novo (New Cinema). Highly influenced by the neo-realism of Italian cinema, directors such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos – considered the father of the movement – Glauber Rocha, Ruy Guerra and Caca Diegues started to produce more experimental films, getting away from the Hollywood formula. Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Rio 40° and Vidas Secas, Glauber Rocha’s Deus E O Diablo Na Terra Do Sol and Terra em Transe, and Anselmo Duarte’s O Pagador de Promessas are considered not only the best but also the most symbolic and influential films of Cinema Novo.

Being very experimental and low-budget, Cinema Novo’s films weren’t a big success with the public. Due to the coup d’etat of 1968, cultural repression and the censorship became stronger in Brazil. The idea of making more commercial films, combined with the military dictatorship led the film-makers of Cinema Novo to create their own film distribution company (Difilm) in association with producer Luis Carlos Barreto. Macunaima, a nationalist and metaphorical film by director Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, released in 1969, was probably the biggest hit of Cinema Novo in terms of public attention.

Between the early 70’s and late 80’s – and despite still strict censorship – the Brazilian film industry received much investment from the military government. However, the films produced in this period were mainly pornochanchadas, a type of porn-comedy that was commercially successful but lacked quality. Apart from a few remarkable films such as Pixote, from director Hector Babenco, Bye Bye Brasil, by Caca Diegues and Bruno Barreto’s blockbuster Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, the Brazilian cinema scene was mainly dominated by the pornochanchadas during the 70’s and 80’s.

In 1989, after Brazil’s first democratic election, film production was on the wane, with only nine Brazilian films being released in 1991 for example. The industry collapsed in 1992, coinciding with former president Fernado Collor de Mello’s impeachment. In 1993, the new president Itamar Franco created new funding mechanisms for distributing incentives to film-making. The following president Fernando Henrique Cardoso created the Lei do Audiovisual (Law of Audiovisual) in order to regulate and optimise the government’s cultural financing. This episode was known as the Retomada, or the resumption of Brazilian cinema industry.

The rebirth of Brazilian cinema started with Carlota Joaquina (1995), considered the first official release after the Retomada. Since then, most of Brazil’s finest films have been made, including Academy Award nominees O Quatrilho, O Que É Isso Companheiro? (Four Days in September), Central Station and City of God. Not only have many Brazilian films experienced international success but also the Brazilian audience is increasingly more interested in national productions. The sequel Tropa de Elite 2 (Elite Squad 2), for example, reached the mark as the most watched film in Brazilian history. Other commercial productions such as Carandiru, Se Eu Fosse Voce and Dois Filhos de Francisco also attracted a lot of people to the cinemas. However, Brazilian cinema isn’t only about commercial films.

Some of the films that will be appearing on my final list of Best Brazilian Films of All Time are less commercial and more independent films, such as Lavoura Arcaica, Cinemas, Aspirinas e Urubus (Cinemas, Aspirins and Vultures) and O Invasor. Although these films might not have been watched by many people, most people that have watched them will understand their presence on the list.

I hope that by sharing some of Brazilian cinema’s history this will save me from receiving too many critics for leaving some films out of the list or for putting them in positions people might disagree. Of course, if you feel that anything has been omitted please leave a comment. This is after all part of making a “best of” list. And now, below is my final list of the 15 Best Brazilian Films of All Time – I hope you enjoy it!

15 – Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands) – 1976 – Bruno Barreto (Buy UK / US)
14 – Pixote, A Lei do Mais Fraco (Pixote) – 1981 – Hector Babenco (Buy UK / US)
13 – Cinemas, Aspirinas e Urubus (Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures) – 2005 – Marcelo Gomes (Buy UK / US)
12 – Bye Bye Brasil (Bye Bye Brazil) – 1980 – Caca Diegues (Buy UK / US)
11 – Rio 40° (Rio 100° F) – 1955 – Nelson Pereira dos Santos
10 – Lavoura Arcaica (To the Left of the Father) – 2001 – Luiz Fernando Carvalho (Buy UK / US)
9 – Macunaima (Macunaima) – 1969 – Joaquim Pedro de Andrade (Buy UK / US)
8 – O Pagador de Promessas (The Given Word) – 1962 – Anselmo Duarte (Buy UK / US)
7 – Vidas Secas – 1964 – Nelson Pereira dos Santos (Buy UK / US)
6 – Terra em Transe (Entranced Earth) – 1967 – Glauber Rocha (Buy UK / US)
5 – Carlota Joaquina, Princesa do Brasil (Carlota Joaquina) – 1995 – Carla Camurati (Buy US)

4 – O Que e Isso Companheiro? (Four Days in September) – 1997 – Bruno Barreto (Buy UK / US)

3 – Tropa de Elite/Tropa de Elite 2 (Elite Squad/Elite Squad: The Enemy Within) – 2007/2010 – Jose Padilha (Buy Elite Squad UK / US | Elite Squad: The Enemy Within UK / US)

2 – Central do Brasil (Central Station) – 1998 – Walter Salles (Buy UK / US)

1 – Cidade de Deus (City of God) – 2002 – Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund (Buy UK / US)

If you’d like to find out more about Brazilian cinema we recommend three books on the subject, The New Brazilian Cinema, Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema and Utopia and our own Sounds and Colours Brazil book, which includes a dedicated section on Brazilian cinema.

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