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Reel life: Brazilian realities reflected in cinema

City of god rio de janeiro the architectural review brazil 1465

From the home to the favela to the city at large, Brazilian cinema scrutinises social injustice and tackles universal themes

When City of God, co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, was released in 2002, throwing Rio de Janeiro’s slum gang violence into the spotlight, it added to the international success that Brazilian cinema had achieved a few years earlier with Central Station (1998), directed by Walter Salles. Made in the late ’90s, with the creation of national incentives that had stimulated film production in Brazil after a period of scarcity, these and other films drew attention to the massive social injustice and economic disparities of Brazilian cities that seemed inevitably to lead to violence. Reclaiming spaces that had been symbolic in cinematic representations of the past, the favelas (as well as the rural areas of the arid sertão, the backlands in the north-east interior) became the stage for the performance of a variety of dramas in which the connecting thread was the peripheral spaces and places that turned out to be more than a mere backdrop for the films.

‘Contemporary Brazilian film bluntly exposes current urban life, reconfiguring and rearticulating new forms of architectural experiences and spatial practices’

Decades earlier, these spaces had already been explored. In fact, the country’s urban ills were the focus of several Brazilian realist films, as is seen in Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Rio, 40 Degrees (1955) and Rio, Northern Zone (1957), among others, films that received critical acclaim for their portrayal of social issues through the lens of a new realist aesthetic (following the trends in other national cinemas, namely Italian neo-realism and later the French nouvelle vague), in which the maladies of modernisation are particularly evident. This developed in the 1960s, with the Cinema Novo and Cinema Marginal movements, in which the ideal settings for politically engaged films were either urban suburbs, favelas and peripheries, or rural areas from which large groups of migrants fled the long periods of drought to occupy the cities’ ghettos. Social inequality and class division were imprinted in the portrayal of urban slums, which were heightened in films of the 1980s (in, for instance, Pixote (1980) and Hour of the Star (1985), directed by Héctor Babenco and Suzana Amaral respectively). Indeed, although the connection between architecture, urban spaces and spatial practices materialised early on – from the first film productions in Brazil – contemporary films, especially those of the last 10 years, rearticulate and reconfigure the ways in which these issues are presented.

The second mother the architectural review brazil 1465

The second mother the architectural review brazil 1465

Themes of social inequality and economic imbalance were elaborated in The Second Mother, in which the audience zooms in on one house where social divisions are contrasted

Such diversity in recent Brazilian film does not stray from issues of social justice, economic inequality or urban violence. In making social divisions more explicit in private spaces, some filmmakers have made the home the core of film narratives. In Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother (2015), for instance, the very architecture of an upper-class family home is the stage for the tensions between the family members and the live-in maid, whose tiny, airless bedroom, at the back of the large house, is depicted from camera angles that heighten the feeling of claustrophobia. The grand living room of the modern house is often framed from the inside of the kitchen, a room to which servants are relegated. The transgression of the maid in one of the final scenes of The Second Mother happens when she steps into the swimming pool and splashes the water, crossing an invisible border that she had respected until then. Indeed, the spatial shift proposed in the film is evidence of the divisions within middle and upper-class households, and the way these are transgressed and the spaces reclaimed through the reconfiguration of their architecture.

White out, black in brasília the architectural review brazil 1465

White out, black in brasília the architectural review brazil 1465

In White Out, Black In, Brasília is turned into a dystopian city. The marginalised citizens – those who had built it – living on the periphery of the city build a sonic bomb to blow it up

At this time of intense political debate around human rights, the architecture of the home becomes a metonym for urban cartographies, whereby the right to the city, which has often been denied to several groups, is now being reclaimed. Taking the country’s capital Brasília – once a symbol of prosperity and progress – as an example, director Adirley Queirós turns the city into a dystopia in his daring sci-fi projects White Out, Black In (2014) and Once There Was Brasília (2017). The utopia of a planned and architecturally pleasant city in the geographical heart of the country represented the highest point of modernity at the time of the capital’s inception. However, its original pilot plan did not contemplate those who had built it, instead turning the ‘satellite’ sites around the city – where the candangos (northeastern workers who migrated to work on the capital’s construction) built their homes and neighbourhoods – into marginalised and forgotten areas. In White Out, Black In, the narrative brings together fiction and documentary by focusing on characters that had been victims of police violence. The fictional line portrays a group of citizens from Ceilândia, one of Brasília’s satellite cities, planning and building a sonic bomb to blow up the capital, while an agent from the future arrives to try to prove that the police violence was perpetrated by the state. The film’s Afrofuturistic aesthetic is aggrandised by its salvagepunk appearance, but what makes Queirós’s work extremely bold is the relationship between the characters and their space, their territory. Most often framed in long takes, the shots take time to present the characters’ bodies (sometimes disabled, such as the case of the two main characters) roaming through and occupying these places. The film traces their movements and gestures, bearing witness to their trauma.

The denial of citizens’ right to the city, and the resulting upsurge of movements fighting for the right to housing in many Brazilian cities, is reflected in The Cambridge Squatter (2016), directed by Eliane Caffé. The film brings together fiction and documentary to tell the story of São Paulo’s Hotel Cambridge, a building that houses a diverse group of otherwise homeless people, as well as refugees and immigrants. The introduction of characters in the film attests to the mix of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, revealing a common situation among deprived Brazilians and refugees from Syria, Congo and Palestine. Indeed, The Cambridge Squatter constantly relates the lack of housing to the international refugee crisis by showing scenes of video calls between the characters and their relatives in their home countries, sometimes even including shots of refugee camps. Nevertheless, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this film is its ability to portray a way of occupying a space in which the fight for housing rights is exceptionally coupled with the building of an effective community of resistance.

The cambridge squatter são paulo the architectural review brazil 1465

The cambridge squatter são paulo the architectural review brazil 1465

In The Cambridge Squatter, set in São Paulo, a group of homeless people living in a squat includes refugees and immigrants, victims of globalisation for whom homelessness has a bigger meaning

Gentrification and real-estate speculation are also the common thread in the films of Kleber Mendonça Filho, including Aquarius (2016), exposing the ferocious gentrification project in Brazilian cities through the struggle of the only remaining occupant of an old block of flats in Recife threatened with demolition. Mendonça Filho’s earlier film, Neighboring Sounds (2013), also trains the lens on the violence of cities’ architectures of fear. Here, several apartments and houses in one street, once owned by a sugar plantation landlord, are going through a process of gentrification. The film depicts safety mechanisms such as CCTV cameras, electric fencing, high protection walls that are part of the architecture of many Brazilian cities and provide a false sense of security to middle- and upper-class residents. Curiously, despite all the features adopted to protect the inhabitants, this architectural model is flawed – the residents are impelled to hire private guards to protect them, but these seem to watch and keep them under surveillance.

The cult recife 2040 the architectural review brazil 1465

The cult recife 2040 the architectural review brazil 1465

In The Cult, a space colonist returns to Recife in 2040 – it has become a ghost town, with the architecture playing the star role in the absence of characters and narrative

In contrast to The Cambridge Squatter’s spontaneous construction of ties and community, in Neighboring Sounds the feeling is one of claustrophobia and detachment from a sense of community. Walls, gates and fences are framed to shrink the depths of field of the spaces and emphasise the sense of confinement. Similarly, walls are a strong feature in The Cult (2015), directed by André Antônio, but unlike Neighboring Sounds, they underscore the ruins of the city. Set in Recife in the year 2040, this queer futuristic dystopian film presents the city as a ghost town, with buildings that are totally empty and on the verge of collapse, with people nowhere to be seen. While the plot centres on a character who returns to a city in ruins after living in a space colony, the film provides a cartography of the ruins of the city, showing derelict places while also providing a sense of melancholy and boredom by deploying a slow narrative. The architecture stands out precisely in response to the stillness of the characters and narrative.

By revisiting sites and settings that are considered cliché in Brazilian cinema, this recent generation of film has the artistic, political and often activist power to inform and affect local and global audiences. Contemporary Brazilian film bluntly exposes the troubles and disputes in current urban life, expanding on problems that have existed for decades, yet reconfiguring and rearticulating new forms of architectural experiences and spatial practices.

Lead image: a still from City of God, which depicted the poverty-stricken favelas of Rio de Janeiro

This piece featured in the AR October issue on Brazil – click here to purchase your copy today