10 brazilian films to watch during your olympic downtime

From favela dramas to Carnival in Technicolor, these cinema releases capture the dreams and realities of the 2016 hosts.

by Colin Crummy
08 August 2016, 12:20pm

Still from City of God

1. Central Station (1998)

Walter Salles — who has since become Brazilian cinema's most famous son with film credits including The Motorcycle Diaries and On the Road — received international acclaim and two Oscar nominations for his 1998 film about a young boy who enlists a dour and reluctant retiree to help him search for his father. The trailer would have you believe Central Station is sentimental mush but the film, commandeered by a towering performance by Fernanda Montenegro (sometimes referred to as Brazil's Meryl Streep) is as gritty and uncompromising as her character, who makes every effort to shake the boy from her realm of responsibility. A cross country search produces an evocative sense of nation, too.

2. O Quatrilho (1995)

Director Fábio Barreto took Brazilian cinema in period drama direction with O Quatrilho, which became the first home-grown film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in more than 30 years. Named after a card game in which you have to betray a partner to win, O Quatrilho follows the ill-suited Teresa and Angelo, a married Italian couple who immigrate to Brazil with the equally mismatched Massimo and Pierina in the early 20th century. When Teresa and Massimo fall for each other, they risk the ire of the conservative community.

3. City of God (2002)

The film to put you off any ghoulish tourist trail of the favelas, City of God offers a gruelling portrait of life in Rio's slums where crime levels meant life expectancy topped out at 20. In the midst of a war between two factions, a young boy sees that his ambition to be a photographer means documenting the violent underbelly to Rio's beach life. Director Fernando Meirelles plays it like a gangster thriller with eye popping color and a street cast crew of first-time actors lend raw energy to every scene. 

4. Pixote (1981)

Shot documentary style in Rio and São Paulo, Pixote is an uncompromising look at the abuse of Brazilian street kids by corrupt police and drug cartels. Director Héctor Babenco puts the 11-year-old title character through the ringer from prison abuse to drug deals and prostitution. The drama did not stop with filming; Pixote's star, Fernando Ramos da Silva, was shot dead by police in São Paulo aged 19. Babenco went on to direct Kiss of the Spider Woman and died, aged 70, earlier this year. Some 35 years on, Pixote continues to resonate; Harmony Korine and Spike Lee cite the film as an influence on their work.

5. The Second Mother (2015)

A respite from gritty Brazilian crime drama, The Second Mother shows that home grown cinema can mix light and shade in this moving and humorous look at life for a live-in maid at an affluent São Paulo family's home. Val has given up her own life to make money for her family back home but tensions arise when her 18-year-old daughter comes to stay while she applies for university in the capital. Class, generation, and mother-daughter divides are explored by writer and director Anna Muylert in this savvy take on contemporary Brazilian society.

6. Senna (2010)

Not strictly a Brazilian film — Senna is the work of British documentary maker Asif Kapadia, who later went on to make Amy — but Senna is as good as illustration as an opening ceremony of Brazilian sports fanaticism. Blending archival footage and home video, Kapadia builds the story of the Formula One racing champion's life and death against a backdrop of national hero worship and equally strong religious fervor.

7. Black Orpheus (1959)

French director Marcel Camus won the Palme D'Or at Cannes for setting the Orpheus and Eurdyice myth in the Technicolor wonder of Carnival in a film that became an international hit. It was also ground-breaking for its depiction of mainly black Brazilian characters, though that breakthrough has since been subject to re-evaluation. In his memoir, Barack Obama — who first saw Black Orpheus with his mother — critiqued the film's simplistic depiction of childlike black and brown characters.

8. Madame Satã (2002)

The bohemian culture of Rio comes alive in this extraordinary real life story of Madame Satã, an infamous drag artist, capoeira star, and ex con. João Francisco dos Santos or Madame Satan battled stigmas of race, class, and sexuality and became an icon for the marginalized in Brazilian society, not least because of his legendary street fighting style when used against the authorities.

9. Only When I Dance (2009)

The documentary craze for following young talent overcoming adversity in competition hits Brazil in Only When I Dance, which follows two young, poor ballet dancers as they audition for spots in classical dance companies. Even if the real life story tropes are familiar, the tenacity and talent of Irlan and Isabela make for a winning formula.

10. The Way He Looks (2014)

Kudos to first time director Daniel Ribeiro for taking Brazilian youth cinema out of the favelas in this sweet, sensitive story about teen sexuality and coming of age. Leonardo is a blind teenager growing up in São Paulo, who finds himself attracted to the new boy at school, a fact complicated by his long time BFF. The music's from the less-than-Latino Belle and Sebastian, the vibe more what you'd expect to come out of Sundance than São Paulo. 

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