'Cinema Novo': Cannes Review

CINEMA NOVO - Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A dense archival essay on Brazil’s very own New Wave.

Eryk Rocha (‘Transuente’) premiered his documentary in the Cannes Classics sidebar.

When asked what he thought about the label given to him and his fellow French auteurs by the press, director Claude Chabrol once apparently quipped: “There’s no New Wave — there’s only the ocean.”

He was of course trying to play down the hype of a cinematic revolution that he had helped to create, while underlining how hard it is to classify any filmmaker into a single category. Yet despite Chabrol’s witticism, the label not only stuck but spawned several like-minded movements throughout the world, in countries like Czechoslovakia, Japan, Germany, the U.S. (the “New Hollywood”) and also Brazil.

The latter wave, known as the Cinema Novo, is the subject of a new feature-length documentary essay by Eryk Rocha — son of legendary Brazilian auteur Glauber Rocha, who was sort of the Cinema Novo’s Jean-Luc Godard and responsible for some of the most groundbreaking works (Black God, White Devil, Antonio Das Mortes) of his time. (Keeping it very much in the Novo family, the doc was produced by Diogo Dahl, who’s the son of another major figure of the group: Nelson Pereira dos Santos, director of classics like Barren Lives and Rio 100 Degrees F.)

Much more an assembly of images, sounds and interviews than a comprehensible historical study, Cinema Novo — as it’s simply called — is definitely a movie made for those who are already familiar with the faces and films of Brazilian cinema from that period, which stretched roughly from 1962 to the mid-1970’s. Premiering in the Cannes Classics sidebar, it should continue touring fests and could find VOD outings on auteurist websites, but is clearly not accessible enough for regular theatrical play.

Following in the footsteps of his father, whose explosive movies were filled with jump-cuts, abrupt camera movements and other modernist techniques, Rocha Jr. tosses tons of information — including dozens of film clips without any title cards — in our direction, forcing us to experience the Cinema Novo as a pure bombardment of the senses.

Excerpts from pivotal works of the time, such as Rocha’s Barravento, Carlos Diegues’ The Big City, Ruy Guerra’s Os Cafajestes (the first film from that generation to premiere at a major international festival) and the omnibus feature Five Times Favela, are crosscut with sound bytes of the directors talking about their art and their country, which was ruled for several decades by a dictatorship following a military coup in 1964.

“To integrate Brazilian cinema into its own cultural reality” is how one of the auteurs sums up his generation’s goals, while the aesthetic militant Rocha Sr. explains how “making films is a political act” in and of itself. Indeed, what the Novo directors did was take Brazilian movies out of the studios and into the streets, capturing the vivid daily realities of a nation of contrasts — between rich and poor, land and sea, city and country, religion and sacrilege — in movies whose bristling black-and-white cinematography (especially in the early films) was about as contrast-y as you could get.

If the interviews help to somewhat illuminate what exactly the Cinema Novo was about, Rocha makes little effort to build a chronological or thematic analysis, and viewers unfamiliar with the movement will have a hard time figuring out the basics: when it took place, which movies were the major ones, what was going on in Brazil at the time. The director either assumes one knows this already or simply doesn’t care, letting the archive footage speak for itself on a purely aesthetic level.

Along with all the excerpts, discussions and behind-the-scenes outtakes, sound design by Edson Secco adds lots of additional atmosphere — perhaps too much of it — in an attempt to create a pulsing aural backdrop like the one used in a classic Cinema Novo work such as White God, Black Devil. What results is a documentary that one tends to experience rather than understand — which is something that a director like Glauber Rocha probably would have preferred, even if it leaves the rest of us wanting to know more.

Production companies: A Coqueirao Pictures, Aruac Filmes
Director: Eryk Rocha
Screenwriters: Eryk Rocha, Juan Posada
Producer: Diogo Dahl
Editor: Renato Vallone
Composer: Ava Rocha
Sound design: Edson Secco
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales agent: Figa/BR

In Portuguese, French
92 minutes