Brazil on the road

Study reveals similarities and differences between the American road movie and Brazil’s homegrown version

José Wilker in Bye, bye Brasil (1980): A Brazil deeply rooted in the rural backlands, but mechanized, with the vast distances now shortened by television

Imagem: ADEMIR SILVA / LC Barreto film production / Brazilian Cinema Collection /SAv/MinCJosé Wilker in Bye, bye Brasil (1980): A Brazil deeply rooted in the rural backlands, but mechanized, with the vast distances now shortened by televisionImagem: ADEMIR SILVA / LC Barreto film production / Brazilian Cinema Collection /SAv/MinC

A film genre usually associated with American movies – the English-language label gives that away – the road movie has also flourished in the cinema of other countries, including that of Brazil. Between the 1960s and the late 1970s, a particularly interesting niche emerged in Brazilian cinema with films like Iracema, uma transa amazônica (Iracema) (1976) by Jorge Bodanzky and Orlando Senna; Bye, bye Brasil (1980) by Cacá Diegues; and it echoed in subsequent films like Central do Brasil (Central Station) (1998) by Walter Salles and Cinema, aspirina e urubus (Cinema, Aspirin and Vultures) (2005) by Marcelo Gomes, to name a just a few. Researcher Samuel Paiva analyzed these stories of dislocation in his project The road movie in Brazilian fictional cinema (1960-1980), carried out between 2012 and 2014 at the Center of Education and Human Sciences at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).

The term “road movie” was coined by the counterculture in the United States, reflected in emblematic films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) by Arthur Penn and Easy Rider (1969) by Dennis Hopper, during a time marked both by the aftermath of World War II and the war in Vietnam, which was still underway. In Brazil, one of the most representative moments of this genre was during the military dictatorship. In both cases, the road plays a greater role on the large screen in part because the studio-based shoot, which characterized film industry production until the middle of the 20th century, became outmoded (in the case of Brazil, specifically, the most well-known attempts to create a film industry were Atlântida in Rio and Vera Cruz in São Paulo). The emergence of more portable equipment and the advent of a cinema of the street, among other esthetic movements in different countries, popularized the use of camera movement and more natural light.

Paiva notes, however, that there were films made much earlier in both the US and Brazil which had characteristics considered typical of the road movie. In Brazil, examples include the very early films made by Major Luiz Thomaz Reis of the expeditions led by Commander Cândido Rondo in the 1910s. Citing American academic Rick Altman, Paiva believes that “genres have no fixed identity or border; they are frequently hybrids, transcending history, and they do not follow a predictable course, even though their repetitious nature often leads us to think otherwise.”

Peréio and Edna de Cássia in Iracema (1976)

Imagem: Wolf Gauer / Brazilian Cinema Collection/SAv/MinC Peréio and Edna de Cássia in Iracema (1976)Imagem: Wolf Gauer / Brazilian Cinema Collection/SAv/MinC

This approach to the issue of film genres led Paiva to the historical method proposed by researcher and critic Jean-Claude Bernardet in his book Historiografia clássica do cinema brasileiro (A Classic History of Brazilian Cinema) (1995). In the book, Bernardet takes a critical view of the nationalistic and sociological tradition of film analysis in Brazil and proposes the creation of “a coherent framework” through which to view films from different countries, time periods and contexts.

Although the road movie takes hold at very different times in their respective histories (in the United States, in the wake of two wars and in Brazil, during the military regime), Paiva believes the two approaches can be in dialogue with each other. American critic Timothy Corrigan says the road movie of the 1960s speaks of “the return home,” related both to the soldier’s return after war and a tradition in Beat literature, one of whose central themes is generational conflict and the scattering of the family. The automobile plays a starring role, both as a symbol of consumer culture, where it serves to question the culture’s ideology and values, and as a means of destruction inasmuch as it is associated with weaponry The spatial displacements are suffused with the idea of a “search whose purpose is elusive.”

“In Brazil, the road movie at this time in its history is also influenced by the counterculture, but with specific connotations,” according to Paiva. A film like Iracema, uma transa amazônica, which was banned by censors between 1976 and 1980 (but shown abroad), is heavy with political meaning. The film tells the story of a meeting between the truck driver Tião Brasil Grande (played by Paulo César Peréio) and a 15-year-old prostitute, Iracema (non-professional actress Edna de Cássia). The road in question is the Trans-Amazon Highway, symbol of the dictatorship’s grandiose economic development philosophy and, from the film’s critical vantage point, of environmental destruction. “Becoming a prostitute at such a young age sets up Iracema to be devalued, and it is the key to understanding a country that is being violated and destroyed in the same way,” says Paiva.

Peter Ketnath (driver) and Francisco Figueiredo in Cinema, aspirina e urubus (2005)

Imagem: Caio Guatelli / FolhapressPeter Ketnath (driver) and Francisco Figueiredo in Cinema, aspirina e urubus (2005)Imagem: Caio Guatelli / Folhapress

Another powerful feature of Brazil’s version of the road movie, also present in Iracema, is a journey that leads to a discovery or rediscovery of Brazil. This feature also informs the political and esthetic content of the movement known as Cinema Novo (New Cinema). The movement’s early films, like Vida secas (Barren Lives) (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1963) and Deus e o diabo na terra do sol (God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun) (Glauber Rocha, 1964), even though they do not involve roads, are stories of wandering characters in whom there appear “personifications of the oppressor State.” Against images of a backlands frozen in time, Bye, bye Brasil, filmed more than a decade later by one of the directors of the Cinema Novo, Cacá Diegues, proposes “a sort of reflection on the crisis in the Cinema Novo movement.” The country that reveals itself in the movie is still a Brazil deeply rooted in its rural past, but it has been mechanized, the vast distances now shortened by television just like in American culture. In a more recent production, Cinema, aspirinas e urubus, the travelers are a Brazilian and a German who find in each other’s company some protection against the dangers of the backlands. The outside world is personified, in a sort of revision of the idea that only Brazilian protagonists belonged in the genre.

Revolution and Reconciliation
Similarly, Paiva takes the expression “backlands-coast” from researcher and critic Ismail Xavier, who coined it to describe the films of Glauber Rocha and his portrayal of hunger. Here again, the trajectory of the two main characters in Deus e o diabo na terra do sol is a metaphor for their journey on the road to political and social awareness, which might lead to a revolution. On this transformational journey, the backlands are the point of departure and the sea, their point of liberation. In Bye, bye Brasil, in contrast, the ocean is polluted, and the journey is in the direction of the country’s interior. In the movie Central do Brasil, the boy’s search for his father begins on the coast, in Rio de Janeiro, and ends in the backlands of the Northeast. He does not find his father, but he meets his siblings. “Instead of revolution, there is reconciliation,” says Paiva. “The meeting is about a moral principle, which is reaffirming the bonds of family.”

Fernanda Montenegro and Vinícius de Oliveira in Central do Brasil  (1998)

Imagem: Photographs 12 / Alamy / Glow ImagesFernanda Montenegro and Vinícius de Oliveira in Central do Brasil (1998)Imagem: Photographs 12 / Alamy / Glow Images

The absence of a father figure and masculinity in crisis, themes in play in the film Central do Brasil, are echoes of the American road movie that reverberate in Brazilian films. In Mar de rosas (Sea of Roses) (Ana Carolina, 1979) the protagonist is a woman (Norma Bengell) who murders her husband during a road trip with her daughter. And, alternating between the absence and the presence of an authoritarian father figure, the patriarch in crisis is a theme in many recent road movies, like Árido movie (Arid Movie) (Lírio Ferreira, 2005) and À beira do caminho (By the side of the Road) (Breno Silveira, 2012).

Paiva also turned up references to the road movie in articles written by filmmaker Rogério Sganzerla for O Estado de S.Paulo in the 1960s. Paiva recalls that Sganzerla’s movies, starting with O bandido da luz vermelha (The Red Light Bandit) (1968), are full of “deambulations and perambulations by car.” Impressed by  the appearance of a “physical cinema” within the French Nouvelle Vague and Brazilian productions featuring scenes like those in Os cafajestes (The Scoundrels) (Ruy Guerra, 1962) in which the character Norma Bengell, naked, is surrounded on a beach by the characters in the title driving in continuous circles around her, Sganzerla wrote an article entitled “Cineastas do corpo” (Filmmakers of the Body). In the article, the then-critic said that filmmakers were witnesses to “the destruction of man by external agents created by our civilization (the airplane, automobile, machine gun, film industry, responsible for the death of the characters of [Jean-Luc] Godard).”

The notion of destruction connects to an aspect of road movies that Paiva focuses on during the 1960-1980 period: the presence of a dystopian idea. In both Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, the characters end up dead. In the Brazilian cinema, Paiva sees the road as symbolizing an “uncertainty about what can be created in the future.” Drawing on the ideas of Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, Paiva sees the road movie as an expression of the crisis in a fixed modernity (in which movement overcomes space), prior to a fluid modernity (the current moment, in which technology superimposes time on space). These films demonstrate a “sort of nostalgia for fixed modernity,” in other words, for a time when trains and the movie theater itself actually existed.

The Road Movie in Brazilian fictional cinema (1960-1980) (2010/05715-0); Grant Mechanism: Regular Line of Research Project Award; Principal Investigator: Samuel Paiva (CECH-UFSCar); Investment R$20,828.84.