Imprimir Republish


It killed Liberty and went to the cinema

Website reveals documents on how the dictatorship censored Brazilian filmmakers

ReprodutcionLúcio Flávio, o passageiro da agonia (Lucio Flavio), by Hector BabencoReprodutcion

What the eyes do not see, the heart does not feel. It was with this spirit that the military regime acted on Brazilian culture, mutilating and banning books, films, plays and music, in the long period that goes from 1964 to 1988, when, at last, the new Constitution abolished censorship in Brazil for good. “Our creative effort is immense, but the incredible, marvelous, rational efficiency that the censorship does to destroy everything is greater still. Of the public services, it is one of the rare things that works in this country”, playwright Zé Celso stated in 1968.

Posterity preferred to recall only the anecdotal side of the vetoes of the truculent and illiterate censors. “This is a serious mistake. Censorship affected the upbringing of entire generations and was fundamental in the maintenance of the dictatorial regime, which would not have lasted so long without it. For the military, destroying the cultural identity of Brazil and replacing it by theirs was a fundamental strategy. And the preferred locus for this action was the cinema”, explains Leonor Souza Pinto, the author of the doctoral thesis “Memory of the action of censorship on the Brazilian cinema”, defended at the University of Toulouse, and the coordinator of the recently launched homonymous website (, which gives free and unrestricted access to the cases of censorship, including the censors’ opinions, in a facsimile edition.

Setting off from the proposal that “you have to expose to keep”, this first block of the project makes available 6 thousand documents about 175 Brazilian films, part of the collection on censorship that, since the 1990’s, has been in the National Archives, in Brasilia. “Research into these cases overturns the idea that censorship was just narrow-minded, ill-informed and misshapen, revealing it as an organized instrument, an important sustaining pillar for the consolidation of the military regime”, she says. “The dictatorship recognized the Brazilian cinema as the medium for forming mentalities and strengthening the national identity, and for this reason did not measure efforts in investing in an increasingly efficient censorship that not only prevented filmmakers from expressing themselves, but also ended up helping to distance the public from the national cinema.”

Critic Inimá Simões, the author of Roteiro da intolerância [Schedule for intolerance], likewise does not underestimate the power of the veto. “In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the cinema was a great instrument for mobilization, and there was, on the part of the dictatorship, a clear project for controlling society by means of it. “The censorship was not, as is thought, carried out by a band of idiots.” Every rule, of course, allows exceptions. Like the censor who saw in kung fu a channel for broadcasting Maoist theses. Or a colleague of his who defined the plot of Macunaíma, by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, like this: “Story of a black who becomes a white and goes to the city to give vent to his sexual instincts, returning afterwards to the jungle”. In Como era gostoso o meu francês [How tasty/sexy was my Frenchman], the censorship could have been motivated by national self-respect offended in its manliness: “The Frenchman’s penis is larger than the Brazilian Indians’. That won’t do”, a policeman complained to the director of the film, Nelson Pereira dos Santos.

What began as comedy ended up as tragedy. “Censorship went on adapting itself to the political needs of the dictatorship in a gradual way. Until 1967, it is moralist, in harmony with the yearnings of the conservative Brazilian society and of the Church, both sympathizers of the coup and players in it”, Leonor says. In those days, total prohibition was rare, and it was cuts that were abundant. Censorship is more occupied in taking out of the people’s sight what it judged inappropriate. Which even included requiring Zé do Caixão [Coffin Joe] to change the end of his atheist protagonist in Esta noite encarnarei no seu cadáver [This night I’ll possess your corpse], obliging him to cry out: “God, I believe in thy power”. These were the times of censorship done by wives of soldiers, former soccer players, classifiers from the Livestock Department, accountants with protectors, who could judge what Brazilian could or could not watch. During the censorship sessions, when they saw something “improper”, they would ring a bell and the projectionist would put a bit of paper over the passage to be cut.

Even so, the cinema never ceased to be seen by the military as a serious matter. “The military government recognized the cinema as an important transforming force. Proof of this were the films of the Ipês (Research and Social Studies Institute), responsible for demoralizing the image of President João Goulart. Produced in 1962, they already reveal the view of the right about the potential of the cinema. They are films of an excellent technical quality, showing a great investment, of capital and of effort, in their production.” According to the author, after recognizing the potential of the screens, it became an obsession of the dictatorship to distance the public from the authors’ cinema. Luckily for our culture, the filmmakers insisted on making films.

“The French critic Georges Sadoul, by means of Roberto Farias, sent a message to the Brazilian directors: ‘Make your films, as may be possible. Don’t stop. Because, one day, this is going to pass, and the films will be there, to tell this story'”, Leonor recalls. If they failed to make the works they dreamt of, the directors left a noteworthy legacy of resistance, particularly after the AI-5 (the decree that “institutionalized” the military dictatorship), in 1969.

But already from 1966 onwards, the censorship keeps on changing its focus and, little by little, getting ready for the repression of political expression. Censors take courses at the University of Brasilia, with the critic Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes, and in the opinions there begin to appear, side by side, cuts of a moral and ideological bent. In El Justicero [The Just Man], by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, of 1968, “the analysis of the censors indicates the presence of scenes and phrases of vulgar slang mixed with known clichés of subversive propaganda”. All the copies were seized and destroyed. Nelson was only to see the film once again years later. “In 1967, censorship directors and heads, until then civil servants, were little by little replaced by soldiers and, at the end of 1968, almost all the staff in management is militarized. With the AI-5, and the extension of censorship to all cultural products, a well-organized, ferocious and implacable prohibition comes onto the stage”, Leonor says.

More and more, the censors are trained to discover subliminal messages wherever they might be. In Macunaíma, for example, a censor ordered a cut in the scenes in which actress Joana Fomm appeared with a dress said to have the colors of the Alliance for Progress, an American organization hated by the military. The opinion of O dragão da maldade contra o santo guerreiro [The Evil Dragon Against the Warrior Saint], by Glauber Rocha, shows this change in the look of censorship: “Glauber takes good advantage of the theme he chose to carry out political preaching, in a surreptitious way. I suggest cuts in the scenes in which the director does this. As to the scenes of violence, I merely call the attention of my learned boss to them, since I consider that in a film that is all violence, they are essential”. Blood, yes. Ideas, no.

“I see, sir, the use of cunningly architected symbology to impress unwary spirits, which may serve as a dangerous weapon with the strategy of subversive action, with the scope of transmitting revolutionary messages through apparently ingenuous images, but which contain, subliminally, the insidious poison of communist propaganda”, warns the opinion on Cabeças cortadas [Severed Heads], also by Glauber. A mulher de todos [The Woman of All], by Rogério Sganzerla, brings a list of cuts whose order is symptomatic: “1. Cut the scene in which a newspaper appears with the title ‘Delfim Neto (The then Finance Minister) says that 69 will be a golden year’; 2. Cut the scene in which the woman appears dancing with bare breasts; 3. Take out of the soundtrack the sentence ‘individual liberty does not exist without collective liberty’ etc.”. With each line, the “dialectic” between morals and politics.

“A scene showing a young man with fists clenched against oppression and singing the Internationale was on the same level as another scene, in which a couple appears, involved in sexual activities. Censorship made an effort of stressing the idea of the time, which preached that international communism was penetrating into the whole of day-to-day life. For the theoreticians of national security, showing sex before marriage, criticisms of the authoritarianism of parents, adolescent revolt, were all ‘manifestations of communism’ to destroy families and institutions. It was a virus invisible to the naked eye, only perceived by prepared people, as the censors felt themselves to be”, Inimá Simões explains.

In the 1970’s, though, the same government that, a decade ago, had repressed the legs of Fernanda Montenegro in A falecida [The Dead Woman], by Leon Hirszman, was lenient with the ascension of the “pornochanchada” genre of erotic comedy. “This is the question I ask myself when analyzing the second block of censorship documents, shortly on the website. My intuition, still initial, makes me think that stimulating ‘pornochanchada’ was one more way found by the dictatorship to distance the spectators from the cinemas. I am still not sure, but what other objective could there be in encouraging a kind of cinema that was obviously going to provoke the wrath of the conservative and opinion-shaping bourgeoisie?”, Leonor queries. For Inimá the critic, the lenience with the films with naked women also worked as a way of distancing the filmmakers from the serious subjects. They made money without causing a headache.

In the political field, goodwill was more difficult. Rather, the vainglorious strategy followed by some censors of releasing films that they thought the public was not going to understand and, hence, they would be politically innocuous. “Setting off from fiction, Glauber manages to make of the unreal an idea that is more perfect than the original. However, the theme will not please the lay public for its complexity, and still more so, for the elliptic assembly of the narrative. Here is a film intended for an intellectualized elite, since its construction and expression is too Cartesian, seeking something abstract to express a political problem”, observed one censor about Terra em transe [Earth Entranced], by Glauber, suggesting the release of the film. A few months afterwards, a confidential document asked “to advise which censor was responsible for the release of the films La Chinoise and Terra em transe, clarifying, furthermore, what the ideological content of the films cited was and if there were irregularities in their release”. Those who do not prohibit have to be prohibited.

“Until 1966, the opinions were rare that ask for an evaluation from the higher echelons. The censors felt secure with their evaluation. From 1968, this begins to happen regularly, which denotes the change of direction that is being structured inside the censorship, in a way a reflection of the dubiety of the clash between the hard line military and the more open ones. With the AI-5, any error brings punishments. The censors are now afraid to release a film.” Despite being dissected by the censors, Os inconfidentes [The Traitors], by Joaquim Pedro, no reason was found for prohibiting the film (teachers were even summoned to help to discover hidden messages). With the film already on the billboards, a confidential document of 1972 asks for clarifications about its release: “The Manchete magazine published an article claiming that ‘the film was the history of Tiradentes that the books do not tell’. There is a suspicion, then, that the film offers subliminal connotations of a subversive nature”.

Even national icons can be subject to problems. For the trailer of Roberto Carlos em ritmo de aventura [Roberto Carlos in Rhythm of Adventure], by Roberto Farias, to be released, Delfim Netto sent a request to the Minister of Justice: “I hereby ask for an exception to be opened in the case of the film, since here is a story whose protagonist is the most admired Brazilian popular artist”. The ring was tightening. “It now becomes common for films to be released or not by the director-general of the censorship, who would get the opinions and give the final decision as he sees fit”, says Leonor. As in Pra frente, Brasil [Forward, Brazil], also by Farias. “The main message is a call for awareness, which leads on to meditate on the pernicious lack of security in times of intestine convulsion. However, in the light of the political opening up, there is no way of denying its not be obliged to censorship”, says one opinion.

They even go so far as to ask the director to insert, in the opening of the film, a message from the regime: “This film takes place in 1970, at one of the most difficult moments of Brazilian life, when the government was committed to the fight against armed extremism. Kidnappings, deaths, excesses, moments of pain and affliction. Today, a page turned over, in the history of a country that cannot lose the perspective of the future”. Everything seemed to be in order, and the film was released by the censors. Farias, though, received a short note: “I inform  you that this division, after due examination, did not release for exhibition the film Pra frente, Brasil. Cordially, Solange Maria Teixeira Hernandez, director of the Censorship”. Mrs. Solange thought differently from her colleagues.

If the filmmakers suffered, the public lost its cinema. The need for resorting to metaphors in the films, as a way of beating the censorship, made the director and the spectator separate. “We consciously made communication difficult. There was no other option. The censorship was sophisticated, it went so far as to be cynical. ‘Nobody is going to understand these films’, one censor was always telling me”, recalls Nelson Pereira dos Santos. For Leonor, being obliged to change styles and languages to continue to work, the filmmakers fell into a hermeticism that resulted in the distrust of the public with Brazilian films, even today not entirely overcome. Often, though, the complexity was not on purpose.

Various films suffered such extreme vetoes that they reached the cinemas practically incomprehensible. “Better to ban the film, since the cuts are so many that the movie is going to become a meaningless short”, one censor observes. Some directors would put in polemical scenes to create “fat” that would allow the censor to cut without prohibiting. “This seems to be the intention of the Neville d’Almeida, with Piranhas do asfalto [Asphalt Piranhas/whores]. But this being a case of the national cinema, thus showing our Christian comprehension of human insanities, we suggest releasing the film of this dissipater, a carbon copy of Godard”, ranted one censor in his opinion.

Be that as it may, unless it were Mazzaropi or Os Trapalhões (popular comedians),  the public would run away  on hearing talk of the Brazilian cinema. At times, it even demanded their censoring. There are various letters asking for the prohibition of films on exhibition, denouncements taken seriously and attached to the cases. “It’s a case for the police. There are scenes that not even the most experienced in life can support. I’m not a puritan, as I know what life is like. But I’m disgusted at being a woman. I feel shame looking at myself in the mirror. This film has to be prohibited”, gave vent one spectator in a letter to the Minister of Justice, after seeing A dama do lotação [The Lady on the Bus]. Exaggerations, since the police was alert. Painstaking reports confirm that Glauber, Ruy Guerra and Joaquim Pedro, amongst others, were watched by the Department of Political and Social Order (Deops). With Glauber, the revelation has a special flavor: the filmmaker complained a lot about being spied on, and he ended up earning a reputation, unfair, of paranoia.

If that was not the director’s case, schizophrenia was surely the disease that the censorship suffered from. After all, a good deal of the films that were censored or cut in Brazil were given an indication of “good quality”, which qualified them to be exhibited, unabridged, abroad (a fact that help to save many reels for posterity, since they kept far from the censors’ scissors). “Hence the creation by the regime, in 1969, when the AI-5 started, of Embrafilme, which begins as a distribution company. This shows that the censorship recognized the quality of our cinema and knew how it was helping to construct, abroad, an image of a democratic Brazil, where the government ‘encouraged filmmakers’, although, over here, they would suffer heartache to approve a film”, the researcher observes.

With democratization, the censorship changed its focus, and, little by little, left the cinema free, to attack the TV, the dictatorship’s great new communication vehicle.  “Films would be released for the big screen and dilacerated for the small screen, when they were not scheduled for late timeslots. The view that censorship gives way with the political opening is a false one. In actual fact, its work continues in the same way, except now controlling television, and it only comes to a halt with the end of censorship in 1988”, Leonor points out. Directors undergo a second via-sacra to achieve the broadcasting of their films on television. Today, it is the market that censors. “TV does not transgress, it does not go beyond the limits imposed by the market. If there was no gay kiss in the soap opera América, for sure the surveys made by Globo showed that it would have more to lose with sponsors than to win in Ibope ratings points”, says Inimá Simões. The scissors of the market beats even stone.