Rio, 40 Graus: Kickstarting Brazil’s Cinema Novo

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Rio, 40 Graus (1955) chronicles a day in the life of five young peanut vendors from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro as they travel into the elite and tourist-populated areas of the city. Along with their stories, the film features side stories on soldiers, boxers, politicians, and more throughout the city.

When Nelson Pereira dos Santos made Rio, 40 Graus, Brazil was experiencing a disorienting and violent transition both in the political sphere and the cinematic world. The ideology and techniques that would define the future were up for grabs and many people were wondering which way to turn. To start with, the Brazilian film industry experienced a profound but necessary loss when the Vera Cruz Studio failed. It was founded in 1949 by wealthy industrialists in Sao Paulo with the intention of transforming the Brazilian film industry into a new Hollywood. They immediately hired Alberto Cavalcanti, the director of the famous avant-garde film Rien que les Heures as its first director. Unfortunately, he was soon forced out because his artistic vision, as well as his homosexuality, were an affront to the investors. By 1954, Verz Cruz declared bankruptcy as it was an artistic and commercial failure. 

O Cangaceiro

One of the most infamous films made in their time, O Cangaceiro, proves just why it ended just as it began. The film tells the story of a band of cangaceiros, armed peasants from the northeast of Brazil, who between the 1880s and the 1930s constituted a movement to battle the big landowners and their government allies. Because of this, they have been incredibly foundational in the modern identity of Brazil. However, since Vera Cruz was so set on adopting Hollywood style, the film ended up transforming the cangaceiro struggle into a myth in the tradition of a Western, dividing the characters into good and bad bandits filmed in the green plains of Sao Paulo rather than the arid lands of the north. In other words, it was inauthentic and painfully unbrazilian.

Getulio Vargas

Meanwhile, Brazilian politics were in the middle of a tailspin. For almost 20 years, Getulio Vargas was the president of Brazil and by 1954, his tenure had come to a violent end. Vargas was born into a prominent political family. Throughout the 1920s he served in the cabinet and unsuccessfully ran for office. While appearing to accept defeat in 1930, Vargas led a revolution later that year. For the next 15 years, Vargas assumed largely dictatorial powers, ruling most of that time without a congress. In 1937, he presided over a coup d’etat, finally setting aside the constitutional government and setting up the authoritarian Estado Novo. However, in 1945, he was overthrown but was somehow elected senator later that year until he was finally able to take office again in 1951.

Vargas adopted economic nationalist policies, creating the state-owned oil company, Petrobras, but again his reign was mired in pretty serious corruption charges. After an assassination attempt on his political rival, Carlos Lacerda, many fingers were pointed at him. By 1954, the pressure had become too much and Vargas committed suicide, though he claims the assassination attempt had nothing to do with it.

All of this helped set the stage for the Cinema Novo, the first of several national new cinemas that would coalesce into the New Latin American Cinema. Many filmmakers were saddened by the stagnant state of the film industry and the political world. Nelson Pereira dos Santos, a young leftist filmmaker working on a shoestring budget, shined a spotlight on the impoverished black population for the first time. In doing so, the film ruffled a few feathers. Rio’s police chief, Geraldo de Menezes Cortes, halted its release in the federal capital because of Santos’ ties to the communist party. He also claimed that the film had the potential to foment disunity and presented a view of Brazil that was so distorted, that even the title was a falsehood. According to Cortes, the temperature in Rio never reached 40°.

But why would the police believe that this film would tear the country apart? In many respects, the film is about class unity above all. The opening shot of the film tracks over Rio de Janeiro and then glides north revealing that the Favelas will be the main character of the film. There, five poor young black boys will unite all the characters in the movie through their individual journeys through the city. All types of people, rich or poor, old or young, black or white, are linked because of these kids. The boys find unity in the rarest of places. When one boy finds himself at a critical soccer match at the Maracana, the director focuses on the tensions between a team’s rising star and the veteran he is replacing. 

Rio, 40 Graus

The two struggle with the roles they are now forced to fill and their team suffers for it until the veteran gives his young teammate the permission to replace him. He lets him know there is no bad blood and that maybe one day they will not be merely products for the rich team owners, but men. Rather than squabble amongst themselves, they are able to see the real enemy. The same goes for the men the boys know in the favela. When a notorious hot head finds out that his girlfriend has left him for another man, the neighborhood expects bloodshed. Instead, the man recognizes the new boyfriend as a companion in a prior factory strike. Having fought alongside him, he sees no need to fight with him. By the end, any conflict among the working classes seems to be sorted out. The film ends with the entire favela singing and dancing to a samba song about, of all things, slavery as the camera pans back to the city center, connecting the outskirts to the center yet again. The characters face their disturbing past and present with a defiant optimism.

The disunity in the film comes from figures of monetary or state authority. The soldier who remains too cowardly to marry his Northern girlfriend, the guards at the zoo that shoo away one of the young peanut vendors, and the cops who take the sides of the rich create the biggest conflicts of the film. Dos Santos shows how a group of well-to-do young bourgeois Brazilians may act friendly amongst each other but will easily screw over these young vendors. These powerful people are the real enemies. The team owners force ill-equipped or injured players to keep on going like cattle, the rich politicians brag about employing hundreds but won’t help a young vendor on the street, and the foreign tourists refuse to see the country as anything but a beautiful, primitive land. The list just goes on and on.

Rio, 40 Graus

These people try to sow discord amongst the population and force the poor to exploit themselves. Whether it be the players who fight their own bodies in order to face blood-thirsty crowds or the young people like Jorge, who is forced to tell strangers of his struggles to look after his sick mother in order to get money, they are all used by the state, the rich and the foreigners. But overall, this film paints a mixed picture of Brazil. It is not just a land of oppression. There is a great amount of joy in their misery and vice versa. In one of the last scenes in the city center of Brazil,  Jorge gets into a fight outside the stadium. The moment he stumbles onto the street and gets hit by a tram is the same moment that we hear the roar of the crowd. The young striker has scored a goal. Brazil’s glory and despair coexist in the same world and in the same breath.

In the end, it was Nelson Pereira dos Santos who won the battle against the Brazilian government. Various artists and directors of Brazilian cinema spoke out in solidarity with the film. Among them were well-known Brazilian film directors: Abílio Pereira de Almeida, Alberto Pieralisse [Pieralisi], Rodolfo Nanni, Tito Batini, and Cavalheiro Lima; the acclaimed actors Carlos Cotrim, Liana Duval, Paulo Bueno, and Lola Brah; the best cinematographers, Rui Santos and the Frenchman James Dezhelain. The highs and lows of the country got to live on in celluloid and create a cinematic movement that would reach far beyond the theaters or streets of Rio de Janeiro.

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