Looking at two of Brazil's biggest blockbusters of the decade, Fernando Meirelles' "City of God" and Hector Babenco's "Carandiru," one might be tempted to stereotype contemporary Brazilian cinema as extremely violent. Both "City of God" and "Carandiru" followed the desperate, dangerous lives of slum dwellers and prisoners and were praised for their truthful and vibrant portrayal of the illnesses of Brazilian society. "Violence is a subject that all Brazilian films have in common," says Geórgia Costa Araújo, who produced 2003's confrontational "Contra Todos" ("Up Against Them All"), "but now we want to explore more themes." Filmmaker Laís Bodanzky ("Bicho de Sete Cabeças") believes that Brazilian cinema is too diverse to be defined by violence, but she points out that "the public chose to see these two films that look at violence in an intimate way."
The social dramas of "City of God" and "Carandiru" aren't the only movies that have struck a chord with Brazilian audiences. Last year 's "Cazuza -- O Tempo Não Pára," based on the life of the iconic singer who famously died of AIDS in 1990, was one of the country's most successful films with approximately three million spectators. "For a Brazilian film that is huge," says Costa Araújo, and her production company Coração da Selva (which means "heart of the jungle") is hoping their new musically themed "Antonia," directed by Tata Amaral, will find a similar audience.
Founded in 2003 by Costa Araújo, Amaral, and Roberto Moreira, "Antonia" will be Coração da Selva's second feature after Moreira's "Contra Todos" (which was co-produced by "City of God"'s O2 Filmes). The movie is the story of a group of girls who try to survive as rap artists, struggling with many problems that young women face, from domestic violence to discrimination in a macho profession. None of the cast has acted before; instead, Coração da Selva chose to cast popular Brazilian rappers like Negra Li, Sandra da Sá, Thaide, and Leilah Moreno, who also wrote music for their characters in the film. Another noteworthy characteristic of the film's actors: they're black, which is a rarity in Brazilian cinema, despite the fact that roughly half the country's population is of African descent.
"Our films have a naturalist style, we're not preoccupied with mise-en-scene," Costa Ara´jo told indieWIRE. "We invest our time and money in choosing the actors and training them. Our films look for a natural form, to be very truthful." Currently, "Antonia" is in its first stage of editing and Costa Araújo hopes it will debut by the end of the year. The movie has crossover appeal with its original soundtrack and cast of rap celebrities, and Coração da Selva is already planning a series of concerts to help launch the film. Depending on its commercial success, they are also considering a TV series based on "Antonia." With the relatively low overhead costs and production time involved in TV launches, Coração da Selva is considering the medium as an attractive opportunity for growth.
Another small Brazilian production company, Buriti Filmes, is working on a feature with a strong element of music. Laís Bodanzky and Luiz Bolognesi, the founders of Buriti, are in the early stages of preparing their new film "União Fraterna" (which translates into English as "fraternal unity"). The movie is an original story that takes place during the course of one evening in a São Paulo dance hall for senior citizens.
"It's a subject that interests me a great deal," says Bodanzky. "While I was shooting 'Bicho de Sete Cabeças' I visited these dance halls and fell in love - these people have grey hair but the spirit of a teenager. It was surprising to see this life pulsating so strongly, as if life was just beginning." Bodanzky says the film will incorporate a wide variety of dance hall music, from bolero to rock, samba to tango. "I love making sound participate in the narrative of the film," Bodanzky replied when asked about the intense soundscape used to portray the emotional turbulence of the young protagonist in her previous film, admitting her fascination with sound as a means for advancing the story.
While "Bicho de Sete Cabeças" connected with audiences and critics in Brazil, Bodanzky and Bolognesi are known for more than their work together on feature films. In 1999 the pair produced "Cine Mambembe -- O Cinema Descobre o Brasil," a documentary about their grassroots tour around the country with a movie projector, a screen, and a handful of Brazilian films, hosting free outdoor screenings for anyone who was curious to attend them. Today, the project has become Cine Tela Brasil (Bodanzky explains that "Mambembe" is a type of improvisational theater and they decided to change the name once they gained sponsorship in 2004), and now the group is able to hold screenings inside an air-conditioned tent. With obvious pride in her voice, Bodanzky notes that "the team is now really large and very professional" and is able to survive independently of Buriti Filmes.
Each week, the team packs up and moves to a different location, almost always in rural or peripheral areas with no movie theaters, or neighborhoods where people are simply too poor to afford a ticket. The project was born out of a desire to create an alternative, democratic way to stimulate the public's participation with its national cinema, and the results are encouring - not only are screenings packed, but many people in the audience admit they've never been to a movie in their lives. "It's a lot of work, but it's so beautiful, so exciting to see the results. Each screening is seated at almost 100%, almost all the sessions are full. Compare that with 35-40% average seating in malls. We joke that we have the best occupied theater in the country."
[ Michael Gibbons is filing occasional Dispatches from Brazil. He is currently based in São Paulo. ]