Brazilian cinema has been beset with history and circumstances as fraught as that of Brazil itself. The industry saw its inception in the early twentieth century. The golden age of Brazilian cinema followed soon after, with black and white films generating revenue as well as expanding to represent various social facets of the country. Reduced funding and a brief interlude of telenovelas and Latin melodramas were followed by a period of resurgence. Influenced by French New Age cinema as well as Italian Neorealism, Brazilian movies entered a period of experimentation. A notable movement was Cinema Novo during the 1960s-70s, that strove to depict realism on screen and showcase the tumultuous state of affairs in the country.
In contemporary times, Brazilian cinema certainly has diversified its oeuvre, offering stories and performances that capture the realities of the nation. With artists depicting issues ranging from institutional corruption to economic collapses, here are the twenty best Brazilian films of all time, ranked.
20. They Don’t Wear Black Tie (1981)
Directed by Leon Hirszman, They Don’t Wear Black Tie is adapted from a play of the same name by Gianfrancesco Guarnieri. Union leader Octavio is optimistic and idealistic to a fault as he tries to organize workers against the exploitative policies of factories and companies. This pits him against his son Tiao, who is an employee. The film balances the heavy subject matter of labor exploitation and class disparity by focusing on a universal constant: family. The film presents a multi-faceted portrayal of personal and political struggles. It was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 38th Venice International Film Festival.
Watch the film for understated performances and a fully realized plot that prioritises social issues, yet never gets too preachy.
19. Second Mother (2015)
A woman named Val leaves her young daughter Jessica behind to work as a housemaid for a wealthy family in Sao Paulo. In her quest to provide a better life for her daughter, she misses the most formative years of her childhood. Years later, she is surprised when she receives a call from her daughter. Jessica is now appearing for a university exam and requires a place to stay. Tensions run high when Val brings her to live in her employers’ home. Jessica rebels and breaks the unspoken rules of class hierarchy that run within the household. Second Mother is a profoundly moving and funny story of a mother and daughter at odds, told with a clever eye for detail. The story weaves in sly implications regarding class, gender and generational wealth. The central relationship of Val and Jessica makes the film worth watching.
18. Barren Lives (1963)
Also titled Dry Lives, the film is based on the 1938 novel of the same name by Graciliano Ramos. Barren Lives follows the lives and struggles of a poor family of four and their dog in the arid Brazilian Northeast area during a period of intense drought. The story itself is a sparse, unforgiving tale of survival and hardship. However, the powerful performances, coupled with director’s Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s signature minimalism and harshly beautiful silhouettes make the film more than a sum of its harsh, gut-wrenching parts. Due to its central preoccupation with economic hardship and social reform, the film has routinely been touted as one of the forebears of Cinema Novo.
17. Invisible Life (2019)
Set in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s, the film is based on the book The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão by Martha Batalha. It tells the story of two sisters, Euridice and Guida who are kept apart by their strict father. Circumstances foster a prolonged separation as Guida, who had eloped with a sailor, returns pregnant and is lied to by her parents. Being disowned, she writes regularly to her sister, not knowing that Euridice is not in Europe, but Rio itself.
The film is equally epic and tragic in its scope, paying attention to all the small acts of cruelty and oppression that women face. Its portrayal of the everyday, banal injustices to women are as heartbreaking as they are chilling. However, there is hope; the film leaves you with the idea that sisterhood and solidarity always find a way to stand up to patriarchy. The Film was Brazil’s entry for the Best Film in a Foreign Language Category at the 2019 Oscars.
16. Behind the Sun (2001)
Two families, the Breves and the Ferreiras are at the heart of this story about honor, retribution and justice. Tonho, the youngest son of the Breves is caught between a generations’ old feud with the Ferreiras. Their days are occupied with killing each other to exact vengeance, an eye for an eye. In the midst of this tit for tat killing, Tonho meets a girl, Clara, who forms a deep bond with him and his little brother named Kid. In the face of brutal violence and unspeakable isolation, Tonho learns to dream, feel and eventually let go of things. His wish to walk out a free man into a new world could be his salvation, or his undoing. The film is narrated with an admirable focus on presenting complicated characters as morally grey. It’s commitment to telling a humanizing story without judgement is what makes the film a wonderful watch.
15. A Dog’s Will (2000)
Two cowardly men Joao Grilo and Chico engage in a life of struggle in order to earn the bare minimum for themselves. Juxtaposed against their comical adventures are a series of characters who represent life in the Northern area of Brazil — haggard, comically absurd and hopeless. Not even the Catholic Church is exempt. The film employs masterful maneuvers and playful comic stereotypes to riff on the despondent state of affairs in most parts of Brazil of the 1950s. Corruption in the church, rowdy bandits, adulterous wives and the death of one very lovable puppy are only a few of the things the film pokes fun at. The film achieves the impossible, doing justice to the zany plot of the film. Watch this wonderful journey between reality and fiction and be pleasantly surprised.
14. Boy & the World (2013)
Nominated for an Academy Award, Boy and The World is a Brazilian film that follows the quest of a boy named Cuca to find his father. When his father leaves to find work, Cuca sets out on a journey that will end with him doing the same thing. The film’s most unique aspect is that it is told through little or no dialogue. It utilizes real footage of deforestation and pollution to create a narrative that prioritizes loss of innocence, growing up, and nostalgia. It is that rare film that does not merely romanticize growth and adulthood but posits a healthy, well- rounded view of the larger complications that come with it, both personal and systemic. The lovely message at the heart of the film seems to be one of impermanence — we have what we have, when we have it.
13. Neighboring Sounds (2012)
A howling dog and an anxious neighborhood form the backbone of this film that deals with urban living, fear, security and loss of control. When a private security firm moves into a small, middle-class neighborhood in Recife, the inhabitants experience a sense of safety. In the middle of this, a housewife and mother, Bia, struggles to come up with a way to deal with the incessant howling and barking of a neighbor’s dog.
Kleber Mendonca Filho’s deft direction and restrained performances make this film a delight to watch. Small gestures and the unnoticed idiosyncrasies of everyday life are afforded a stage to shine in this moving picture. It was selected as Brazil’s entry for Best Foreign Language film at the 86th Academy Awards.
12. Central Station (1998)
Central Station is based on a premise that feels familiar enough: embittered adult bonds with a hopeful kid who changes both their lives. The film follows Dora, a retired schoolteacher who writes and reads letters for illiterate people. When one of her customers, Ana, passes away, she is saddled with taking care of her young boy, Josue. His mother had been meaning to take Josue to meet his father, who he has never met before, and now that responsibility falls to Dora instead. On a trip to find his father, they come closer and learn about themselves, and the emotional hardships around them. Funny, sweet, and most of all, hopeful, this film is bound to stay with you for a long time. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and earned lead actress Fernanda Montenegro an Academy Award for Best Actress.
11. The Priest and the Girl (1966)
Based on the poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade’ with the same name, this was Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s directorial debut. It is the story of a young priest who arrives in a new town and meets influential merchant Fortunato. Accompanying Fortunato is an orphan girl by the name of Mariana. When Mariana grows up, she becomes his concubine and he wishes to marry her. But the arrival of the Priest halts this; he and Mariana elope. This causes a stir in the conservative atmosphere of the small town, and their fleeting attraction soon turns into forbidden love and desire.. The film plays with the rules of staging and dialogue, gleefully disregarding them and creating chaotic poetry in its movements. With a languid story that flows naturally, the film is a passionate affair, reminiscent of lavish melodramas and telenovelas.
10. Black Orpheus (1959)
A couple on the run are hiding, but not from ordinary pursuers. Orfeu and Eurydice, who are in love, are fleeing from Mira, to whom he is engaged and from Death itself. The story is a revised, modern version of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice from Greek mythology. It is modernised significantly due to its setting in a Carnaval held in Rio de Janeiro. The saturated colors, exciting emotions and a brilliant soundtrack by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa turn the film into a visual festival. The central love story and its resulting tragedy are fittingly excessive, and cinematic to a fault. The film won the 1959 Palme D’Or as well as the Best Foreign Film at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards in 1960.
9. Elite Squad (2007)
José Padilha’s crime thriller revolves around the actions of the titular ‘Tropa de Elite’ which refers to Rio’s BOPE special forces police squad. The film is said to have been inspired by accounts from many ex BOPE officers (analogous with American SWAT teams), who are required to step in to restore law and order. An aging captain must find a worthy successor to take on the mission against drug gangs, corrupt officers and a crumbling system. Two of his recruits stand out. The action-packed thriller was hailed for its gritty portrayal of violence and corruption in the Brazilian slums. With commercial and critical acclaim, it became a cultural phenomenon in Brazil.
Vengeance, duty and incredible violence are the mainstays of this film. The film won the prestigious Golden Bear at the 2008 Berlinale.
8. Black God, White Devil (1964)
Black God, White Devil tells the story of a ranch hand, Manuel. Manuel is forced to kill his boss and go on the run with his wife Rosa, when his boss tries to cheat him out of his wages. Along the way, he meets a saint who has sworn off violence, and Rosa too gets sucked into the world of murder and violence. As the film proceeds, the two keep drifting from place to place, and we follow. Glauber Rocha, one of the leading figures in Brazilian Cinema, wrote and directed the film. It was nominated for a Palme D’Or, and was Brazil’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the 37th Academy Awards.
Posing important questions regarding the nature of faith and hope, it’s regularly touted as one of the frontrunners of the Cinema Novo movement.
7. Limite (1931)
Limite is an experimental black-and-white silent film, directed by novelist Mario Pexioto. The story revolves around two people on a boat — a man and two women who have escaped for unknown reasons. Details from their past populate the film in the form of flashbacks, where one comes to know the reasons for their escape. One woman has fled from an unhappy marriage, while the other has escaped from prison. Meanwhile, the man is miserable because he is in love with a woman who is married to someone else. The emotions that the film evokes are conveyed through music.
The inception of the film is just as enigmatic as the work itself — Peixoto had reportedly seen a picture of a pair of handcuffed hands around a woman’s neck. That’s where the idea took root. Limite has attained cult status, and its visuals and score composition are proof why it’s such a classic.
6. The Given Word (1962)
A landowner and his sick donkey are the unlikely stars of this tale. When his donkey falls ill and has nearly no chances of getting better, Ze makes a promise to give away all his land and to the Saint Bárbara Church in Salvador, Bahia, where he plans to give away the cross to the priest. Upon his donkey’s recovery, the journey begins, with people using Ze and his story as a figurehead for their own motives. The climax of the film is reached when Ze, bearing the cross, reaches his destination and is subjected to a final, Christ-like absolution. Full of relevant, clever inferences, and religious imagery that questions the protagonist’s relationship with his faith, The Given Word will leave you spell-bound.
5. City of God (2002)
The iconic Brazilian gangster film City of God is based on the semi-autobiographical eponymous novel by Paulo Lins. The film documents the beginnings of a poor neighborhood, set up to rehabilitate people who had formerly been cast out from Rio’s slums ahead of the city’s beautifying drive. Negligence on part of the concerned officials, illiteracy and the lack of jobs, poverty and rampant weapons soon turns the town into a haven for crime. Two boys whose fates are intertwined grow up to be radically different people. Rocket, a hippie photographer and Li’l Dice, a drug lord. Flush with violence and corruption, the film’s gritty portrayal of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro contribute to its formidable reputation. Brazil’s entry in the Foreign Film category, City of God was nominated for four Academy Awards.
4. Rio, North Zone (1957)
The premise of the film is the exploitation of a singer in the ruthless music industry. Ze Keti, whose life the film dramatises, makes an appearance too. The plot unfurls through flashbacks which are rich with luxuriously composed musical pieces, all the while laying bare the multiple schisms and divisions within Rio’s social pyramid. A victim of exploitative structures and individuals who prove to be the predators of him and of his music, Espírito, the lead singer and protagonist witnesses each of his dreams cruelly undone one at a time by tragedy and forces that buffet him into situations beyond his control. The film was a result of director Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ desire to depict a ‘real’ Brazil, without any idealisation. The effect is a deeply moving film which immaculately depicts the flaws of show business.
3. Pixote (1981)
Director Hector Babenco’s Pixote is a documentary-like account that recounts how corrupt police forces in Brazil prey upon juvenile delinquents to use them to commit crimes and drug transfers. Fernando Silva, who was killed by police at nineteen years of age in Sao Paulo played the titular role of Pixote when he was only 11. Pixote is subjected to much abuse and danger as a child in the favelas and reform programs. It quickly becomes clear that the children like Pixote who are picked up from the streets have nowhere to go. In the face of such negligence, they are sent to reform academies where they are sadistically tortured or even raped. The perversion of the underbelly of crime and law is laid bare in this disturbing tale. Renowned filmmakers like Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese have named it among their influences.
2. Entranced Earth (1967)
Glauber Rocha’s film is constructed as an allegory for Brazil’s history, and Brazil itself in the sixties. The film is narrated by an unnamed writer who chalks up his current predicament to a change in political fortunes. The film then switches to a young journalist by the name of Paulo Martins. He is entangled with a local politician and his mistress, but soon attempts to leave them behind. Yet, this is easier said than done, as various reasons and circumstances keep him from realizing his dream of change and revolution. Rife with intrigue, betrayal and refreshing honesty, Entranced Earth paints a raw portrait of Brazil’s darkest recesses. For its candid metaphors of corruption in government, the film was banned by the Brazilian government.
1. Twenty Years Later (1984)
Told in the style of a documentary, Twenty Years Later narrates the story behind the assassination of local peasant leader, João Pedro Teixeira, due to the order of local landowners. Director Eduardo Coutinho utilises prior footage (the idea originally came after meeting Teixeira’s widow and shooting a protest over his death) and casts real life individuals to paint a moving image of one man’s fate in the face of military dictatorship in Brazil. The film’s production and release were marred by controversy and government interference. Attempts were even made to confiscate the footage, and many cast and crew members were arrested.
Nearly fifty years after its conception, however, the film has become a cult classic and is noted for its unflinchingly honest, and moving work on a dangerous time in the nation’s history.
Brazilian cinema may not boast an impressive backlog as German and French cinema, but that hasn’t deterred Brazilian filmmakers and artists from building a powerful body of work. They’ve cemented a place in world cinema and are an industry to watch out for. After all, no one nationality or industry can claim to have a monopoly on greatness. With a distinct sensibility and aesthetic, the filmmakers have a knack for picking social and political issues of relevance, advancing art with a greater cause.
Here we are, then, with our list of the greatest Brazilian films of all time! How many are you looking forward to watching?
An avid reader and a life-long lover of blue skies, I like to spend my time with obscure poetry and dissecting films. Currently besotted with Maupassant, art history and all things Nolan, you can find me spacing out to Queen while I look for new things to obsess with.