Brazilian film is unflinching, confrontational and often extremely violent. It’s where the struggle for the nation’s identity is fought, writes Christian Blauvelt.

The scene is almost unbearable to watch. A gang corners two cowering children in the alley of a favela. The criminals want to initiate a teenager into their syndicate by having him shoot the kids. They give the children a choice: do they want to take a bullet in the hand or in the foot? 

This moment from Fernando Meirelles’ City of God is not what the uninitiated expect from Brazilian cinema. Many assume that movies from the World Cup host nation will take the form of exotic fantasy: colourful escapism about sexy people in a sun-drenched tropical paradise. That type of film does exist – it gave the world Carmen Miranda – but the arc of Brazil’s movie history always has bent much more toward the solemn. Cinema has been the battleground where the struggle for Brazilian national identity has most frequently been fought – and Brazil’s filmmakers have treated that battle with the utmost seriousness. As director and political agitator Glauber Rocha would put it in his landmark essay The Aesthetics of Hunger (1964), Brazilian filmmakers have often strived to contribute to “…an evolving complex of films that will ultimately make the public aware of its own misery”.

Film is a hybrid art, so is the perfect medium for exploring Brazil’s culture, a hybrid itself. Just a few months after the Lumière brothers screened the first movie in 1895, a film exhibition was held in Brazil. Homegrown filmmaking soon followed, with the most popular genre in the late 1890s and early 1900s being the ‘posed’ film, in which real-life criminals’ exploits and gruesome crime scenes were restaged.

The idea of forming a collective identity through shared experience runs throughout the history of Brazilian cinema. One of the nation’s greatest movies, Mario Peixoto’s experimental silent film Limite (1931), pivots on this idea. Three refugees of a shipwreck are marooned at sea in a lifeboat. They begin to share with each other stories and anecdotes, brought vividly to life in flashback, until the barriers between past and present, dream and memory dissolve. Limite is ultimately about finding collective truth from multiple points of view and states of being. This synthesis found its echo in Brazilian literature of the period – namely Oswald de Andrade’s The Cannibalist Manifesto from 1928. “Before the Portuguese had discovered Brazil, Brazil had discovered happiness,” Andrade wrote. “Down with the importers of canned consciousness.”

The anxiety of influence

The “canned consciousness” Andrade refers to is the literature and cinema of Europe and America. In the 1920s, when he was writing, Brazil was already importing movies from France, England, Germany and the United States. For Brazilian cinema to hold its own against the influx, homegrown studio heads of assembly-line film companies like Cinematografica Vera Cruz sought to mimic the European and American models of production – mainly by creating a ‘star system’ of actors to appear in light musical comedies called chanchada. These studio films became a metaphor for the conflict at the heart of the nation’s cultural identity: should Brazilians strive for legitimacy by parroting the European and American ways of life? Or should Brazilians embrace actual parrots and perpetuate a stereotype of palm tree-lined exoticism already held by Europeans and Americans?

Cinema Novo (literally ‘new cinema’) offered a third solution. This was a movement of films, roughly analogous to Italian Neorealism, that  attempted to show ordinary Brazilians as they really are: real life, not some aspirational fantasy. It’s no accident that Cinema Novo coalesced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as presidents Juscelino Kubetschek and João Goulart were rolling out major new reform and development programs  that promised “50 years of progress in five”. These were political films. Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ landmark Vidas Secas (Barren Lives, 1963) could be described as a Brazilian Grapes of Wrath, and like in John Ford’s film adaptation of the Steinbeck novel, dos Santos finds dignity in the roaming lives of migrant family protagonists. But unlike Ford, he doesn’t find poetry in them. Shot in high-contrast black and white with a handheld camera, all dos Santos gives us is the overexposed aridness of the sertão region of northeastern Brazil. And the family’s pet parrot? By the end of the movie they’ve had to eat the bird to survive.

“We were making political films when the French New Wave was still talking about unrequited love,” Cinema Novo director Rui Guerra once said. And while the ennui-filled characters in Bergman and Antonioni films from the same period worried about the silence of God and the emptiness of modern relationships – problems most often felt by those with full stomachs – Cinema Novo presented characters simply trying to exist. "The hunger of Latin America is not simply an alarming symptom: it is the essence of our society,” Rocha wrote in The Aesthetics of Hunger. “[Cinema Novo's] originality is [Latin Americans'] hunger and our greatest misery is that this hunger is felt but not intellectually understood."

Rocha helped steer Cinema Novo from a Neorealist sensibility of documentation to one of revolutionary agitation. His Black God, White Devil, made in 1964 when he was only 24 years old, is an artillery assault on convention. It follows two peasants – a man and a woman – as they are caught up in a roundelay of violence: first against the landowner who’s deprived the man of an honest wage, then in following an African ‘prophet’ leading a proletarian rebellion against the Church. “Cinema Novo teaches that the aesthetics of violence are revolutionary rather than primitive,” Rocha wrote. “The moment of violence is the moment when the coloniser becomes aware of the existence of the colonised. Only when he is confronted with violence can the coloniser understand, through horror, the strength of the culture he exploits.”

Exporting revolution

Brazil faced a new identity crisis in 1964 when President Goulart was ousted by a military coup. It brought in a new period of censorship in Brazilian cinema – Rocha himself was forced into exile in 1971 – and Cinema Novo had to become more coded, more metaphorical in its critique. One of the greatest of these films was dos Santos’ How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971), about a French soldier in the 1500s captured by Brazil’s indigenous Tupinamba people and eventually eaten by them – Oswald de Andrade’s Cannibalist Manifesto made literal.  Film scholars Randal Johnson and Robert Stam wrote in the academic journal Jump Cut that the film “suggested that the Indians (i.e. Brazil) should metaphorically cannibalize their foreign enemies, appropriating their force without being dominated by them”.

Whether intentionally or not, this particular attitude toward assimilating external influences seemed to catch on in Brazil. Under the dictatorship, Cinema Novo was extinguished not long after How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman in the 1970s. The chanchada, and its sex comedy variant the pornochanchada, ruled the cinema alongside Hollywood imports, but the attitude of Brazilians in watching and receiving these movies in some cases really seemed to live up to The Cannibalist Manifesto.  Brazil “…caught a serious case of Saturday Night Fever,” Johnson and Stam wrote, “to the extent that the supple Brazilian language sprouted neologistic verbs and nouns from the root ‘Travolta’ — travoltar (to travolt), travoltice (travoltage),” to describe things influenced by the film’s disco-era flair. The Saturday Night Fever effect in Brazil goes to show how cinema there, even when imported from abroad, can be the site of Brazil’s ongoing identity formation.

Cinema Novo itself came roaring back in the 1990s and 2000s thanks to Walter Salles (Central Station) and Fernando Meirelles (City of God). The movement in its original 1960s form also arguably established the political basis of Third Cinema – movies beyond those of Hollywood-style studio systems or European-style arthouse auteurs. The fingerprints of Cinema Novo can be seen all over the subsequent films from traditionally ‘Third World’ countries such as Senegal, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, India and China. A movement that initially formed in resistance to the importation of films and film aesthetics from other countries became a dynamic exporter. (In that respect Cinema Novo is quite like the Hollywood cinema it rejects.) The copycats around the world show that the goal of Cinema Novo, and possibly the identity-conscious Brazilian cinema as a whole, has been achieved: not just to be serious, but to be taken seriously.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.