From City of God (2002) to Twenty Years Later (1984), here are the best Brazilian movies ranked.
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, which strove to depict realism on screen and showcase the tumultuous state of affairs in the country. Today, Brazilian films have certainly diversified their oeuvre, offering stories and characters that capture the realities of the nation. With artists depicting issues ranging from institutional corruption to economic collapses, here are the 13 best Brazilian films of all time, ranked.
Best Brazilian Movies, Ranked
13. Neighboring Sounds (2012)
A howling dog and an anxious neighborhood form the backbone of this film which 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 it 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 movie 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, Central Station is bound to stay with you for a long time. It earned lead actress Fernanda Montenegro an Oscar 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. We follow a young priest who arrives in a new town and meets the influential merchant Fortunato. Accompanying Fortunato is an orphan girl, 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 gleefully disregards the rules of staging and dialogue, creating chaotic poetry in its movement. At a languid pace that feels natural, 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 narrative is a revised, modern version of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice from Greek mythology. It is modernized significantly due to its setting in a Carnaval held in Rio de Janeiro. The saturated colors, exciting emotions, and Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa’s brilliant soundtrack turn it into a visual feast.
Black Orpheus won the 1959 Palme d’Or and Best Foreign Film at both Cannes 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. Elite Squad is said to have been inspired by accounts from many ex-BOPE officers (like American SWAT teams), who’re 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 Rio de Janeiro slums. With commercial and critical acclaim, it became a cultural phenomenon in Brazil. Elite Squad won the prestigious Golden Bear at the 2008 Berlinale.
8. Diabo na Terra/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 movie proceeds, the two keep drifting from place to place, and we follow. Glauber Rocha, one of the leading figures in the Brazilian industry, wrote and directed the film.
Posing important questions regarding the nature of faith and hope, Black God, White Devil is 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 Peixoto. 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. One woman has fled from an unhappy marriage, while the other has escaped from prison. Meanwhile, the man is miserable because he’s in love with a woman who is married to someone else. The emotions that the movie 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 music are proof of 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 chance 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 spellbound.
5. Cidade de Deus/City of God (2002)
The iconic Brazilian gangster film City of God is based on Paulo Lins’ semi-autobiographical eponymous novel. It 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 the 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 contributes to its formidable reputation.
4. Rio, North Zone (1957)
The premise is the exploitation of a singer in the ruthless music industry. Ze Keti, whose life the film dramatizes, 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 idealization. What we get is a deeply moving film that 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 19, in Sao Paulo played the lead 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’re sent to reform academies where they’re 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 Brazilian culture, its history, and Brazil itself in the 60s. 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 the nation’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 utilizes 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 a military dictatorship in Brazil. The film’s production and release were marred by controversy and government interference.
50 years on, the film has become a cult classic. It’s noted for its unflinchingly honest, and moving work on a dangerous time in the nation’s history.
These are some of the finest Brazilian movies. The country may not boast an impressive repertoire like German and French cinema, but that hasn’t deterred it from building a powerful body of work. They’ve cemented a place in world cinema. With a distinct sensibility and aesthetic, Brazilian filmmakers have a knack for picking social and political issues of relevance, advancing art with a greater cause.
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.