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Gender and Society in Contemporary Brazilian Cinema

Gender and Society in Contemporary Brazilian Cinema

Gender issues in thirteen Brazilian films made (with one exception) after the 1985 return to constitutional democracy and elimination of censorship.

January 1999
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181 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 3 b&w photos |

"Gender is an absolute ground zero for most human societies," writes David William Foster, "an absolute horizon of social subjectivity." In this book, he examines gender issues in thirteen Brazilian films made (with one exception) after the 1985 return to constitutional democracy and elimination of censorship to show how these issues arise from and comment on the sociohistorical reality of contemporary Brazilian society.

Foster organizes his study around three broad themes: construction of masculinity, constructions of feminine and feminist identities, and same-sex positionings and social power. Within his discussions of individual films ranging from Jorge um brasileiro to A hora da estrela to Beijo no asfalto, he offers new ways of understanding national ideals and stereotypes, sexual dissidence (homoeroticism and transgenderism), heroic models, U.S./Brazilian relations, revolutionary struggle, and human rights violations. As the first study of Brazilian cinematic representations of gender ideology in English or Portuguese, this book will be important reading in film and cultural studies.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  1. Constructions of Masculinity
    • Jorge um brasileiro
    • Lamarca
    • Ópera do malandro
    • O boto
    • Capitalismo selvagem
    • Yndio do Brasil
  2. Constructions of Feminine and Feminist Identities
    • A hora da estrela
    • Eternamente Pagu
    • Que bom te ver viva
    • Bananas Is My Business
  3. Same-Sex Positionings and Social Power
    • Barrela
    • O beijo no asfalto
    • Vera
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

David William Foster is Chair of the Department of Languages and Literatures and Regents’ Professor of Spanish, Interdisciplinary Humanities, and Women’s Studies at Arizona State University.


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Brazilian cinema, along with Mexican, Argentine, and to a great extent Cuban filmmaking, is one of the most extensive in Latin America. As in the case of Argentina and Mexico, Brazilian cinema got its start in the mid-1890s as part of the enormous interest in the manifestations of modernity on the part of important Latin American societies and the equally enormous interest on the part of European commercial ventures to take advantage of emerging Latin American marketplaces. By the second decade of the twentieth century, Brazil had an extensive array of movie houses and a local production to service the demand they created. just like other Latin American countries (and, indeed, most countries in the world), Brazil also experienced the vagaries of the nascent industry, especially the difficult relationship between national and foreign production. Early national production, which had become quite healthy by the end of the second decade, was seriously affected by the shift in the distribution sector from buying foreign films for local exhibition to renting them.

As an extension of the interest in foreign products created by the project of modernity, when foreign movies became readily available and inexpensive as rentals, national production was seriously damaged; since that time the history of filmmaking in Brazil, as in other countries, has shown many attempts to come to terms with how to balance a national production with foreign imports. Because of the considerable expense involved in filmmaking, as opposed to other forms of cultural production, it has been necessary historically to combine government subsidies for film production, usually through a national film institute or a program for formal underwriting—Embrafilme in Brazil, for example—with formal restrictions on foreign imports and projection quotas. Extreme cases, such as the disappearance of government subsidies in Argentina in the current decade or the strict regulation of foreign imports in Fidel Castro's Cuba, have rarely occurred in Brazil (an excellent, though now outdated, historical survey of filmmaking in Brazil is provided by Dennis West, Contemporary Brazilian Cinema; more recent filmmaking is covered by Robert Stain and Ismail Xavier, "Transformation of National Allegory").

In the case of Brazil, the two greatest periods of internal support have been the period of the Cinema Novo in the early 1960s and the period of redemocratization that began in 1985. Accord ing to John King, "between 1956 and 1961 industrial production increased by 80 per cent" (Magical Reels, 105); thanks to the extent to which filmmaking tapped into the prevailing nationalism of the period and concepts of the inherent greatness of Brazil and its manifest destiny in the international arena, the Cinema Novo became probably the only truly international movement in Latin American filmmaking. Usually associated with the name of one director, Glauber Rocha (1938-1981), the Cinema Novo, which recycled with a Brazilian accent major aspects of postwar Neorealism, focused on rural themes in some of its most famous texts (e.g., Rui [also often seen as Ruy] Guerra's Os fuzis [The Guns, 1964], Glauber Rocha's Barravento [1962], Nelson Pereira dos Santos's Vidas secas [Dry Lives, 1963], and Lima Barreto's O cangaceiro [The Bandit, 1953], perhaps the most famous Brazilian film of all time). Such a focus tended to serve as a platform for the representation of social and political themes in Brazilian society, especially the ways in which abiding conditions of non-urban life, particularly in the deeply impoverished Northeast, constituted a continuing gap between daily material conditions of life and the ideologemes of Brazil's national greatness. Such a focus, in turn, established links with committed filmmaking in other parts of Latin America that were concerned with the struggle against the neocolonialism that, although still tied to European sources in many respects, was increasingly identified with United States interests.

This was particularly true in the case of Brazil, where the economic dominance that resulted from ties to the United States during World War II resulted in a Brazilian economy that was particularly overshadowed by U.S. influence in the late 1950s, the period out of which the Cinema Novo emerged (see the discussion below on the image of U.S.-centered capitalism in Ópera do malandro [Rogue's Opera, 1986], which was made by Rui Guerra, one of the great Cinema Novo directors). The measures of repressive censorship imposed in the early 1970s by the military government that came to power by coup in 1964 essentially put an end to the Cinema Novo.

The Cinema Novo also produced important urban-oriented titles which showed the impact of influences such as Italian postWorld War II Neorealism (e.g., Rui Guerra's Os cafajestes [The Hustlers, 1963]). The effective combination of a documentary or quasi-documentary content, elements of folklore and autochthonous mythology, and a highly auteurial style of the filmic structure of photography combined to bring to the Cinema Novo a level of professionalism and artistic creativity that ensured worldwide attention (one of the best sources on the Cinema Novo is Randal Johnson's Cinema Novo x 5).

The Cinema Novo, matching similar interests in fiction and to a lesser extent theater, was the last great manifestation of a non-urban cultural production in Latin America. During the first half of the twentieth century, as Latin America became more and more a continent of metropolitan life (foreshadowing the subsequent emergence of megalopolises like Mexico City and São Paulo), cultural production, while not ignoring the city, continued to focus predominantly on non-urban culture. It promoted the prevailing belief that cities were somehow an accident (after all, most of them were reflexes of the Spanish and Portuguese empires which national independence and cultural nationalism had repudiated in the nineteenth century) and that a "true" national identity was to be found in the countryside, whether strictly Creole in nature or alloyed with indigenous, African, and non-Hispanic immigrant elements. This is evident in the great early-twentieth-century Latin American novels: the Mexican Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo (1916), the Argentine Ricardo Giiiraldes's Don Segundo Sombra (1916), the Venezuelan Rómulo Gallegos's Doña Bárbara (1919), and the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa's Grande sertão: veredas (Big Plains: Paths; trans. as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, 1956).

The city, however, began to be important in Brazilian culture with the famous Semana de Arte Moderna, which took place in São Paulo in 1912 (see the discussion below of Eternamente Pagu [Eternally Pagu, 1987], which has as one of its backdrops cultural and political movements in São Paulo during the 19 20s and 1930s); Nelson Pereira dos Santos's documentary Rio 40 graus (Rio 40∞ Latitude, 19 5 5) focused on the city, particularly on the slums, but more typically one associated with the Cinema Novo products like Dos Santos's Vidas secas, based on Graciliano Ramos's novel of the same name and referring to the barren Northeast, Rui Guerra's Os fuzis, dealing with a peasant uprising and its violent repression by army troops, or Rocha's Barravento, the first feature-length Cinema Novo, on fishermen. As King observes: "The city, the bourgeois and the urban proletariat are largely absent from these early films: the privileged space is that of the desolate Northeast of Brazil, the deserted backlands, the sertão, with its social bandits, cangaceiros, and messianic leaders" (Magical Reels, 108).

By contrast, when filmmaking in the early 1980s and particularly after the return to institutional democracy in 1985 gathered momentum in a Brazil that was very much changed from the 1960s, before the military dictatorship, and from the circumstances of cultural production during the dictatorship (1964198 5), urban culture had become the order of the day. Indeed, one recurring theme would be the fate of rural provincials as they swelled the population of major areas in Brazil's demographic economic process, parallel to that of other Latin American cities. Sao Paulo has doubled in population since the early 1960s, the heyday of the Cinema Novo, and, thirty years later, ranks as the world's third largest city, with approximately 19 million inhabitants. The material conditions of life may have changed little in the sertão since Rocha, Guerra, and Dos Santos made their films, but the individuals they describe have, in massive waves of internal migration, made their way to the city. It is the circumstances of their life there that Brazilian filmmakers are now constrained to describe: Suzana Amaral in A hora da estrela (The Hour of the Star, 1985), for example. Concomitantly, other films deal with social groups in the city (Rui Guerra's Ópera do malandro), definitions of individual identity against the backdrop of the city (Paulo Thiago's Jorge um brasileiro [Jorge, a Brazilian, 1989] ), unique social problems of the city (Bruno Barreto's O beijo no asfalto [Kiss on the Asphalt, 1981—a film from the period of transition]), women's history (Norma Bengell's Eternamente Pagu), and urban guerrillas during the dictatorship (Sérgio Rezende's Lamarca [1994])

This monograph is about this second important period of Brazilian filmmaking, a period whose extensive filmography would not be possible were it not for some measure of official support in the face of the enormous challenge offered to national culture by the foreign films that have engaged with the project of neoliberalism that is predicated on massive foreign investments and the massive importation of foreign products in all categories, including culture. Yet there is also the simple fact that, with the disappearance of censorship upon the return to democracy, whole new cultural categories have emerged to compete with local production, not only social-theme films and some action films that could not be viewed in Brazil during the height of censorship for reasons of content, but a whole array of pornography to meet an avid and deprived market (concerning the relationship between filmmaking and the state, see Randal Johnson, The Film Industry).

Many Brazilian films have been made in the last decade, as they have been in Argentina and especially in Mexico, which produces vast quantities of films to meet a local popular culture mar ket that can be described as influenced in one way or another by the production codes of Hollywood. Nevertheless, the return to democracy, the suspension of censorship, the development of a bibliography in new areas of social research, the implantation of neoliberal economics, and the crises of the megalopolis have all joined already long-standing issues in Brazilian culture such as racism, uneven development and distribution, classism, corruption, and social injustice to stimulate a strong internal demand for a national cinematographic production that would address these issues.

To be sure, many of these films have vied for international attention, such as Thiago's Jorge um brasileiro or more recently Fábio Barreto's O quatrilho (The Foursome, 1995), which centers on Italian immigrants in southern Brazil in the nineteenth century and was an Oscar finalist for the best foreign film. But Brazilian film, like Brazilian television, theater, and fiction, appeals essentially to an internal market, with some measure of exportation to external Portuguese-speaking venues. It is only the size of Brazil that has made possible such a level of internal consumption, in the face of a language that has few external venues: Brazilian films must, of course, be subtitled if they are to aspire to distribution elsewhere in Latin America and abroad, and there is now even an insistence by some Latin American film directors (e.g., Brazil's Héctor Babenco) on making films directly in English. Yet, precisely because this internal market is so relatively vast, Brazilian filmmaking continues (with uneven levels of official support) to sustain high quantitative and qualitative levels of production, especially with the continued cultural enthusiasm that has been kept alive during the decade since the return to democracy.

The present monograph concentrates on major documents in Brazilian filmmaking since 1985 with only one exception, for thematic reasons, from the period of transition (by the end of the 1970s, the dictatorship had become less authoritarian: while censorship continued to exist, a degree of expression was possible as long as the military was not attacked directly). However, this is not a history of Brazilian filmmaking since 1985. Brazil continues to have an enormous film output, and the inventory of titles deserving of critical analysis far exceeds the modest selection made for this examination of gender issues.

I have chosen films that, in one way or another, deal with gender issues; such a selection is always arbitrary, personal, and to a certain extent aleatory, especially in view of how much there is to choose from. Chapter 1 deals with "Constructions of Masculinity" (Jorge um brasileiro, Lamarca, Ópera do malandro, O boto [The Dolphin, 1987], Capitalismo selvagem [Savage Capitalism, 1993], Yndio do Brasil [Indian of Brazil, 1995]); Chapter 2 with "Constructions of Feminine and Feminist Identities" (A hora da estrela, Eternamente Pagu, Que bom te ver viva [How Nice to See You Alive, 1989], Bananas Is My Business [1994]); and Chapter 3 with "Same-Sex Positionings and Social Power" (Barrela [Lock-Down, 1990], O beijo no asfalto, Vera [1987]). There should be little surprise over the decreasing number of films in the three chapters. It is also not surprising that masculine subjects continue to be the core of Brazilian filmmaking, and this is especially true with films that refer to the political resistance of the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, except for highly commercial films touting conventional images of women as sexual objects, films dealing with women are fewer in number. And there should be little surprise that, in a country like Brazil where homophobia continues to be firmly entrenched, especially as regards the visibility of same-sex desire, there should be so few films in which homoeroticism is dealt with in any significant measure.

Gender is an absolute ground zero for most human societies, something that can never not be present. Even when gender is not the thematic center of a cultural text—and it is, however, usually precisely the center, as can be seen from most advertising, music, television programming, and popular magazines and literature—it is always present in the way in which a language like Portuguese obliges gender identity to be evoked unavoidably in each and every speech act. One cannot not announce one's gender affiliation or that of an interlocutor or third-person referent. Merely to fail to do so, either as a solecism or as a deliberate troping of grammatical structures, produces a queering of speech that requires immediate interpretation as a mistake, a joke, an audacious proposal of alternative sexuality, or an encoding of gender ambiguity (such as one might expect to find in songs by Ney Matogrosso, for example). Paralleling speech, bodies must always be signed as masculine or female, and the complex patterns relating to the division of gender labor in society are necessarily concomitant with such body signatures. The malandro in Rui Guerra's Ópera do malandro is not a generic designation, but a gendered one, and it would be impossible to conceive of this text allowing for an exchange of roles between men and women, even when the work does, in fact, have a subtext dealing with the issue of phallic women. And Suzana Amaral's A hora da estrela is not just about rural provincials struggling for survival in São Paulo, but rather about a woman's story of survival. Of course, there is a masculine figure that is part of this struggle, but it would be inconceivable to confuse Macabea's story with that of Olímpico or to conflate them into one genderless character.

Nevertheless, virtually all of these films thematize gender in one way or another because of the ground-zero importance of gender as an absolute horizon of social subjectivity in Brazil as in all of the West. Even when texts do not frame gender issues as such, gender is all too often used in an allegorical fashion. By this, I mean that personal issues of gender identity, gender conflict and crisis, threats to gender integrity, and gender transgression may all be a way of representing collective concerns that may or may not conventionally and customarily be identified via figures of gender. For example, it is quite common to embody the spiritual values of a nation in feminine figures: England's Britannia, Mexico's Virgin of Guadalupe, or Brazil's Nossa Senhora da Aprecida, the national Virgin Mary figure and patroness of the country. Nossa Senhora da Aprecida is also identified with the rural past; as a "black" religious figure whose mythic or folkloric origins as a miracle worker lie in having been caught in the net of black fishermen in the Paraiba River in the state of Sáo Paulo, she evokes or provokes national racial anxieties. It is perhaps for this reason that, with a significant change of rhetorical register, Brazil's garota de Ipanema, white or very lightly mulatto, can be viewed as such a persuasive national feminine type. Indeed, national identity is strongly tied to ideal feminine stereotypes. Yet the destiny of a nation is also frequently conceived in terms of masculine virility and imaged as an appropriate male personification: the U.S.A.'s Uncle Sam, England's John Bull, the mythified Che Guevara for Castro's Cuba, or Mexico's Aztec warrior.

In Brazil, the figure of the "colossus" or the "giant" man (the latter enshrined in a verse of the national anthem) resonates with sexual authority,' as in the case of the film analyzed below, Jorge um brasileiro. I argue that the hypermasculinity of Paulo Thiago's fictional protagonist in Jorge um brasileiro or of the historical protagonist, at least as played by the lead character, in Sérgio Rezende's Lamarca is far from circumstantial. Rather, it is crucial to the construction of meaning in the two films, whereby the gender features of the characters point not just to their roles as social subjects, but to the systems of values and social meaning that their bodies quite literally embody: they are special cases of the social subject in that their stories, as exemplified by the bodies that they display through the visual medium of the film, encode narratives of collective history.

Jorge's behavior—and it seems clear that he is unaware of the meanings Thiago wishes the spectator to associate with it—revolves around the possibility of an assertive Everyman who will rid himself of subservience and exploitation in the newly redemocratized Brazil, and all this in the context of undertaking a semiepic voyage of self-discovery. By the same token, the emergence of possibilities for women's social and political intervention in the postmilitary period, an emergence that is as important in terms of historical evolution as it is in terms of its symbolic confrontation with the exclusive masculinism of the armed forces that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1984, legitimizes and provides meaningful contexts for attempts to construct a history of women in Brazil. Norma Bengell's film on Patricia Galvão (Pagu) is not just the story of one important female revolutionary figure. Rather, the fact that she was Brazil's first female political prisoner during the period of Getúlio Vargas's fascist Estado Novo, the predecessor of the neofascist regime that came to power in 1964, makes Pagu a particularly important female protagonist of Brazilian history to remember in 1987, only two years after the restoration of democracy.

The theoretical premises underlying such an interpretation of the use of gender rely on the belief that gender identity, sexual roles, and even erotic desire are as much complex social construc tions as they are constitutive elements of biological bodies. Gender is not exclusively a social construction, nor is it a matter of biological essentialism. One can debate the proportional interaction of the biological and the constructive, but the point is that the body and its subjectivity interact with social circumstances that, therefore, impinge on the body-subjectivity compound so that meaning moves back and forth between them. For this reason, if the individual's identity is determined in a certain measure by interaction with the social text, an interpretive modeling of the individual such as takes place in cultural products has the power to constitute an interpretation of that social text. Indeed, this is so much the case that it does not take an enormous investment in social theories of cultures to understand that a considerable bulk of cultural production is primarily of interest not because of an individual's "unique" story, but rather because of what that story has to say in terms of the social text that we all inhabit. Moreover, like gender, the social text is something that we cannot not inhabit, for even an individual's attempts at separation from the social text say something about the social text that one wishes to renounce, while underscoring the essential impossibility of doing so.

This study is organized under three headings: masculine issues, feminist issues, and issues of gender disruption and transgression. Such an organization is necessarily dictated by the hy postatized nature of gender roles in a society like Brazil, which is certainly not substantially different from the West in general. As a consequence, masculine and feminine concepts tend to be congealed in highly predictable ways in their reference both to individual experience and to the social meaning as well as the allegorical dimensions of that experience. Concomitantly, the semantic load of deviations from overdetermined identities is very heavy, and the slightest variation in the execution of the codes of gender tends to produce violent disruptions in the comings and goings of daily lives, as is evident in the framing of Barreto's O beijo no asfalto, where what is claimed to be a gesture of compassion toward a dying man becomes scripted as a dreadful example of homosexuality with terrible, indeed, deadly, repercussions for those involved.

Social semiotic systems are, of course, notoriously unstable, which is why they are so difficult to study and why generalizations are so dangerous. Moreover, the inherent instability of social sys tems is precisely why such enormous efforts are invested in attempting to hold them firm and steady: if the codes of sexuality, for example, were not so unstable—not so inherently ambiguous and internally contradictory—it would not be necessary for society to concern itself so much with vigilance, enforcement, correction, and chastisement for noncompliance. Thus, part of the issue in the examination of how gender serves as the basis of a sociopolitical allegory must be to investigate both how the process of allegorization reveals, most likely unintentionally, the instability of the very semiotic base it is dealing with and how it creates, again most likely unintentionally, excesses of meaning that can be shown to be problematical for the efficient working of the allegorical proposition at issue. For example, the pairing of men in Guerra's Ópera do malandro, while it may be intended to allegorize different historical options for economic exploitation, ends up bringing in a highly charged homosocial relationship between them that at moments veers off toward the homoerotic, as in the staging of the scene that enacts the rivalry between them and later the scene in which one humiliates the other in a game of displaced male rape.

The goal here, then, is not simply to describe selected texts from recent Brazilian filmmaking or only to interpret the ways in which they deal with important issues relevant to the transition from an authoritarian military tyranny to institutional democracy. Rather, an attempt is made to investigate in some detail the semiotic and ideological organization of the films examined and to see how they function as meaningful cultural documents. In the process, it is of importance not to see where they fail (does any cultural document ever really fail in being socially meaningful?—or does any document ever really succeed optimally in the same venture?), but to scrutinize the problems in meaning that derive from the structure, strategies, and procedures—as much specifically filmic as generally cultural—that each director has chosen to pursue. By dealing with these films as ideological texts, I show how each undertakes to "read" sociohistorical reality, in a Marxian sense, in a specifically meaningful way and, moreover, how that reading resonates with—and depends on—gendered human beings whose sexual role is an integral part of the sociohistorical reality.

One last observation: the standard scholarly work on Brazilian filmmaking is Brazilian Cinema, edited by Randal Johnson and Robert Stam, published in an expanded edition in 1995 (originally published in 1982). The films I have chosen to discuss are either only mentioned in passing in the final section or not mentioned at all. In this sense, the goal here has been to provide a study that complements and supplements the fine essays in their collection.


“This book provides an excellent overview of gender, feminist, and queer theoretical formulations and their application to Brazilian cinema within a sociohistorical framework. It will be of interest to students of gender issues, Latin American culture, and film.”
David George, Professor of Spanish, Lake Forest College, Illinois