1964 to 1985 was a time of many changes for Brazil, particularly in the realms of art and politics. A reactionary military dictatorship seized power and put in place many new economic and social policies. Advances in free speech, and individual rights gained in previous years were eroded. An influx of foreign capital flooded the country, and restructuring of industry increased the wealth of the rich while undermining the middle and working classes. Simultaneously, these decades were a time of artistic renaissance within the country. Popular Brazilian Music came to fruition as a musical genre; visual artists like Helio Oiticica experimented with new types of installation and performance art, and many mediums fused popular, avant-garde, traditional and modern forms into an aesthetic mix called Tropicalia.

One medium that saw intense, concerted and organized innovation was film. Through the Cinema Novo film movement, Brazilian cinema developed its own style based on on-location shooting, auteur-like directing, and nonprofessional actors; these practices were hugely influential, substantially shaping so called “Third Cinema,” and they garnered national and international praise. Indeed, cinema production practices and governmental were changing substantially during this time, but these changes were not random or spontaneous. Directors and film critics altered the ways film were made in order to express a new idea about what it meant to be Brazilian; namely, that the real Brazil was not found in the traditional loci of power.  Similarly, the military-controlled federal government took over development projects as a means to promote their image of Brazil as a modern nation. While the aims of these projects were different, what is striking about them is the similarity in how they went about stating their new visions of Brazil. In fact, both the film directors and the military government used new configurations of space and time to help articulate their redefinition of the nation as either an entity found amongst the traditionally-excluded people, or as a forward-looking economic force.

For Brazilian cinema from the sixties through the mid-eighties, the aim was to make visible the people and areas of the country that had previously been invisible. While the Cinema Novo movement of critical cinema, did not develop a consistent aesthetic style, its artists were united in achieving these aims; in their unity, they were indeed a cohesive cinematic school, although individual directors had quite different visual tendencies. Key to their practice and project was the use of the neorealist film strategies of on-location shooting, non-professional actors and reduced casts. The site of production for cinema was physically displaced from Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo to the rural, isolated spaces of the country. By redirecting their lenses to these regions, they also reconfigured notions of what were the important spaces of the country. The effort to film in nontraditional location–the north the northeast, and the central west–is clear in Figure 1, which maps the shooting location of over 200 films produced in the country between 1964 and 1985. Films like Vidas Secas, Black God, White Devil, and The Guns all told dramatic, emotional stories about the people of the rural northeast of the country that both highlighted unseen spaces and engendered deep sympathy through their heavy subject matter. The choice to produce these so-called “rural dramas” meant that the rising Cinema Novo directors promoted a level of visibility of and connection with isolated locales and individuals that had never previously existed in Brazilian Cinema; urban audiences saw a new representation of Brazilian identity and the spaces of the nation itself.


Figure 1. This map shows the filming locations of films shot in Brazil during 1964 to 1985, and the genres of said films. Toggle between the two options at the top left to see a time progression, and the genre breakdown.

The concerted effort to change what were considered to be the spaces of the country is clear in the comments of directors who participated in the Cinema Novo movement. Carlos Diegues, one of the most prominent filmmakers in the country during this time, wrote in his essay entitled “Cinema Novo” that the new generation of directors “avoided both the touristic and the picturesque attitudes that characterized co-productions” by instead choosing “to study in depth the social relations of each city and region as a way of critically exposing, as if in miniature, the socio-cultural structure of the country as a whole” (66).  This was done, as Diegues puts it, “in a search of the Brazilian people” (66).  As these directors saw it, the true Brazilian people, their definition of the Brazilian identity, could not be found in the traditional centers of cultural and political power. It was not in the Zona Sul of Rio, nor in the commercial hub of Sao Paulo, it was in “the southern latifundia, in Rio’s favelas, in Sao Paulo’s factories, and on the beaches of the fishermen of Bahia” (66). Diegues is articulating their call for a new vision of what it means to live in Brazil, which could only be achieved by expanding images of the country to “each city” and “each” region, not just to visuals of the economic centers.

To these rising directors, the exploration of these ignored zones also allowed for a reclamation of the lost, forgotten or oppressed essence of the country. Many of the stories they told utilize the rural setting to evoke a liminality, which is further enhanced by costumes, superimposition, long fades, and religious motifs that mix traditional and Christian religious practices. These are narratives that exist in spaces apart in time, that are neither the present, nor the past, but an intermediary in which the past gets folded into the present. The rescuing of a lost time, and its reinsertion into the present is clear in the movement’s theories about itself. For example, in Glauber Rocha’s “The [A]esthetics of Hunger” manifesto—a document that introduced the world to the Cinema Novo project—he concludes that the unique “[a]esthetic” of Brazilian cinema is hunger. To him, “The hunger of Latin America is not simply an alarming symptom; it is the essence of our society… Our originality is our hunger and our greatest misery is that this hunger is felt but not intellectually understood” (Rocha 70).  While embracing hunger may seem wholly radical, Rocha is referencing the Brazilian artistic movement of anthropophagy, which believed that Brazil’s culture was defined by the way it ate influences. Thus, both on film screens and in written word, these directors sought to redefine Brazil by embracing the country’s overlooked cultural past.


Figure 2. Examples of the techniques that produce liminality in films from this time.

The military government during this time similarly sought to revise the conception of the country, but in wholly different terms. To them, Brazil was a country of progress. Progress is, of course, an amorphous concept, thus the military seized upon concrete ways to measure the country’s advancement. One tangible measure of progress is construction and infrastructure development. Monumental construction projects can be used as proof positive that the government was indeed the protector of order and economic success it claimed to be (Beal 261). Road projects were particularly effective for the military’s efforts. Firstly, increased road networks combine increased order (the easy and regularity of driving on paved roadways versus makeshift or dirt roads) and greater economic activity (faster transportation of goods and access to new markets). Order and economic growth were both central to the military’s political platform; after all, the First Institutional Act of 1964 ordered by the regime was committed to a “restoration of internal order” and means by which economic growth could be achieved. More importantly, projects like the Transamazon Highway, begun in 1972, or the 1969 Rio-Niteroi Bridge substantially altered the spaces of the country. Not only did their presence change the landscape, but also their existence opened access to never-before-reached areas of Brazil changing what people saw as the limits of the country. The spiders-web growth of paved road networks across Brazil can be seen in Figure 3 below, which shows a time-progressed image of the paved interstate roads in the country.


Figure 3. The growth of finished roads across the country.

Not only do roads open up new areas within the country, but also they change people’s relationship with time. Roads make travel much faster. A trip that used to be arduous and long becomes quick and direct with the help of a new road, but roads also change time in a different way. Clean, paved roads stretching across a country, connecting one end to another herald progress. This relationship between the road and a progressive, future-looking sense of time is clear in poetry submitted to a 1969 contest put as part of the first National Week of Transportation. Authors who competed referred to the new road network as the “via-progresso,” in English, the road of and route to progress, the “march of progress,” or as something built by the “pioneers of progress” (Beal 263). As these authors illustrates, there is an undeniable quality of the modern, of the future, of progress in an expansive road network.

While the film industry and the military regime both used new configurations of space and time to represent their specific ideas of that country’s identity, this by no means suggests that they had the same notion of what Brazil was. In fact, films made during the military government often included a veiled criticism of the regime (Johnson and Stam 38). Simultaneously, film faced censorship. That these two antagonistic groups used similar strategies for promoting their ideas points to the efficacy of the combination of time and space for rewriting national identity.

The merging of these two factors has been analyzed extensively by literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin refers to this phenomenon as a “chronotope,” and he argues that time and space have an “intrinsic connectedness” in how they are expressed in literature (84). Time and space are connected because for any event in story only occurs when temporal conditions (the moment in the story) align with spatial conditions (the location) (97). The specific form this spatio-temporal relationship takes—an adventure story in Greece, a romantic tale in the English countryside—corresponds to a historically specific understanding of power (Stam 27). These configurations limit the directions the narrative can take, while also promoting a particular understanding of the world. The merging of time and space into one unit allows for a powerful conceptualization of life in a certain moment in time.

While Bakhtin was specifically talking about the existence of chronotopes in literature, the interdependence of space and time is true of any narrative, including political narratives. Thus political projects that are able to articulate this fusion, are particularly adept at creating a new narrative of national identity, which is what both film and the government sought to do during this time.

While both of these entities identified the power of need to use time and space to create their narratives of Brazil, the nature of these narratives was quite different. Construction projects, moving the nation forward, modernization, and industrialization—this is a macroscopic perspective on what makes a nation. The government’s vision of what constituted Brazil was, fundamentally, one that priviledged the big picture, as we can see by their desire to construct a highway as massive as the Transamazon (Figure 4). On a map, the Transamzon, which stretches almost the entire length of the nation, does look like a powerful manifestation of the government’s competence and Brazil’s new identity as a modern nation. However, a map captures little of the experience of driving on this road (Figure 5). This perspective reveals how this highway connects very little, how vast portions of it remain unfinished. To see this, one must capture the individual’s journey. One must look at the microscale that is often hidden by the macroscale. One must capture the experiences of the specific people who use this space, just as the Cinema Novo directors focused on the specific stories of individuals living across the country.

Figure 4. A map of the Transamazon Highway as it currently stands.
(TransamazonStreetview here)

Figure 5. These images were capture using Google Streetview. They show what a driver would see as they travelled along the Transamazon Highway.


Works Cited

Beal, Sophia. “Obras públicas monumentais, ficção e o regime militar no Brasil (1964-1985).”

Escritos quatro. vol. 4, no. 4, 2010.

Diegues, Carlos. “Cinema Novo.” Brazilian Cinema, edited by Robert Stam and Randal Johnson.

Morningside ed, Columbia University Press, 1995.

Johnson, Randal, and Robert Stam, editors. Brazilian Cinema. Expanded ed., Morningside ed,

Columbia University Press, 1995.

Stam, Robert. “Introduction: The Theory and Practice of Adaptation.” Literature and Film: A Guide to

the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, edited by Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo,

Blackwell, 2005.

Rocha, Glauber. “The Esthetics of Hunger.” Brazilian Cinema, edited by Robert Stam and Randal

Johnson. Morningside ed, Columbia University Press, 1995.

The Presidency of the Republic of Brazil. Civil Division. Sub-Office for Juridical Matters. Institutional

Act No1. Brasilia, 1964.

The Presidency of the Republic of Brazil. Civil Division. Sub-Office for Juridical Matters. Institutional

Act No5. Brasilia, 1968.