Rio de Janeiro: films to see before you go

This excerpt from Lonely Planet's Rio de Janeiro guide offers a selection of films showcasing the city.

Brazil has a prolific film industry, though much of what it makes doesn’t venture beyond the country’s borders.

Tropa De EliteOne of the most-talked about films in recent years is Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad, 2007), which depicts police brutality in the favelas; it also makes a very clear link between middle-class college kids who buy drugs and the deaths of young children in the favelas who are recruited by drug lords to help meet the demand for coke and other substances.

Bus 174Tropa de Elite was made by José Padilha, the acclaimed director of the disturbing documentary Bus 174, which depicts a high-profile bus hijacking that took place in Rio de Janeiro in 2000. (Do yourself a favor and watch it after your trip, rather than before it.)

House of SandThe beautifully set Casa da Areia (House of Sand, 2006), directed by Andrucha Waddington, follows three generations of women as they struggle on the dramatic but desolate landscape in Maranhão. It stars real-life mother and daughter Fernanda Montenegro and Fernando Torres, with Seu Jorge in a supporting role.

2 filhos de franciscoSlightly more uplifting is Dois Filhos do Francisco (The Two Sons of Francisco, 2005), based on the true story of two brothers – Zeze and Luciano di Camargo – who overcame their humble origins to become successful country musicians. Despite some unfortunate melodrama, the film has plenty of merit, including a curious soundtrack created under the direction of Caetano Veloso. It is also the highest grossing film at the box office in the last 20 years.

Favela RisingAlthough made by two Americans, Favela Rising (2005) is so quintessentially ‘Rio’ that it deserves mention. A fine counterpoint to Cidade de Deus (more on that later), this documentary shows a different side of the favela through the eyes of Anderson Sá, founder of the very talented Grupo Cultural Afro Reggae (Afro-Reggae Group) and a massive symbol of hope for many poor children growing up in the favela. In the film, Sá, who turned his life around after involvement in gangs, starts a music school for youths and makes an enormous contribution to a number of lives as the Afro-Reggae movement spreads to other favelas.

ViníciusA worthwhile documentary is Vinícius (2005), a paean to the great poet and songwriter Vinícius de Moraes, directed by his ex-son-in-law Miguel Faria Jr. The film features archival footage of old interviews as well as performances of Vinícius’ music as played by some of Brazil’s best artists.

Rio de JanoThe documentary Rio de Jano (2003) shows an outsider perspective via interviews with the French cartoonist Jano. Jean le Guay (aka Jano) carefully avoids the stereotypes but captures the Carioca sense of humor while drawing a mixed gang at work (in blue-collar jobs), at the beach, dancing at a funk party and basking on the beach. Director Anna Azevedo did a marvelous job bringing Jano’s vision to life.

Madame SataFor a trip back to the 1930s Lapa, check out Karim Aïnouz’s compelling Madame Satã (2002). Rio’s gritty red-light district of that time (which hasn’t changed much in the last 75 years) is the setting for the true story of Madame Satã (aka João Francisco dos Santos), the troubled but good-hearted malandro (con artist), transvestite, singer and capoeira master, who became a symbol of Lapa’s mid-century bohemianism.

Cidade de DeusOne of Brazil’s top directors, Fernando Meirelles earned his credibility with Cidade de Deus (City of God), the 2002 film based on a true story by Paolo Lins. The film, which shows brutality and hope co-existing in a Rio favela, earned four Oscar nominations, including one for best director. More importantly, it brought much attention to the plight of the urban poor in Brazil. After his success with Cidade de Deus, Meirelles went Hollywood with The Constant Gardener (2004), an intriguing conspiracy film shot in Africa.

Me you themEu, Tu, Eles (Me, You, Them), Andrucha Waddington’s social comedy about a north easterner with three husbands, was also well received when it was released in 2000. It has beautiful cinematography and a score by Gilberto Gil that contributed to the recent wave of popularity of that funky northeastern music, forró.

Central do brasilWalter Salles is one of Brazil’s best-known directors, whose Oscar award-winning Central do Brasil (Central Station, 1998) should be in every serious Brazilophile’s film library. The central character is an elderly woman who works in the main train station in Rio writing letters for illiterates with families far away. A chance encounter with a young homeless boy leads her to accompany him into the real, unglamorized Brazil on a search for his father. Salles' first feature film Terra Estrangeiro (Foreign Land, 1995) holds an important place in the renaissance of Brazilian cinema. The film won seven international prizes and was shown at over two dozen film festivals. It was named best film of the year in Brazil in 1996, where it screened for over six months.

Four Days in SeptemberBruno Barreto’s O Que É Isso Companheiro (released as Four Days in September in the US, 1998) is based on the 1969 kidnapping of the US ambassador to Brazil by leftist guerrillas. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1998.

PixoteA milestone in Brazilian cinema is the visceral film Pixote (1981), directed by the acclaimed Hector Babenco. This film shows life through the eyes of a street kid in Rio, who gets swept along on a journey from innocent waif to murderer by the currents of the underworld. The film is a damning indictment of Brazilian society, made all the more poignant when the actor who played Pixote was killed by police during a bungled robbery six years after the making of the film.

Bye Bye BrasilAn equally important film is Bye Bye Brasil (1980) by Carlos Diegues. The first major film produced after the end of the dictatorship, it chronicles the adventures of a theater troupe as it tours the entire country, charting the profound changes in Brazilian society in the second half of the 20th century.

Pagador de promessasOne of the great films made during the sixties is O Pagador de Promessas (The Payer of Vows, 1962), a poetic story about a man who keeps his promise to carry a cross after the healing of his donkey. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Deus e o Diabo na Terra do SolA great pioneer of Cinema Novo is the director Glauber Rocha. In Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil, 1963), Rocha touches on many of the elements in northeastern Brazil of struggle, fanaticism and poverty. It’s one of the great films of the period.

Black OrpheusAnother important film of the 20th century is Marcel Camus’ Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus, 1959), which opened the world’s ears to bossa nova by way of the Jobim and Bonfá soundtrack. Music aside, the film did a clever job recasting Ovid’s original Orpheus-Eurydice myth in the setting of Rio’s Carnaval (a fertile ground for mythmaking).

Rio 40 GrausMaking an arguably larger impact on Brazilian cinema is the Nelson Pereira dos Santos film Rio 40 Graus (1955). This classic of Cinema Novo follows a number of characters and plots that intertwine at an electric pace. Because of its unglamorized portrait of the poor, it was banned on release and wasn’t shown in theaters until a year later. Brazilian cinema began in Rio; appropriately, the city itself starred in the first film made in the country – a slow pan of Baía de Guanabara, made in 1898.

More cultural highlights can be found in the Lonely Planet guide to Rio de Janeiro