BRAZIL: Neighboring Sounds (O Som ao Redor, 2012)

Cinema Novo in a Modern Era

by Kai Hawkins

As a genre that began in the 1960s, Cinema Novo originally began as a rebellion against the current state of being: the drastic economic disparity and the colonization of the Brazilian nation hindered its growth and hurt its citizens. However, the movement dissipated as the need for it seemed to subside. In the new modern era of exploitative capitalism, there is a new resurgence of the ideas in the movement, now adapted to contemporary issues. Ideas of economic disparity and colonization have changed form, and are only seen in passive forms of power struggles. This does not mean these issues disappeared, and the new wave of Cinema Novo addresses the new era.

Cinema Novo in its original form never directly called out the conditions of Brazil, but would rather tell stories of those impoverished by these conditions that the audience could relate to. By doing so, the piece was not only political but also artistic. Likewise, it was able to circumnavigate much of the censorship both within the country and worldwide, as the Brazilian government in 1969 had created an organization to watch and approve all filmmaking within the country. Other nations’ censorship was also bypassed, and Cinema Novo was largely responsible for bringing Brazilian films into the global market. Its compelling stories were adored by many, but they were not meant simply for the audience’s enjoyment. The movement’s goals were to raise class consciousness among the Brazilian population so that they would better understand their conditions. This was effective for nearly the entire Brazilian population and appealed to both political sides. Those on the right desired pride in their nation, and nationalism surged with the movement. The left enjoyed the economic ideas of equality that the movement presented and opposed the foreign influences of the west.

One of the most famous directors of the genre, Glauber Rocha, defined Cinema Novo in his manifesto “The Aesthetics of Hunger.” He describes the movement’s need because “The Latin American neither communicates his real misery to the ‘civilised’ man, nor does the ‘civilised’ man truly comprehend the misery of the Latin American” (1). Rocha states that the misery of the Brazilian is fetishized by the European man, as it is only a topic of interest to them, and the Brazilian artist only creates art that glorifies this pain to appeal to the colonizers. While colonization in its explicit sense had already left Brazil at the creation of Cinema Novo, it was quickly replaced by neo-colonialism. Former president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, coined the term neocolonialism to describe the post-colonial state’s dependence on their previous owners. They are economically pressed to uphold the first-world country’s status-quo, which in turn, oppressed the colonized (Nkrumah 1). Cinema Novo counters this movement by creating art by the people of Brazil, for the people of Brazil, about the people of Brazil. By completely disregarding the audience that most cinema depends on, the first-world countries, they more effectively raise the class consciousness of the people. The previous art regarding poverty glorified it, and Cinema Novo was so highly regarded because it did the opposite.

The movement died out in the late 70s for various reasons, one of those being the improving economic conditions of the country. However, that did not mean that these problems were all appeased. Michel Foucault, a French sociologist and philosopher, best expressed how these powers have changed in his writings on punishment. Foucault’s philosophy argues that “Punishment has changed from being a violent public spectacle (such as hanging) to being hidden away, behind closed doors. It has also changed from being swift and physical, done on the body, to being more drawn out and psychological – punishment today is typically about changing the mind and the soul” (Thompson 1). Punishment is only one of the ways passive power expresses itself, and even neocolonialism is an example of passive power. While first-world countries do not directly impede the colonized countries, they still hold great economic power over them and utilize them for cheap labor for their own benefit. Foucault’s separation between sovereign power, which controls through the threat of force (such as colonizers threatening to kill natives), and disciplinary power (which controls through monitoring), can also be applied to colonialism.

The new wave of Cinema Novo hopes to address this struggle by showing the lives of everyday people who constantly struggle with the effects of neo-colonialism without even knowing it. The Cinema Novo of this generation raises class consciousness against the passive powers that still control large parts of Brazil’s society. Because it is a cultural and economic struggle, no amount of policy changes can fix this. Rather, the people themselves must understand their own conditions, and fight against them.

Neighboring Sounds is an exemplary example of how the modern age of Cinema Novo looks. The movie largely follows the interactions between the characters, and how their lives are intertwined. While they live in the same neighborhood, live similar lives, and have much alike to one another, each character is isolated in their own routines. The class distinctions are not as dramatic as those in the past, but they have changed form: the plantation owners have changed into wealthy real estate managers, and maids are employed rather than servants. The setting is crucial in showing the distrust and worries of the middle class as well. There are multiple shots of barred windowed and reinforced doors, and one of the driving plot points is the hiring of security guards for the streets. However, this is all a metaphor for the guilt of the middle class. They worry about crimes that persist in lower classes, while still enjoying their own safe houses. There is no evidence of any crime in the neighborhood, with the exception of a stolen car radio, but distrust among the isolated members of the neighborhood grows deep. Nearly anytime anyone enters a room or has an interaction, it is through a gate, unlocking a door, or shouting through a window. None of the interactions are inherently as aggressive as they may have been in the past, but this shows how the passive form of power comes into play. The middle class’s lives are still upheld at the expense of the lower classes, as they upcharge rent, use them for labor such as maids, and other forms of exploitation. However, they do not see it directly: the lower-income housing is hidden away through the tall walls and grated windows, and the upper classes do not feel bad about having maids as one would about slaves or servants. This is exactly what Cinema Novo hopes to show- the passive power struggles persist throughout, leading each character involved to be isolated and miserable, but without understanding exactly why.

Works Cited

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