Brazil is the biggest country I’ve yet covered in this series and it has a long and fruitful cinema history. Indeed, Mubi where I watched this film has been curating a ‘new Brazilian cinema’ strand over the last few months that has featured plenty of equally interesting titles and if I weren’t a little pressed for time this week I’d have featured more of those films in the leadup to this review. I certainly do intend to do a Brazilian themed week before too long. However, as the film I’m featuring today is about modern Brazilian politics, it seemed like the best introduction to this huge country.
Federative Republic of Brazil (Brasil)
population 210,147,000 | capital Brasília (3.99m) | largest cities São Paulo (21.3m), Rio de Janeiro (12.4m), Belo Horizonte (5.1m), Recife (4m), Brasília | area 8,515,767 km2 | religion Christianity (87%), none (8%) | official language Portuguese (português) | major ethnicity white (47.7%), mixed (43.1%), Black (7.6%) | currency Real (R$) [BRL] | internet .br
The largest South American country is also the world’s fifth largest by area, and sixth largest by population, so needless to say there’s a lot to fit into this paragraph. It borders all other countries on the continent except Ecuador and Chile, with an incredibly diverse geography. The name comes from the Portuguese for Brazilwood (“pau-brasil”), a tree that once grew along the coast, with this part of its name referring to its reddish colour like an ember (from brasa); in the indigenous Guarani language, it is Pindorama, meaning “land of the palm tree”. Evidence of human habitation goes back some 11,000 years, and the earliest pottery found in the west is from the Amazon basin — around 7 million indigenous people lived in the area covered by the modern country by the arrival of the Portuguese, who claimed the land in April 1500. Colonisation began in earnest around 30 years later, and was divided by King John III into 15 autonomous areas before bringing them back together under unified leadership in 1549. There were any number of wars with indigenous people, whose number were added to by the slave trade from sub-Saharan Africa, brought over to work the sugar plantations (slavery continued until 1850). In the early-19th century, Rio de Janeiro hosted the Portuguese royal court for over a decade, unifying the colony with its coloniser across the Atlantic. However, independence was soon after declared on 7 September 1822, resulting in the foundation of the Empire of Brazil, though a series of internal conflicts and political tensions eventually led to its transformation to a republic in 1889, albeit one essentially under military dictatorship. The ensuing century saw a tumultuous push and pull between dictatorship and socialism, with the current trend being back towards authoritarianism. It is a democratic republic with an elected president.
The film industry can be traced back to the late-19th century, though the country’s production didn’t come to prominence until Cinema Novo in the 1960s under directors such as Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, with another more commercial peak in the 1990s. There are a number of prominent film festivals and its films continue to be well-regarded by critics.
O processo (The Trial, 2018)
Though I recognise a few of the names, I am by no means acquainted with Brazilian politics. It’s a huge country, with a huge range of experiences, races, class divides and no doubt a range of very specific things that lead to various factions within their political system. This documentary throws you headlong into that without on-screen captions as to who the people we see are, and with only a few intertitles for context, as its first woman President, Dilma Rousseff, faces impeachment for a small number of charges which — depending on your viewpoint, and all of them get voice here — could either be rather minor in the scheme of things and therefore a pretext for a coup, or else evidence of deeper corruption. And aside from Rousseff, a few other major figures (mostly men) are also in the firing line for corruption and criminal charges.
What becomes evident though is that, notwithstanding your familiarity with the specifically Brazilian context, the kinds of political theatre we are accustomed to seeing in all our countries, and the creeping way of the fascist right to turn the electorate against itself, is very familiar. What is also interesting is that aside from Rousseff herself (who is more talked about than actually seen or heard), the impeachment trials and the film itself seems to converge around two other women — though there are no talking heads interviews, so it’s all very much in overheard meetings, brief news clips, press conferences and parliamentary proceedings. These are Janaina Paschoal (a lawyer and prosecutor, subsequently elected as a member of a far right party) and Gleisi Hoffmann, who is in Rousseff’s party and a senator at the time of the trial. Again, without offering overt context, the film allows the viewer to form their own opinion of the various arguments, though Hoffmann feels like a compelling presence at the edges of this show trial.
Anyway, my main point is that though I didn’t know much about Brazil or its politics, this documentary felt compelling and interesting, not just about that country but about democracies, and the propensity for various factions to derail them. I’m not sure that the subsequent election of Jair Bolsonaro allays any of those fears.
Director/Writer Maria Augusta Ramos; Cinematographers Alan Schvarsberg and David Alves Mattos; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 10 September 2020.