Eryk Rocha’s terrific 2014 documentary “Sunday Ball” is a beautifully constructed, impressionistic celebration of soccer, readily appreciated by fans and non-fans alike. His latest, “Cinema Novo” is also impressionistic, yet this homage to the movement that changed Brazilian movies forever will mostly be appreciated by those already conversant with the output of the era. That’s because the documentary barely identifies the clips, instead editing them together to convey mood and theme rather than functioning as an informative consideration of Cinema Novo. To be fair, Rocha, whose father Glauber Rocha was a key proponent of the movement, wanted a mood-driven, as opposed to fact-based, appreciation, but the result is repetitive and unlikely to inspire renewed interest. Festivals with film-themed sidebars will be the likely destination.
The problem starts at the very beginning, with a montage of fragments all showing people running – given the near-ubiquitous presence of running scenes in just about every movie trailer of the last decade, this propulsion-driven pile-up, with no identifiers, feels almost banal. Which is a shame, since Cinema Novo was anything but: Originating in the heady nexus of worldwide post-war cultural currents, the movement borrowed elements from Italian neo-realism, Soviet stylings and the French New Wave to create a distinctly indigenous Brazilian form that championed the role of the working class and decentralized the national film industry to embrace a nuanced regionalism. One of the first titles, the omnibus “Cinco Vezes Favela” (1962) proudly declared the intentions of its proponents, to champion a distinctly left-wing p.o.v., with the impoverished man as focus (Eryk Rocha fails to mention the almost exclusively male-centric DNA of the movement).
Along with clips from various films, the documentary brings together a wealth of interviews from the period, along with on-set footage, in which directors, producers and critics discuss (in only the most general terms) the goals of Cinema Novo. Freeing the camera from a studio-bound hierarchy, its adherents were swept up in the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s, when everything seemed possible, including the dogma that cinema could change the world. By 1964, with two films competing in Cannes (“Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol” by Glauber Rocha and “Vidas Secas” by Nelson Pereira dos Santos), plus one title in Critics’ Week (Carlos Diegues’ “Ganga Zumba”), such an optimistic prognosis seemed possible, though with Brazil’s military coup d’état that same year, things took a darker tone.
Eryk Rocha only touches on the turmoil caused by political events, and he largely ignores the fracturing of the once-cohesive movement. A montage of naked women, paired with a quotation equating love of revolution with love of women, doesn’t seem to be ironic, though it certainly backs up claims of misogyny that have dogged Cinema Novo for decades. It’s fine that the director wanted to reproduce the mood of the films and their time rather than present a drier form of documentary, yet the scarcity of incisive commentary, combined with the absence of title identifications, hamstrings his efforts. Renato Vallone’s editing is strong on match cuts and a sense of forward thrust, but the over-abundance of material weakens the general effect.