Forty years ago, Brazil's Cinema Nôvomovement produced some of the Third World's most challenging and radical films. Since the discovery, with Carlos Diegues' Bye Bye Brazil in 1980, of an international market that rewards flashy entertainment with tourist appeal, the country now produces Hollywood-style product instead. Some of it is indeed entertaining. The Man Who Copied boasts the Columbia logo and a love-struck hero (André, played by Lázaro Ramos) who emulates Jimmy Stewart in Rear Windowwith his penchant for spying on his neighbors. It's a peppy comedy, despite two murders and an armed robbery. Zippily paced by director Jorge Furtado and with appealing protagonists, it incorporates a good deal of animation (its hero is a would-be cartoonist).
Similarly, Diegues himself employs digital effects in his picaresque God Is Brazilian, a tame film with a plot device that recently served Jim Carrey. The deity (a benign old man who might just as well be Morgan Freeman) tootles about the countryside looking for a human saint to stand in for him while he takes a vacation, accompanied by a scroungy loser (a charmless Wagner Moura). God's also followed by a beautiful, enigmatic woman whose motives remain opaque throughout. One prays that God won't put this odd couple together as a new Adam and Eve, to no avail.
Vicente Amorim's The Middle of the Worldtakes place in the wilderness, too. Wagner Moura (much better here) is a stubborn father who bullies his family into cycling across hundreds of miles of back roads in search of a phantom better life. Initially blunt in his depiction of this manipulative hippie, Amorim softens until you're being asked to embrace this awful man, a move that summarizes the compromising of modern Brazilian cinema.
A recurring theme is the endless search for cash. Moura's character in God Is Brazilian is in debt; in The Middle of the World he won't take a job unless it's high-paying. The Man Who Copied's opening scene shows André having trouble coming up with the price of a box of matches. The real-life participants in Eduardo Coutinho's documentary Master, A Building in Copacabana also just get by. The crew spent a month in this 12-floor building recording the lives and times of its 500 residents, in a district that's a dangerous tourist trap (sounds like our Tenderloin). Old ladies play harmoniums and tragedies are recounted, and things get claustrophobic (it takes longer for Coutinho to point a camera out the window than it does for André to aim his binoculars).
While all of these films give us glimpses of beauty and corruption, none is scathing the way Cinema Nôvowas. Coincidently, the casts of both The Man Who Copied and The Middle of the World play their final scenes at the foot of Rio de Janeiro's famed statue of Christ, a tourist magnet. Tourism and acquisitiveness go unquestioned, and God smiles down on all.
The Man Who Copied: Friday, April 23, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 25, noon, AMC Kabuki
God Is Brazilian: Wednesday, April 21, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 22, 3 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 24, 4 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
The Middle of the World: Sunday, April 25, 8:50 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Tuesday, April 27, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 29, 8:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Master, A Building in Copacabana: Wednesday, April 21, 9:25 p.m., Pacific Film Archive