Kiko Goifman and Claudia Priscilla, Olhe pra mim de novo (Look at Me Again), 2011, color film, 77 minutes.


A PROBLEM WITH NATION-THEMED PROGRAMMING is that it presumes a national character. In the case of Brazil, whose multiethnic population of two hundred million lives across a wide and diverse array of terrains, any summary of that character will always be incomplete. The twelfth edition of “Premiere Brazil!,” the Museum of Modern Art’s annual festival of new Brazilian films receiving their United States premieres (organized in collaboration with the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival), gives a sampler of Brazilian life and art that goes far beyond the stereotypical images of beaches, drugs, and slums. (It also exposes American film distributors’ consistent failure to show any other kind of Brazil.) In lieu of a single, fixed view of the country emerges a rich display of people and places.

Among the panoply is Wolney Oliveira’s The Last Cangaçeiros, a documentary that depicts a couple in their nineties who reveal their history as members of a famous outlaw cowboy gang against the backdrop of a hard northeastern desert. Vicente Amorim’s fiction film Dirty Hearts features a Japanese family in São Paulo who fall into dealings with a terrorist group after their native land’s surrender in World War II; it offers a glimpse of Brazil’s greater community of Japanese descendants, the largest in any country outside Japan. Meanwhile, Eryk Rocha’s docudrama Passerby follows an older man as he wanders through Rio, black-and-white camerawork absorbing everyone in sight.

It’s a tribute to the variety and richness of the current film scene that my four favorite Brazilian movies from last year (the mysterious, unsettling fictions Hard Labor and Neighboring Sounds, and the elliptical, beautiful, and weird documentaries Belair and Raul—The Beginning, the End and the Middle) aren’t part of “Premiere Brazil!,” and that, even so, there’s still strong work showing. I’d recommend Kiko Goifman and Claudia Priscilla’s documentary Look at Me Again, in which we meet Silvyo Luccio, a garrulous, horny female-to-male transsexual in the Northern state of Ceará. He hopes to conceive a child with his female partner, and still chats up every lady in sight. Silvyo’s transition has affected many other aspects of his life, including his relationship with his grown daughter, who mourns her mother and can’t accept her new father.

Brazil has an excellent nonfiction filmmaking tradition. (Eduardo Coutinho, the generally acknowledged master, is on hand this year with his latest film, The Songs.) The popular narrative cinema is steadily emerging, represented in “Premiere Brazil!” by the biopic Heleno (with Rodrigo Santoro playing soccer great Heleno de Freitas) and the feel-good dramedy The Clown. But more compelling is 5x Favela: Now by Ourselves, an omnibus comprising five narrative segments by young directors shot in a Rio favela. Light, handheld camerawork and a bouncy score unite a cast of characters ranging from a young man resisting his law-school classmates’ efforts to make him their drug dealer to a group of rooftop-dwelling kids with eyes on the sky as they fly delicate kites. Families celebrate a solved power outage with a block party. The focus throughout this ebullient film is the mutual effort people make to build a better community.

5x Favela is dedicated to the memory of filmmaker Leon Hirszman, whose Cinema Novo marvel São Bernardo (1972), based on a novel by Graciliano Ramos, will screen at “Premiere Brazil!” in a new digital restoration. São Bernardo tells the tale of the monstrous Paulo (Othon Bastos), his release from prison, and his subsequent efforts to take over a rich, green property in Alagoas. He claims a wife, Madalena (Isabel Ribeiro), to stake his landowner’s identity, but torments himself once she refuses to live as his property. The film is full of sharp, incongruous juxtapositions. The manic Bastos shouts and lurches inside hard, flat, fixed frames, his dark skin standing out against white clothes and walls. He stomps through vast fields that will outlive his or any other owner’s hands. He narrates the film, but no one point of view triumphs. The world is larger and stronger and richer than any single voice can contain.

Author’s note: The beloved Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Reichenbach, a key figure in Brazilian cinema from the 1970s until his death last month at age sixty-seven, passed away too recently to be honored in the series’ programming.

Premiere Brazil! 2012 runs July 12–July 24 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Aaron Cutler