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A semi-documentary on the people of Rio de Janeiro. The camera follows boys from a hillside shanty town who sell peanuts at Copacabana, Sugar Loaf Mountain, and a soccer game. Various subplots, involving characters they meet along the way, are interspersed. Written by
Landmark film that changed Brazilian cinema is still thrilling and alive
Rio de Janeiro, a Sunday in the summer of 1954. As the blazing heat reaches 40ºC (hence the title), the camera follows a number of characters who at some point interact, even for a brief moment. Thus we meet five young boys from a slum (favela) who sell peanuts at tourist spots (Copacabana beach, the Sugar Loaf, the statue of Christ atop Corcovado Hill, the Maracanã soccer stadium, the Zoo); a "malandro" (swindler) from the same favela who learns that the girl he's trying to seduce is getting engaged to another man; a working-class girl who fears her slippery military boyfriend will turn her away when she tells him she's pregnant with his child; a rich, crass, hick landowner who comes to Rio only to learn that the language of corrupt politicians and businessmen is universal; a mature soccer idol who realizes his career is over when he gets replaced by a young player in a decisive match...
Inspired by the principles of Italian Neo-Realism -- depicting everyday problems of "real" people; outdoor shooting; mixing professional and non-professional actors; refusing "beautiful" shots etc -- "Rio 40 Graus" has its own grammar and qualities. The multiple characters and parallel stories rivals Rossellini (and precedes Altman, for that matter) and, though very ambitious, is quite accomplished. The editing is remarkable, with an electric pace that demands an intelligent, quick-minded audience and perfectly translates the hectic rhythm of a big city like Rio. It's also shockingly frank in its depiction of poverty, prejudice (social, sexual and racial), corruption, never before shown quite like that in Brazilian cinema.
Being the oeuvre of a self-declared leftist, it shows no mercy towards the bourgeoisie (grand and petty), the powerful and the rich. But it's not a pamphlet by a bitter angry man; it has rigor but it also has humor, poetry, musicality (making the great song by Zé Keti "A Voz do Morro" the film's leitmotiv) and, above all, the love for Rio which, by the way, is called in the opening credits the real "star" of the film. The film sometimes yields into sentimentality (as many Neo-Realist films did, by the way) but the depiction of the fight between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie has strong political roots and meaning.
"Rio 40 Graus" was the feature debut of director Nelson Pereira dos Santos, then a 26 year-old assistant director from São Paulo, who had been living in Rio for a short time. After the critical triumph of "Rio 40 Graus" he pursued a long and important career, directing great films like "Boca de Ouro" (1962), "Como Era Gostoso Meu Francês" (1971) and "Memórias do Cárcere" (1983) and above all the extraordinary "Vidas Secas" (1963). He also produced many important features and documentaries, was instrumental to the debut of other seminal filmmakers (Glauber Rocha, Roberto Santos, Ruy Guerra etc), was the great inspirer of the Cinema Novo (New Cinema) movement, and is still active in his late 70s.
"Rio40ºC" is unanimously considered the single most important Brazilian film of the 1950s, one that forever changed Brazilian cinema. In a time when film production in Brazil was dreamily striving to become an "industry" controlled by big or medium-sized studios (especially Vera Cruz in São Paulo and Atlântida in Rio) with international majors (Columbia, Fox, WB, etc) getting the biggest share of profits at the distribution end, NPS had the vision and the courage to produce his first feature independently, using a cooperative system -- 59 friends shared the cost (and later the profits) along with the 76 people who worked in the film for free (or peanuts). He borrowed a defective old camera from the INC (National Institute of Cinema, now defunct), and had it fixed by DP Hélio Silva. The principal crew (15 people) lived in a two-room apartment during the shooting. How's that for idealism and commitment!
Tha main shooting was finished by mid-1954, and in September 1955 the film was ready to open, but its public exhibition was vetoed by Rio's State Department on the account that it showed an "ugly" image of the city, even alleging that in Rio the thermometers never reached 40ºC!! (of course they do, and beyond). It was the FIRST Brazilian film censored in its ENTIRETY. The censorship generated a huge counter-attack by the press, intellectuals and artists. All the fuss eventually helped its promotion and it finally opened in March 1956 in a good number of theaters all over the country. Although not exactly a box-office hit, it was hailed by most critics and, above all, it proved to young aspiring Brazilian filmmakers that independent movie-making in Brazil was feasible, thus paving the way to the Cinema Novo movement that revolutionized Brazilian movies in the 1960s.
"Rio 40ºC" is a rare case of a historically important film still being genuinely enjoyable and riveting, dated only in its schematic "good vs evil = black vs white = proletariat vs bourgeois" treatment (and the occasional artificiality of some of the kids' dubbed voices). It's mandatory for all interested in Third World/socially concerned cinema, and thrilling for anyone who likes movies with something more than mindless entertainment and special effects. It's the very first of a lineage of great Brazilian movies about social issues involving abandoned childhood and the favelas, that would later include classics like "Cinco Vezes Favela" (omnibus film, 1962), Sucksdorff's "My Home is Copacabana" (1965), Babenco's "Pixote" (1980) and, of course, Meirelles' "City of God" (2002), which was definitely influenced by "Rio 40ºC" in the multi-character, episodic approach. "Rio 40ºC" is "City of God"'s still exciting, blood-throbbing and heart-pounding granddad.
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