Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays

Issue 12 – 2023 (2)

Four individuals in São Paulo

Luis Deltell Escolar (Complutense University, Madrid & ESCINE, Complutense group for cinematographic studies)

How to cite this article: Deltell Escolar, L. (2023). Four individuals in São Paulo. Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays, 12, 2023(2). ISSN: 2659-4269

Although São Paulo’s story is chronicled in cinema (Galvão, 1975), Brazilian cinema has somewhat neglected this mega-city (Calil, 2002). Brazil’s scriptwriters and directors have preferred, instead, to set their stories in tropical Rio de Janeiro with its huge social contrasts and spectacular landscape, the northeast redolent with traditional folklore, or other geographic areas—some real, others fictitious—of this vast country. Thus, it is unsurprising that even Fernando Meirelles, a native of São Paulo, should have set his most celebrated film, Cidade de Deus (“City of God”2002), in the Rio de Janeiro slum after which it is named (Ortiz, Autran et al., 2018).   

 As Macho and Rubens (1990; 2007) note, in the early days of Brazilian cinema attempts were made to show São Paulo as a great metropolis, however, the films showcasing this city were scarce, far between, and never achieved the impact of more commercial productions of that era or the later films of the popular Chanchada genre. This said, the city returned to cinema screens during the Tropicália movement in the late sixties and early seventies. In addition, the cinematic representation of the largest urbanisation in South America had its champions, for instance, the work of Veracruz spanning many years (Galvão, 1981) and, in the cinema of the 1980s São Paulo received a make-over as the cidade azul (“blue city”) (Barbosa, 2012). Even so, São Paulo’s cinematography has always been eclipsed by that of Rio de Janeiro and, above all, by the international prestige of its films such as Central do Brasil (“Central Station”1998).

Nevertheless, between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s São Paulo was the setting for three films of iconic importance in Brazilian cinema: O grande momento (“The grand moment”, Roberto Santos, 1958), Noite vazia (“Men and Women”, Walter Hugo Khouri, 1964) and São Paulo, Sociedade Anônima (“São Paulo, Incorporated”, Luiz Sérgio Person, 1965). These films share one fundamental characteristic that distinguishes them from the mainstream of popular cinema at the time: they depict ordinary citizens from the middle and upper-middle classes. The central protagonists of each of these narratives are all real people, complete with all their individual vices and virtues.

Brazilian musical comedy, Chanchada, mostly portrayed the lower classes or upper classes in its storylines; thus, as Ramos and Schvarzman (2018) rightly note, São Paulo’s cinema emerged as a Brazil’s answer to the late realism of Michelangelo Antonioni. In the same way, Cinema Novo focuses on stories of the working poor living in Brazil’s northeast or Río’s shanty towns while films set in São Paulo are protagonized by citizens with some degree of economic means, individuals that are neither marginalised nor beggars. The conflict between utopia and the overcrowding so characteristic of this period (Napolitano, 2008) thus becomes a very urban problem.

 As we said, in contrast to the cinema set in other locations, the films set in São Paulo feature individuals from the middle and upper middle classes (Gomes Leme, 2008). In O grande momento, we get a window onto the life of an ordinary working man, while the two lead characters in Noite vazia and the central character in São Paulo, Sociedade Anônima show the audience some of the real problems faced by citizens in any of world’s mega-cities.

 All three films presented here are stylistically distinct. Roberto Santos, director of O grande momento, is clearly influenced by early neorealism. The plot involves a working-class character who needs to sell his bicycle and it is impossible to avoid comparison with Ladri di biciclette, (“Bicycle Thieves”, Vittorio De Sica, 1945 – 1948). However, Michelangelo Antonioni is the most direct influence on the respective directors of Noite vazia and São Paulo, Sociedade Anônima, Walter Hugo Khouri and Luiz Sérgio Person.

Noite vazia explores the desperation of two young men lost in the immensity of the city. Khouri’s feature is marked by an existential pessimism and São Paulo itself appears as a labyrinth-like metropolis in which it is impossible not to get lost.

Of all films in Brazilian cinema, São Paulo, Sociedade Anônima, perhaps best demonstrates the evolution of a great metropolis into a mega-city. As a student of the famous Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografía in Rome, Person’s overriding influences are Italian cinema and especially Antonioni. Nevertheless, São Paulo, Sociedade Anônima does contain a glimmer of hope; in its closing frames, we see São Paolo’s people walking towards an uncertain future, but also one where they can “begin afresh”, constructing a new city and a more prosperous, happier country. As the famous Brazilian joke goes, Brazil is always a country of the future.


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Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays
ISSN: 2659-4269
© Tecmerin Research Group
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid