12 Brazilian Filmmakers You Need to Know

Three of them created the 2016 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony, so we compiled this primer for their essential film works and more.
City Of God Brazilian Filmmakers
By  · Published on August 9th, 2016

As is now customary with the Summer Olympics, last Friday’s Opening Ceremony was created by notable filmmakers from the Games’ host country. Representing Brazil in Rio were directors Fernando Meirelles, Daniela Thomas, and Andrucha Waddington. You may know the first name, as he’s an Oscar nominee, for City of God, and has made Hollywood movies, including The Constant Gardener and Blindness.

But what of the others, and what of additional important filmmakers in the history of Brazilian cinema? Below is a list of the names you need to know, plus their most essential works, to get started on becoming an expert – or at least to impress your friends while the Olympics continue.

Mário Peixoto

One of the most influential Brazilian filmmakers, Peixoto actually only made one movie, and he did so at the age of 22. But that one mesmerizing silent film from 1931 is all he really needed to eventually become an international cinema icon. While the validity of Eisenstein being a supposed fan has little weight, it’s easy to see why he would be tied to Peixoto, as well as why some call his film the Un Chien Andalou of Brazil. Other more legitimate fans of note include Orson Welles, David Bowie, and Brazil’s own Walter Salles.

Must-See Brazilian Film: Limite (1931)

Humberto Mauro

Like Peixoto’s Limite, his contemporary Mauro’s most famous and most celebrated film today – Ganga Bruta – was not a success with critics or audiences at the time of its release. But he at least had already been an established and acclaimed filmmaker, and he’s now considered the pioneer of Brazilian cinema, if not also its greatest director of all time. Although he continued making movies through the 1960s and wrote for them through the 1970s, his most important works are silent films.

Must-See Brazilian Films: Blood of Minas Gerais (1930), Ganga Bruta (1933), How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971, writer)

Alberto Cavalcanti

A legend of French experimental film (Nothing But Time) and British documentary (Coal Face), as a member of John Pierson’s GPO Film Unit, plus a regular director for Ealing Studios (Dead of Night), Cavalcanti is not as well known for the films he made in his home country of Brazil. He returned in 1950 and worked primarily as a producer before he was ousted for being a Communist. But he’s one of those iconic filmmakers with a golden touch, where everything he made is essential viewing.

Must-See Brazilian Films: Caiçara (1950, writer/producer), Song of the Sea (1953)

Hector Babenco

Babenco, who died last month at the age of 70, was actually born and raised in Argentina, but he made Sao Paolo his permanent home at the start of his career. After breaking out in 1981 with the gritty street kid drama Pixote, he went entered the big time for Kiss of the Spider Woman, for which became the first Latin American Oscar nominee for Best Director. His other Hollywood efforts prior to returning to Brazilian cinema include Ironweed and At Play in the Fields of the Lord.

Must-See Brazilian Films: Pixote (1981), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Carandiru (2003)

Walter Salles

The USC Film School-educated Salles broke out in the late ’90s with Central Station, which was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actress (for Fernanda Montenegro, who was also part of Rio’s Opening Ceremony), and soon enough hit the big time, helming The Motorcyle Diaries, Dark Water, On the Road, and, with Daniela Thomas, a segment of the anthology Paris, je t’aime. He also has a new documentary out this year about another great director, titled Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang.

Must-See Brazilian Films: Central Station (1998), Behind the Sun (2001), City of God (2002, executive producer), Linha de Passe (2008, writer)

Daniela Thomas

The daughter of film score composer Antônio Pinto (Love in the Time of Cholera), with whom she’s collaborated a few times, Thomas is one of the Rio Olympics creative directors. She’s otherwise best known for her work with Salles, as co-writer and co-director of such films as Linha de Passe and the Paris, je t’aime segment. She recently completed her first solo directorial effort, Vazante, which is due out this year.

Must-See Brazilian Films: Behind the Sun (2001, writer), Linha de Passe (2008)

Fernando Meirelles

In addition to becoming the second Latin American filmmaker nominated for the Best Director Oscar (technically he’d be tied if the Academy had recognized co-director Kátia Lund), he is also one of only a few nominated for the Golden Globe, for helming The Constant Gardener, and one of only four native Brazilians involved in the anthology feature Rio, I Love You. Despite his Hollywood calling, he’s kept to his roots as a movie and TV producer and TV director back home.

Must-See Brazilian Films: Palace II (2000), Maids (2001), City of God (2002), The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006, co-producer), City of Men (2007, producer), Waste Land (2010, executive producer), Elena (2012, executive producer)

Kátia Lund

Lund is especially worth recognizing because she’s often ignored or forgotten as having co-directed City of God (and the earlier related short Palace II) with Meirelles. When that movie was nominated for the Best Directing Oscar, for instance, she wasn’t honored. She also co-created the spinoff TV series City of Men and directed some episodes, and she collaborated with Spike Lee on the favelas-set Michael Jackson music video for “They Don’t Care About Us.” Earlier, she was first assistant director on Central Station and Anaconda.

Must-See Brazilian Films: Palace II (2000), City of God (2002)

José Padilha

If the only movie directed by Padilha you’ve seen is the so-so RoboCop remake, you owe it to yourself to check out his back catalog, especially his documentaries, including his brilliant debut, Bus 174. He’s also well known for his controversial Elite Squad films, the second of which was Brazil’s foreign-language category Oscar submission, and now as one of the main producers and directors of the Netflix series Narcos. His next project is another Netflix series based on a true story of corruption in Brazil.

Must-See Brazilian Films: Bus 174 (2002), Elite Squad (2007), Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010), Secrets of the Tribe (2010)

Andrucha Waddington

The third of the Rio Olympics creative directors. It’s important to see Brazilian films that aren’t full of cliches – even if many of the country’s best movies are – and Waddington’s The House of Sand, is one of the most unique features in this national cinema’s modern history. Starring mother and daughter Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres (who is also Waddington’s wife) and, even more memorably, the coastal desert landscape of the Lençóis Maranhenses, the film is almost as notable for its multigenerational casting as it is for its stunning visuals.

Must-See Brazilian Films: Me You Them (2000), The House of Sand (2005)

Cao Hamburger

Easily remembered for his last name alone, Hamburger is relevant to the Summer Games because he and Daniela Thomas were the creative directors of the London-to-Rio handoff segment of the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. As far as his filmmaking notoriety goes, his lovable feature The Year My Parents Went on Vacation offers a look at Brazil’s political and football situations in 1970 through a coming of age tale. It was also favored by the country for Oscar submission over the more popular Elite Squad.

Must-See Brazilian Film: The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006)

Bráulio Mantovani

Probably the most important person in modern Brazilian cinema that no one ever talks about is Mantovani, who isn’t quite a filmmaker in the same sense as the others. He has no directing credits and is primarily a screenwriter, but he’s had a hand in the most famous works of many of the above names. He was even nominated for an Academy Award for the City of God adapted screenplay (he also wrote earlier related short Palace II). Prior to his significance back home, he worked in more technical capacities with Oscar-winning Polish filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczyński. Perhaps one day he’ll take the helm on a project and fit here more easily.

Must-See Brazilian Films: Palace II (2000, writer), City of God (2002, writer), Bus 174 (2002, writer), The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2006, writer), Elite Squad (2007, writer), City of Men (2007, writer), Linha de Passe (2008, writer), Last Stop 174 (2008, writer), Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010, writer and co-producer)

More Brazilian Filmmakers Worth Checking Out

Anselmo Duarte (The Given Word)
Glauber Rocha (Black God, White Devil, Entranced Earth, Antonio das Mortes)
Nelson Pereira dos Santos (Barren Lives, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman)
Carlos Diegues (Bye Bye Brazil, Orfeu)
Bruno Barreto (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Four Days in September, Last Stop 174)
Paulo Morelli (City of Men)

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.