The physical and emotional terrain covered in each film provides insights into the Brazil’s ambitions, resources, and people. Both use the road film genre to track the individual evolutions of its protagonists and provide portraits of the nation on the verge of major transformations. The protagonists’ journeys for freedom, fortune, belonging, and/or redemption reveal how poverty and political repression shaped the choices available to Brazilians at the end of the 20th century.
Bye Bye Brazil (1979) by Carlos Diegues - with no subtitles
Bye Bye Brazil follows a couple that leaves the rural backlands of Brazil to join a carnival troupe’s tour. Ciço’s infatuation with Salomé, the carnival’s dancer, ignites his desire for adventures that his small town can’t provide. The young accordion player and his wife join the caravan’s travels into the Amazon River Basin but eventually leave the group to raise their daughter in Brasilia, the nation's capital. The film begins with images of the most active parts of their town: photographs of the boats docked in the river and a vibrant sequence showcasing vendors and street performers in the central square.
But when Caravan Rolidei arrives, the residents direct their attention to the performers’ antics and their promises of a good time. Ciço seeks his father’s blessing before he leaves by imploring that he “is tired of looking at the river and wants to see the sea.” He is not as adamant though about bringing his wife along and casually mentions that she can stay behind. The most visually stunning image of the film occurs next when Dasdô stands on scorched land against a clear bright sky. The fierce glare she directs at her husband is a sharp and silent recrimination to being treated as an afterthought. She appears defiantly barefoot and pregnant. It also contrasts the tranquil riverfront life her husband just spoke of and foreshadows the images of poverty they will encounter in the Sertão.
Central do Brasil (1997) by Walter Salles - with English subtitles
The journey in Central do Brasil travels in the opposite direction. Like Bye Bye Brazil, Central do Brasil opens with a busy scene. But it is a scene with a dramatically different emotional tone. The protagonists first meet at the nation’s largest transportation center, Central Station (Central do Brasil) in Rio de Janeiro. It is a fast-paced, monochromatic environment full of anonymous faces and tensions that could easily erupt into desperate and violent actions.
Dora is a retiree who supplements her income by working in the station as a letter writer. When the film was made in 1997, it was estimated that about 16 million Brazilians were illiterate according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. In this milieu, it first appears that Dora is drawing upon her training as an educator to perform a valuable service for others. Instead she has found a way to simultaneously profit from poor social conditions and engage in schadenfreude (Shaw 167). Her disaffection is represented by a visually static stream of interchangeable clients. They exhibit a range of ages, genders, and racial backgrounds but their stories blur into one droning narrative of betrayals, disappointments, and tawdriness (Shaw 166).
She is caught off guard by 9 year old Josué’s repeated appeals for her help in contacting his father. Similar to Ciço, Dora also tries to ditch her would-be traveling companion. However, she experiences a change of conscience as she witnesses Josué’s situation worsen after his mother’s death and how she becomes complicit in it by unintentionally selling him to an organ harvesting ring. Josué begrudgingly accepts her help afterwards in traveling to the rural northeast to reunite him with his father.
Brazil contains stark physical differences in its environment. It includes the lush Amazon basin and a dry and scrubby region in the Northeast interior known as the Sertão. Each film uses one of these landscapes as the backdrop for its characters’ transformations and to represent where the nation located its hopes for a better future.
In Bye, Bye Brazil the poverty in small towns and their access to television makes the caravan’s form of entertainment unprofitable and obsolete. So they head into the Amazon to seek their fortune, inhabits 50% of the nation and contains the world’s largest tropical rainforest and river basin. The Amazon's health directly impacts the global environment’s well being, but its development continues to be viewed primarily through the lens of conquest, profit, and escapism.
These attitudes reached their height of expression in the 1970s during the construction of the Trans-Amazonian highway. It was part of an ambitious development and resettlement program that intended to relieve the overpopulation in the cities and Sertão. It was heralded as “a work of the century” by political leaders (Time) and in the film Lorde Cigano represents the relentless opportunism of developers. As a fortune-seeker he feels justified in gambling with the settlers, pimping Salomé out to them, and smuggling iron ore out to Western companies since Brazil has the largest ore deposit in the world.
Comparatively, Ciço’s urge to leave home, ditch his wife, and run off with his lover represents the nation’s escapist fantasies. These fantasies are shattered when their travels present the reality of what’s occurring in their nation. The caravan views the deforestation, waste, and pollution that accompany development of the region. They also encounter indigenous inhabitants who are desperate and ill-prepared to communicate their concerns with industrialists.
As of 2007, the region lost 2.7 million acres to mining, logging and grazing, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Furthermore, the Amazon remains a dangerous region where disputes over land and environmental concerns sometimes result in murders (Barrionuevo). Thus, Bye, Bye Brazil’s title is a bittersweet reflection on the destruction that accompanies progress and globalization. The phrase "Bye, Bye Brazil" also appears in the song played at the beginning and end of the film. Depending on how it is sung, it could express sorrow or joy about the changes Brazil is undergoing and its impact on individuals.
While Bye, Bye Brazil presents the challenges of leaving home to actively improve one’s economic standing, Central do Brasil proposes an escape from urban blight and return to one’s rural roots as the solution for cynicism and hopelessness. Thirty years after Bye, Bye Brazil’s young couple settles in the capital, Central do Brasil depicts how massive migration to urban areas contributes to its social problems.
The abuse and exploitation of street children is a global concern. According to Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, “The UN estimates there are 100 million such kids, seven million of them in Brazil” (PBS). Dora helps Josué narrowly escape this fate. The further they travel, the more Dora relinquishes the old, destructive attitudes that permitted her to ignore and then exploit Josué. Film historian Deborah Shaw wonders if this means that “a new, more caring Dora cannot survive in Rio?” (169).
The film’s celebratory depiction of the Sertão as a symbol for the uncorrupted and noble spirit of the nation departs from the Cinema Novo movement’s representation of it as devastatingly poor and isolated region (Davis 693). As the film brightens and widens its view to encompass the beauty of the backlands, the story narrows its focus to present the character’s struggles to resolve their issues around family, belonging, and abandonment.
This is a very emotionally moving part of the story’s arc but Shaw asserts that by not delving deeper into the plight of street children and rural poverty, the film overlooks the deeply rooted causes of systematic impoverishment to present the romantic idea that returning to one’s roots are a sufficient solution to the problems facing the nation (169). She explains that this view is unsurprising though because by the 1990s, most Brazilians had given up their faith in political solutions (160).
Though I agree with Shaw’s critique, it is beyond the scope of Central do Brasil to provide this level of analysis because it was crafted to respond to the fundamental lack of compassion that most citizens displayed after surviving the previous eras’ political upheavals and repression. Dora’s relationship with Josué models how making moral choices and building strong familial bonds can be a vehicle for spiritual awakening. This also displays how communities are built one person at a time through meaningful relationships.
The four major regions of Brazil background the protagonists’ transformations. The coastal towns, cities, rainforests, and Sertão illustrate how Bye Bye Brazil’s wry stance on opportunism as a vehicle for nation-building and character development is contrasted by Central do Brasil’s view of a shared future built on personal responsibility and spiritual redemption.
Despite a 20 year span between the films, they share this message: that it is important to honor familial bonds as a route to personal fulfillment and as a stabilizing force for the nation. Resolving their differences and doubts during their journeys was a key factor that enabled protagonists to attain the freedom, fortune, belonging, and redemption they desperately sought. By following the evolution of relationships in both films, viewers observe how emotional connections can mitigate harsh economic and political conditions.
Barrionuevo, Alexei. "Brazil Orders New Trials in Dorothy Stang Killing." New York Times. 7 Apr. 2009. 29 June 2009 <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/08/world/americas/08brazil.html?scp=2&sq=Sister%20Dorothy%20Stang&st=cse>.
The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. "Illiteracy Rate in Brazil in 1970, 1980, 1990 and 1997." George Washington University. 25 May 2009 <www.gwu.edu/~ibi/Statistics%20PDF%20Files/Iliteracy%20Brazil.pdf>.
Bye Bye Brazil. Dir. Carlos Diegues. Perf. José Wilker, Betty Faria, Fábio Júnior. DVD. New Yorker Video, 1979.
Central Station. Dir. Walter Salles. Perf. Fernanda Montenegro, Marília Pêra, Vinícius de Oliveira. DVD. Sony Pictures, 1998.
Davis, Darién J. "untitled." The American Historical Review 104 (1999): 692-693. JSTOR. 16 May 2009. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2650559>.
PBS. "Street Children of Brazil." Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. 15 June 2007. 22 May 2009 <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week1042/cover.html>.
Shaw, Deborah. Contemporary Cinema of Latin America. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003.
TIME.com. "Transamazonia: The Last Frontier." TIME.com. 13 Sep. 1971. 22 May 2009 <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,903114,00.html>.
World Wildlife Fund. "Amazon - Threats ." World Wildlife Fund. 26 May 2009 <http://www.worldwildlife.org/what/wherewework/amazon/threats.html>.