The opening credits of Rio 40 Graus—literally, Rio, 40°C—are superimposed on a plethora of dynamic activity in Rio de Janeiro telescoping characters and situations in the film to follow. The first shot of the film proper, the brilliant first feature by writer-director Nelson Pereira dos Santos, is, ironically, a touristy insert: the statue of Jesus atop Sugarloaf Mountain. (Indeed, it resembles the stock footage of Sugarloaf used by Hollywood in the Bette Davis-soap opera Now, Voyager!) Some inhabitants of Rio that the film follows may be described as being “unsettled” there: slum children scrambling to sell peanuts to actual tourists; a footballer whose stardom has been eclipsed by the passage of time.
Early on, one of the black boys from the favela discovers a world of wonder inside the zoo at the Quinta da Boa Vista: a surpassingly poignant passage brought to a cold, efficient halt by a guard’s ejection of him for non-payment of the entrance fee. As one might expect, a good deal of the film skirts the schematic in order to express Pereira dos Santos’s political heart.
Pereira dos Santos, who was in his mid-twenties when he made this film, has (rightly) rejected the claim that Italian neorealism influenced its style. To be sure, its blend of fictional and documentary elements achieves a realistic portrait of a number of hard lives in Rio; but such open-air cinema that relies on fluid, liberated camera seems more anticipatory of the nouvelle vague in France. Rio 40 Graus looks ahead to the premier movement in Brazilian cinema, cinema nôvo, whose masterpiece, Barren Lives (1963), Pereira dos Santos would himself make.
Brazil’s government succeeded in suppressing the film for a year for allegedly discouraging tourism by providing an “ugly” view of Rio.
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