Existentialism in Cinema Novo & Cine Imperfecto: Third Cinema revised

Postcolonialism through the eyes of the Latin-American middle-class at the end of the 50s and the start of the 60s.

A closer study of two films and the influence of European existentialism on Cine Imperfecto and Cinema Novo

“We could talk about theory forever, but the problem is how to reach a real person, the working class, the person getting sick in the factories, they deserve at least our support. From our own limits as middle class intellectuals, […] We did not have that contact.”

R. Gleyzer (Interview by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, 1973)

From Marx’s Communist Manifest in 1848 and the Narodniki’s failure to ‘connect’ with poor farmers in 1874 to Lenin’s October Revolution in 1917 and the French students, supporting the Renault workers on strike during May 68, social justice has always been an obsession of the middle class intelligentsia. As a matter of fact, the worker or farmer did and does not always accept their distanced and usually paternalistic empathy. Intellectual Latin-American Filmmakers wanted to oppose the passivity of the common leftist protest artist by producing ‘imperfect’ cinema that this time would reach the mass and activate her.

At this time in Latin America there is room for neither passivity nor innocence. The intellectual’s commitment is measured in terms of risks as well as words and ideas; […] his or her action commits us to something much more important than a vague gesture of solidarity.

F. Solanas & O. Getino (Towards a Third Cinema, 1969)

Although Third Cinema’s main subjects were usually the ruling poverty, sub-development, (neo)colonialism, capitalism, dictatorship, religion and ‘machismo’, some directors also dared to handle problems in the to them more familiar middle-class domain (Stam, 2000: 102) to portray the so-called ‘classless’ superfluous man. I want to enter a lesser known territory within postcolonial studies on the basis of a comparing study between two films from two opposing political systems, late fifties, begin sixties. The first one comes out of the isolated, communistic island of Cuba, while the other one comes from the ‘liberal’ Brazil, beset by neocolonialism, respectively Alea’s Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968) and Person’s São Paulo, Sociedade Anônima (1964). Memorias follows Sergio, left behind by his family and friends, a wealthy writer, living in Havana around the missile crisis in 1962, three years after the revolution. Sociedade Anônima observates Carlos, who, in the late fifties, works himself up in a foreign company, located in the metropolis of São Paulo. First of all, I will describe the influence of the political environment, subsequently, that of the first world on as well the films as their affluent protagonists with an analysis of their existential and cultural identity problems.


São Paulo, Sociedade Anônima (Person, 1964)

An ‘imperfect’ cinema for a ‘classless’ group

“A new poetics for the cinema will, above all, be a “partisan” and “committed” poetics […] — that is to say, an “imperfect” cinema.”

J.G. Espinosa (For an imperfect cinema, 1969)

The new Latin-American wave wanted to deliver films that are, to say it in Umberto Eco’s words (1962), “open work”. It means that they do not represent any determined meaning but that they invite their audience to actively think and participate. To achieve this kind of “critical aesthetic” (Chanan, 1996: 741), the filmmakers had to work with low budgets like Brazilian Cinema Novo legend Glauber Rocha, famous for his “aesthetic of hunger” (Stam, 2000: 95). Sometimes they worked with funding and under the care of social movements like the Instituto Cubano del Arte y Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC). That institution for example was founded by Tomas Gutierrez Alea among other and had to provide a new political and cultural identity for the young communist Cuba. Third Cinema in general used black poverty, grown out of a history of slavery and exploitation by the white (neo)colonizer, to establish their new personality. The Brazilian Barravento (Rocha, 1962) and Vidas Secas (dos Santos, 1963), the Bolivian Yawar Mallku (Sanjinés, 1969) and the Argentinian Third Cinema docu-manifest La hora de los hornos (Solanas & Getino, 1968) are but a few examples of the new ‘Latin-American neorealism’.

Vidas Secas

Vidas Secas (dos Santos, 1963)

After his satire on the ruling bureaucracy, La muerte de un burócrata (1966), Alea ventured into the film adaptation of the ambiguous book, Memorias del subdesarrollo of Edmundo Desnoes (1965). On the one hand, the Buñuelian, subtle irony (see Viridiana (1961) which got released under Franco) could be interpreted like criticism on the decadent ‘petite bourgeoisie’ but on the other, also like political comments on the still fresh but naïvely utopian Cuban revolution. Sergio, left behind by family and friends, gets excluded from the class struggle as a wealthy writer and considered by Fidel Castro as an opportunistic parasite (1968). Just like anti-hero Carlos in Sociedade Anônima, he seems to be rather indifferent to current politics. Both film directors demonstrate a more complex national identity than previously shown by as well Western as their own media. In Fresa y chocolate (1993), a self-respecting intellectual, Diego, judged however by his sexual nature, tries to express his (and probably that of Alea’s) state of mind:

“Who says I’m not [revolutionary]? I’ve had illusions too […] but if you don’t always say yes or you think differently, you’re ostracized. […] I’m part of this country, like it or not! And I have the right to work for its future.”

memorias del subdesarrollo

Memorias del subdesarrollo (Alea, 1968)