Barren Lives, Nelson Pereira dos Santos

Differing Depictions of Poverty in Brazilian Films ‘Barren Lives’ and ‘Central Station’

Brazil’s recent presidential inauguration provides the background for excavating Brazilian Cinema’s depictions of poverty in Barren Lives and Central Station.

Barren Lives (Vidas Secas)
Nelson Pereira dos Santos
Herbert Richers Sinofilmes
22 August 1963 (BR)
Central Station (Central do Brasil)
Walter Salles
Europa Filmes
3 April 1998 (BR)

Brazil’s leftist President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known colloquially as Lula), took office for a subsequent third term on 1 January 2023 after defeating far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. As the nation’s first (and, for now, only) working-class president, Lula vows to renew his goal of ensuring every Brazilian citizen has access to three meals a day and a university education. After uplifting 20 million people from poverty during his original presidency (2002-2010) through a combination of social programs and a commodities boom, Lula’s resume makes him uniquely qualified for the job. However, Lula’s slim victory over Bolsonaro — 50.9% to 49.1% — indicates a nation greatly divided over issues regarding economic growth, social welfare, and long-standing political corruption.

Nonetheless, President Lula’s return to governance foregrounds one of Brazil’s historical conflicts: a seemingly endless fight against poverty. Despite being one of the world’s largest economies — ranking ninth in GDP as of 2022 according to the International Monetary Fund — over 33 million Brazilians went hungry during the last months of the Bolsonaro administration. Much of this poverty is centralized in the Northeast of Brazil (where Lula was born), most notably in the arid backlands, better known as the sertão

Throughout Brazilian cinematic history, numerous representations of poverty and the sertão have emerged, their depictions often corresponding to the socio-political realities of Brazil at that specific moment. Nelson Pereira dos SantosBarren Lives (Vidas secas, 1966), a notable film of the Cinema Novo movement in the 1960s, utilizes radical aesthetics — overexposure, hand-held camerawork, and fragmented narrative — to portray Brazil’s sertão as representative of the widespread poverty experienced by the poor or el povo (the people).

The environment of the sertão in Barren Lives is stark and devoid of color, emphasizing the characters’ constant hunger and growing misery rather than their psychological state. Alternatively, Walter SallesCentral Station (Central do Brasil, 1998), a product of Brazil’s post-dictatorship cinema in the ’90s, breaks from the traditions of Cinema Novo to establish a version of the sertão more attuned to classical filmmaking styles and melodrama. Whereas dos Santos’ film uniformly implicates poverty as a dehumanizing force, Central Station highlights the masses’ resilience while romanticizing their economic condition and environment.  

Brazilian Cinema’s Cinema Novo movement took shape during a relatively optimistic moment in Brazilian political history. Elected after the suicide of Brazil’s long-term president, Getulio Vargas, Juscelino Kubitschek ran for president under the developmentalist slogan of “fifty years progress in five” (Maram 1990). From 1955 to 1961, the Kubitschek administration attempted to unite the Brazilian people behind an ideological message of economic growth and nationalist pride. This messaging operated within a bilateral structure riddled with contradictions: though Kubitsckek’s developmentalist ideology mobilized popular support and brought economic investment from foreign countries, “power became consolidated in the hands of the industrial bourgeoisie” (Johnson and Stam 1990).

Moreover, the President’s acceptance of foreign investment perpetuated Brazil’s neo-colonial condition and alienated the Brazilian left. Scholar Randal Johnson firmly plants Cinema Novo’s growing influence within this historical context, writing, “middle-class artists and intellectuals, such as those who created Cinema Novo, became increasingly politicized and sought to commit their art to the transformation of Brazilian society…” (Johnson 1984). 

Randal Johnson and Robert Stam break Cinema Novo into three distinct phases: the first phase from 1960 to 1964, the date of the first military coup d’état; from 1964 to 1968, the date of the coup-within-the-coup; and from 1968 to 1972 (Johnson and Stam 1990). That initial phase is of utmost importance when considering both the ideological politicization and aesthetic development within Brazilian cinema. Written during the second phase of Cinema Novo, filmmaker and intellectual Glauber Rocha’s manifesto, “The Aesthetics of Hunger“, formalizes the cinematic and political intentions of the movement’s original prognosticators.

Rocha summarizes the group’s motives as such: “From Aruanda to Barren Lives, Cinema Novo has narrated, described, poeticized, discussed, analyzed, and stimulated the themes of hunger: characters eating dirt and roots, characters stealing to eat, characters killing to eat, characters fleeing to eat” (Johnson and Stam 1990). Rocha believed that then-contemporary cinema morphed social inequalities into melodramatic narratives meant to garner sympathetic responses from American and European audiences. In response, Cinema Novo worked to center the livelihood of the impoverished, formulating narratives that emphasized their daily struggle with empathy rather than condescension or aestheticized romanticism. 

Released at the height of phase one of Cinema Novo — which, subsequently, proved to be the most radical phase — Nelson Pereira dos Santos‘ adaptation of Graciliano Ramos’ 1938 novel, Barren Lives (Vidas Secas), fit neatly within the contemporaneous movement’s ethos. Dos Santos’ film focuses on a mostly unnamed peasant family — the father’s name is given as Fabiano (played by professional actor Átila Iório) — who walk themselves to exhaustion through the Northeast. Though borrowing the novel’s title, Barren Lives is a more apt descriptor for dos Santos’ adaptation. Where Ramos’ novel internalizes each character’s point-of-view through a third-person omniscient narrator, dos Santos’ characters rarely convey an emotional state; they are instead driven by physiological and safety necessities such as shelter, thirst, employment, and excruciating hunger that characterize Cinema Novo’s conceptualization of verisimilitude. In dos Santos’ Barren Lives, this deprivation is depicted through a stripped-down mise-en-scene that underscores the inhumanity of poverty and the sertão’s feudal-esque system of power. 

The aesthetic portrayal of poverty as dehumanizing in Barren Lives frequently overlaps with Rocha’s aesthetics of hunger. One of Rocha’s critiques of mainstream Brazilian cinema of the time was the mimicry of Hollywood aesthetics and techniques, utilizing a “formal exoticism [that] vulgarizes social problems” (Robert and Stam 1990). Barren Lives‘ opening sequence provides a template for countering the formal exoticism central to Rocha’s thesis. The opening shot is captured in one elongated take, the peasant family’s walk from the horizon toward the camera captured in its entirety; the landscape is bare, with only a singular dying tree and endless acres of scorched land in sight.

The family’s movement is accompanied by the non-diegetic sound of an oxcart wheel; the noise protrudes through the shot’s relatively tame surface, countering the relative conventionality of the long shot with a noise that is both piercing and disorienting. Lingering over the sertão’s desiccated landscape alone would capture the brutal austerity of peasant life, but the inclusion of the oxcart on the score generates a new audio-visual reality. Neither image nor sound coalesces into a homogenized whole, formulating an audio-visual environment that reconstitutes the uncomfortability of unremitting travel in the sertão. That sound is the first of numerous formal elements that dos Santos utilizes to capture the family’s desperate situation aesthetically. 

Writing on the historical depictions of the sertão, filmmaker Ivana Bentes posits that Cinema Novo’s aesthetics worked to “[mirror] the cruelty of the sertão” and to avoid “turning misery into folklore” (Nagib 2003). To that extent, dos Santos’ lack of beautiful landscape photography and ornamental aesthetics work to reconstruct the family’s miserable circumstances rather than romanticize their condition. His reliance on overexposed photography re-creates the oppressive nature of the sunlight. Though not indicative of what would be considered conventional aesthetics, this photographic overexposure heightens the presence of white light, situating the audience directly into the character’s visceral experience of the environment.

For example, while wandering through the sertão, the oldest son collapses from dehydration, heat exhaustion, and starvation, his emaciated figure surrounded by a circle of torrid white light. Moreover, dos Santos alternates between filming with the tripod and hand-held camerawork, the latter’s unsteady movements replicating the boy’s teetering figure on the verge of collapse. These aesthetics achieve a two-pronged development: they counter traditions of vulgarizing social inequality while simultaneously integrating the viewer into the characters’ physiological reality.

By implementing these formalistic choices into his adaptation of Barren Lives, dos Santos reinforces Ramos’ depiction of the sertão’s feudal-esque structure of power. After his wife (a stoic Maria Ribeiro) tells him that he was given the incorrect division of money he was owed by his boss, the father, Fabiano, sets out to inquire about his payment. In a scene directly adapted from Ramos’ novel, Fabiano’s boss (Joffre Soares), an owner of a fazenda that employs Fabiano as a herdsman, writes off the missing amount as a matter of ‘interest’ for the money he lent throughout the year. Fabiano cannot support his family without the money, but the boss takes his pushback as insolence and threatens to release him from his employ.

Whereas Ramos’ novel positions this sequence near the tail-end of the narrative, dos Santos’ script places the moment at the end of the film’s first act, highlighting earlier the cyclical nature of debt and workmanship. How Fabiano’s reaction differs from the novel to the film is critical to understanding how the film presents the unequal power structure between impoverished workers and their employers. Ramos describes Fabiano’s internal point of view as indignant and resentful: “They shouldn’t treat him like that…he couldn’t say out loud it was robbery, but it was” (Ramos 2013). Dos Santos’ portrayal, however, is quite different, inverting conventional notions of power vis-á-vis aesthetics.

In the film, dos Santos films Fabiano from a low angle as he cowers backward out of his boss’s home, apologizing for his impertinence. Alternatively, Fabiano’s boss is shot from a high angle, ignoring his employee’s pleas as he finishes a meal. Contrary to conventional notions of cinematic power, the low angle here does not indicate Fabiano’s power and control but rather his submission to his bosses’ will. Likewise, the high-angle viewpoint doesn’t diminish his bosses’ dominance but further disrupts the cinematic structure. Thus, Barren Lives‘ unequal cinematic structure reproduces the unequal power dynamic that degrades those living in poverty. 

A central claim by the filmmakers of Cinema Novo was that they made cinema for the people they represented: Northeastern farmers, metalworkers, and, in general, the masses of Brazil. And yet, by the second phase of Cinema Novo, filmmakers realized that this ambition might ultimately be fruitless (Johnson and Stam 1990). Due to North American imports’ saturation of the film market, low-budget Brazilian independent films struggled to garner wider public acceptance (and financial success). As Johnson and Stam suggest, “if the masses were often on the screen, they were rarely in the audience,” leading to a shift in Cinema Novo’s strategy of reaching the public (Johnson and Stam 1990).

The Brazilian dictatorship subsequently squandered that ambition (1964-1985). With censorship and repression on the rise, Cinema Novo directors Rocha, Rui Guerra, and Carlos Diegues temporarily left Brazil for Europe. When questioned in 1977 about Cinema Novo’s impact, Diegues responded that “one can only talk about Cinema Novo in nostalgic or figurative terms because Cinema Novo as a group no longer exists, above all because it has been diluted into Brazilian cinema” (Johnson and Stam 1990). Though the aesthetic tradition of Cinema Novo would be abandoned during the military years, the debate around the conceptualization of a popular cinema endured up-to-and-past re-democratization.  

According to Stephanie Dennison, author of Remapping Brazilian Film Culture in the Twenty-First Century, the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship brought a radical change in political and economic structures vis-á-vis the cinema. In 1990, President Fernando Collor de Melo implemented a ‘scorched-earth policy’ meant to promote free trade that shut down 11 state enterprises and 13 other state agencies: amongst these agencies was Embrafilme, the state film production and distribution company (Dennison 2019). These institutions were pivotal to the film industry and consequently forced Brazilian cinema into a temporary stasis, with only three films released in 1992.

However, the introduction of several arts-related laws led to the rebirth of Brazilian cinema in 1995, known as the retomada, or the return. Lei do Audiovisual (or the Audio-visual Law) was, according to Dennison, directly responsible for the retomada; the Audio-visual Law introduced market agents as an integral part of the incentive model, “following a logic of sharing of responsibilities between the state and the market in the production of works of culture” (Dennison 2019). 

Integrating the market and state into the production system invariably complicates the question of what constitutes popular cinema. Criticism has been levied against the law’s implementation due to the state only greenlighting work that adheres to all the administrative requirements of submission for the scheme. Dennison further posits that “what is implicit then, is that the subjective judgment on the quality of artistic production passes to the businesses and individuals who wish to invest” (Dennison 2019). Though these laws resurrected Brazil’s stagnant film industry, they actively limited what cultural artifacts could be financed. A foremost concern for corporations involved in cinematic production is recouping a profit; within this historiography, Salles’ Central Station would become a critical and, importantly, financial success. 

Where Barren Lives cast poverty as a degrading experience representative of the masses’ struggle, Central Station embraces the narrative sentimentality that Cinema Novo rejected. In a contemporaneous review for Film Comment, Pat Aufderheide places Central Station within the tradition of Cinema Novo, though clarifying that Salles’ representation of the sertão is a “gentler take” (Aufderheide 1998). That gentleness takes form in Salles’ classical mise-en-scene — continuity editing, three-act structure, and well-established actors (Fernanda Montenegro) — and his thematic focus on humanity withstanding even the direst of circumstances.

Dora (played by Montenegro) is an embittered letter-writer for the illiterate masses of Brazil’s largest train station. One day she transcribes a letter for a woman from the Northeast who wants her husband to come and meet their nine-year-old son, Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira). After witnessing the accidental death of Josue’s mother, Dora reluctantly takes responsibility for the boy, attempting to abandon him at several intervals throughout the film’s runtime. Begrudgingly, she visits the Northeast to find Josue’s father, slowly admiring the boy’s tenacious attitude and spirit. Though wrapped in empathy for the masses’ ability to overcome adversity, this compassionate narrative inadvertently stumbles into the pitfall of morphing misery into folklore.

This mythic depiction of the sertão can be directly observed in Central Station’s landscape photography. When Dora and Josue arrive outside what they believe to be his father’s house in the Northeast, Salles’ camera slowly moves up to capture the breadth of the glorious depth of the golden landscape. It is an image of conventional beauty and depth, a far cry from the sparse and arid environment inhabited by Fabiano’s family in Barren Lives. This conventionality is more fitting, however, with the realities of Brazilian political and economic realities. The camera’s crisp movement and the image’s cosmetic virtue resemble ‘international’ aesthetics; under the Audio-visual Law, a film that actively embraces these international (and thus ‘popular’) aesthetics is more likely to find funding.

Yet, Bentes rightly critiques these portrayals of the sertão as utilizing “conventional language and cinematography [to] turn the sertão into a garden or museum of exoticism” (Nagib 2003). Market forces require cinema to be profitable, making these international aesthetics a necessity when considering the globalization of the film industry. That does not lessen the exotic qualities of Salles’ filmmaking. The glorified image of the sertão’s landscape barely captures the painful poverty and harsh environment experienced by the people who occupy the land.

Upon making his way closer to his father’s supposed house, Josue comes face-to-face with a shirtless boy around his age. Despite the image’s warm hues and the boy’s thin frame, the film never hints at the extreme heat or lack of food that invariably affects the populace. The moment is perhaps more notable from a narrative standpoint; the house is owned not by Josue’s father but by a worker and his family, who claim that the previous owner disappeared after winning a lottery. Dora subsequently offers Josue the option to live with her, bringing their relationship full circle. The identities and struggles of the sertão’s impoverished are superseded by the focus on Dora’s moral renewal and the duo’s continued resolve to survive. Poverty exists as a reality that merely heightens the immediacy of the character’s emotional journey rather than a fleshed-out component of the storytelling.

Although Bentes contends that contemporary films attempt to (and definitively fail at) “rescuing the sertão through spectacle”, Central Station arguably prioritizes character over aesthetics in that regard (Nagib2003). In Barren Lives, character development is supplanted by the rigid day-to-day experience of the sertão, whereas Central Station triages emotional resiliency. The most notable instance of this occurs during a montage sequence of Dora and Josue transcribing letters for the residents of the Northeast. Though each resident addresses a different concern — a lover’s distance, a son’s disappearance, a husband’s alcoholism — their demeanor is hopeful. Salles’ camera holds the entire affair in close-up: one woman, thankful for her husband’s decision to stop drinking, thanks Jesus for “answering [her] prayers,” as another man claims with an enormous smile to be the “happiest man in the world.”

Rather than simply rescuing the sertão through the resurrection of the landscape, Central Station admirably turns that lens over to the masses. Despite their apparent struggles, there is laughter and hope in even the briefest interactions with Dora and Josue. That choice, however, is condescending. Glamorizing resistance without first implicating poverty implies that the sertão is a hospitable land when 43.5% of the population lives in poverty (defined as less than $2/day) (Garmany 2011). By ignoring systems of power that subjugate the sertão’s impoverished, Central Station misinterprets why their hopeful resilience is narratively poignant, to begin with. 

How to effectively portray the masses’ lived experience is a central question for Brazilian Cinema. Dos Santos’ approach strips away any aesthetic beauty, providing a brutal verisimilitude that emphasizes Rocha’s conceptualization of violence as “the most noble cultural manifestation of hunger” (Johnson and Stam 1990). Where dos Santos reaches for austerity, Salles aims for neo-realist sentimentality that privileges people’s compassion and ability to overcome bitter circumstances. Though each director endeavors to present the masses with respect and accuracy, the necessity of profitability and international reputation lessen Central Station’s characterization. While the impact of poverty is on that film’s periphery, the entire spatiotemporal reality — from narrative to mise-en-scene — of Barren Lives is affected by the conditions of the sertão: overexposure and heat, hand-held camerawork and nausea, angles and hierarchies of power. These differing portrayals underscore how Brazil’s changing political climate has affected portraits of inequality. 

Today, contemporary depictions of class disparity also interweave an intersectional approach, centralizing narratives that broadly deal with stories often overlooked during the mid-to-late 20th century. Two such productions, Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?, 2015) and Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever (A Febre, 2019), reckon with Brazil’s impoverished through the perspective of a live-in housekeeper and indigenous security guard. These movements constitute a broader bottom-up approach to Brazil’s cinematic depictions of the working poor, acknowledging the overlapping of class prejudice, machismo, and racial inequality.

Post-retomada, Brazil’s current cinema has fostered a more inclusive form of narrative storytelling while simultaneously upholding international art cinema aesthetics. This aesthetic trend signals a compromise between the unsentimental realism of Barren Lives and the aestheticized vision of Central Station. The symbiotic relationship of form and content continues to evolve at another moment of turmoil within Brazil’s political trajectory — as the 8 January 2023 storming of Brazil’s presidential palace, Congress, and Supreme Court attest — and it is to be seen how the first films under Lula’s third-term begin to represent this inequality. 

Works Cited

Aufderheide, Pat. “Central Station”. Film Comment 34.6 (1998): 77.

Barren Lives. Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Director. Sinofilmes. 1963.

Central Station. Walter Salles, Director. Europa Filmes. 1998.

Dennison, Stephanie. Remapping Brazilian film culture in the twenty-first century. Routledge. 2019.

Garmany, Jeff. “Situating Fortaleza: Urban space and uneven development in northeastern Brazil.” Cities 28.1 (2011): 45-52.

Johnson, Randal. “Brazilian Cinema Novo.” Bulletin of Latin American Research. Vol. 3, No. 2. 1984, pp. 95–106. .JSTOR. Accessed 1 December 2022.

Johnson, Randal and Robert Stam. Brazilian cinema. Columbia University Press. 1995.

Maram, Sheldon. “Juscelino Kubitschek and the Politics of Exuberance, 1956-1961″. Luso-Brazilian Review 27.1 (1990): 31-45.

Nagib, Lúcia, ed. The New Brazilian cinema. IB Tauris. 2003.

Phillips, Tom. “Lula’s Era Comes to an End In Brazil”. The Guardian. 31 December 2010.

Ramos, Graciliano. Barren Lives. University of Texas Press. 2011

Savarese, Mauricio, and Victor Caivano. “Hardship for Brazil’s Poor May Cost Bolsonaro Election”. AP NEWS, Associated Press. 30 September 2022.