Originally published as part of a weekly quarantine column at Cinema Tropical in April 2020.
When Glauber Rocha published Critical Review of Brazilian Cinema, in 1962—included in the 2018 English-language anthology On Cinema—he devoted an entire chapter to the work of Humberto Mauro, claiming him as the direct predecessor of Cinema Novo. The chapter ended with a sentence that displays Rocha’s skillful mix of critical genealogy and prescient curse: “Forgetting Humberto Mauro today– rather than returning constantly to his work as the only powerful expression of cinema novo in Brazil– is a suicidal attempt to start from scratch towards a future of sterile experiences, detached from the live sources of our people, sad and starving, in the midst of an exuberant landscape.”
At first sight, the choice of Mauro as the retroactive founding father of a movement of radical political cinema might seem odd. Thematically, his films were often conservative in worldview, crafting nostalgic elegies of rural life where a history of slavery was rarely alluded, and the modernization of urban centers held the promise of moral deterioration. But Rocha’s admiration highlights other qualities equally present in Mauro’s work that Cinema Novo would draw from: laser-sharp compositions; imaginative combinations of different cinematic techniques; and critical observations that were firmly rooted in material reality.
Unlike Mario Peixoto’s Limite (1931), a masterwork of early Brazilian cinema restored by the World Cinema Foundation and currently streaming at the Criterion Channel, Mauro’s much more numerous body of work (over 200 films) remains relatively unknown outside Brazil. While the films await official releases that honor their artistic sophistication and historical importance, some of them have surfaced online in copies of varying quality. One of the best ones is the collection Brasilianas, a series of short documentaries commissioned by the National Institute of Educational Film (INCE) on Brazilian folk songs. Shot between 1945 and 1974, the Brasilianas explore connections between art and place, grounding musical traditions in specific landscapes – a practice that resonates in Affonso Uchoa’s and João Dumans’ Araby (Arábia, 2017, main winner of the 8th Cinema Tropical Awards).
The collection of music videos avant la lettre is a great introduction to the versatility of Mauro’s work, and it includes Mauro’s last and only color film, Ox Cart (Carro de Bois, 1974), and the masterpiece The Spinning Old Woman (A Velha a Fiar, 1964), a humorous take on the cycle of life using everything from flahertyan reenactment to special effects in stop motion.