Legendary Brazilian filmmaker Nelson Pereira dos Santos, one of the founders and key figures of Cinema Novo and one of South American country's leading directors, died today at the age of 89 in Rio de Janeiro from cancer. He had a major influence on Brazilian and Latin American cinema, and had a prolific and celebrated film career spanning over half a century.
Born on October 22, 1928 in São Paulo from a family of Italian descent, he studied law and worked as a journalist before he turned to cinema. In 1949 he directed the documentary short Juventude / Youth, and a couple of years latter he worked as an assistant director for Rodolfo Nanni in his feature film O Saci (1951).
At age 27, he revolutionized Brazilian cinema with his debut feature, Rio, 40 graus / Rio, 100 Degrees (1955), an Italian-Neorealism inspired portrait of Rio de Janeiro that became a precursor of Cinema Novo. Shot on location with a largely nonprofessional cast, the film marked a turning point in Latin American cinema as it depicted the Brazil's underclass in an unprecedented way as well as openly talk about class and race division in the nation's society. Filmmaker Glauber Rocha heralded it as the developing world’s first truly revolutionary film, and it became the first cinematic depiction of the favela, which has become an iconic trope of Brazilian cinema.
Pereira dos Santos followed with Rio Zona Norte / Rio, Northern Zone (1957), a drama about inequity based on the life of composer Zé Keti and starring popular comedian Grande Otelo. In 1963 he directed the neorealist drama Vidas Secas / Barren Lives, based on the classic novel by Graciliano Ramos of the same name. The film, which follows a landless family facing extreme poverty in the arid lands of the Brazilian Northeast, became one of the milestone films of Cinema Novo.
Pereira dos Santos along with Rocha, Ruy Guerra, and Carlos Diegues, became some of the central figures of Cinema Novo, the celebrated Brazilian film movement which mixed the aesthetics of the French New Wave with Brazilian popular culture, spiced with a postcolonial discourse.
In 1972 Pereira dos Santos directed the tropicalismo film Como era gostoso o meu Francês / How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, which explores the complexities of Brazilian culture and history, as well as the legacy of colonialism. Set in the 16th century, it follows a French Huguenot who is captured by the Tupinambá, a cannibalistic tribe that keeps him in captivity until his planned execution.
The Brazilian filmmaker worked with an rich range of styles and genres, from his neorealist dramas, to science fiction, anthropological documentary and historical biopics. Other acclaimed titles include El Justiciero (1967), the Cannes' Palme d'Or contender O Amuleto de Ogum / The Amulet of Ogum (1974), A Terceira Margem do Rio / The Third Bank of the River (1993) and Cinema de Lágrimas / Cinema of Tears (1995).
Pereira dos Santos last films where the documentary films A Música segundo Tom Jobim / The Music According to Antonio Carlos Jobim (2012) and A Luz do Tom / Tom's Light, both on the acclaimed Brazilian musician. He became the first filmmaker to be included in the Brazilian Academy of Letters.