The birth of cinema
On July 8, 1896, at number 57 of rua do Ouvidor in Rio de Janeiro, the first Brazilian film screening took place. Also in rua do Ouvidor, the first cinema hall was opened on 31 July 1897. In the same year, by an itinerant projectionist, the Italian Vittorio di Maio, the first sequences, subject to the Lumière of short duration, capable of a strong emotional impact on the audience, were shot in Brazil Among the films dating back to the end of the nineteenth century we should mention the filming of the family of President P. de Moraes in the Palazzo del Catete, while in 1900 the filming of the journey of President MF de Campos Salles to the Argentine capital crossed the borders of the Brazil; newsreels and reportages were in fact the first cinematographic documents that reached Europe, announcement of a bipolarity between documentaries (filmes naturais) and fiction (filmes posadas) that would characterize the entire history of Brazilian cinema. The regular distribution of electricity, started in March 1907, allowed the development of cinema (only in Rio de Janeiro more than twenty cinemas were born), whose protagonists were entrepreneurs mostly of Italian origin, at the same time producers, distributors and exhibitors. The first important cinematographer was Antonio Leal, a Portuguese photographer who devoted himself both to cinematic affairs and to the making of feature films. For this purpose he joined forces with the Italian Giuseppe Labanca to found Fotocinematografia Brasileira, the first Brazilian production company, equipped with a studio for filming and a screening room in Rio de Janeiro. In a panorama hitherto limited to natural subjects, Leal and Labanca thus created one of the first cinematographic fictions, Os estranguladores (1908), directed by Leal, a faithful reconstruction of a crime that took place two years earlier in Rio de Janeiro. The same group produced many other films inspired by crime news, including O crime da mala (1908) by Francisco Serrador and Alberto Botelho and Noivado de sanguine (1909) directed by Antonio Serra. Between 1907 and 1910 other distributors became producers in turn: an exemplary partnership between Serrador and A. Botelho, who produced more than forty short musical films. Among the consequences of their success was the increase in the duration of the films: in 1912, O Guarany by Paulo Benedetti, an almost complete version of the work by Antonio Carlos Gomes, was screened, lasting about two hours.
The first crisis: the 10s and 20s
According to sunglassestracker.com, in May 1911 the Cinema Avenida was inaugurated, a cinema dedicated to the programming of the films of the American company Vitagraph: it was the beginning of the invasion of foreign productions, which saw the American Vitagraph, Paramount, Fox and Metro Goldwyn Meyer flanked by the French Pathé frères, from the Danish Nordisk and from the Italian Itala and Cines. From that moment there were signs of a crisis, with a considerable decline in annual production: no more than six films were produced per year with a maximum duration of one hour. The production returned to focus almost exclusively on documentaries and newsreels, which satisfied the curiosity of the public for the most disparate events, from the carnival (Carnaval do Rio, 1913, by Alberto and Paulino Botelho), to arrival of famous personalities (Visit do rei Alberto da Bélgica, 1920, by Igino Bonfioli), to military parades (A grande parada militar do Centenario, 1922, by A. Botelho), to football (Paulista versus Cariocas, 1925, by P. Botelho), up to the political events (Washington Luis / Melo Viana, 1926, by Bonfioli). Another source of income for national cinema in those years was the production of short and medium-length films about some of the most important Brazilian families; a sign that the country’s elite saw the cinema as a means of promoting themselves. A further indication of an orientation aimed at constituting and celebrating embryos of a national identity is the fact that the few fictional films shot in recent decades were mainly reductions of works of Brazilian literature.
In the same period, however, a different cinema began to take shape from that produced in Rio and Sao Paulo, the two major cinemas. A cinema born in the 1910s and destined to develop considerably in the 1920s, organized in ‘regional cycles’ centered on the themes and problems of the various local realities; among them the most famous was the ‘cycle of Cataguases’, which began in 1925 with O cratera and ended in 1929 with Sangue mineiro, both directed by Humberto Mauro, the first director to bear an authentic Brazilian poetic.
Around 1930 the first classics of Brazilian cinema were born, obviously silent. The main titles are Mauro’s Braza dormida (1928) and Ganga bruta (1933), films that show how national cinema was increasingly structured starting from a narrative matrix. After the turning point of sound with Alan Crosland’s The jazz singer (1927), in 1930 Mário Peixoto shot his only film, Limite, strongly influenced by the European avant-gardes, and in particular by Surrealism, and unanimously considered a milestone in the history of Brazilian cinema. The two main studios then active were Brasil Vita Filmes and Cinédia, founded in 1930 by Adhemar Gonzaga and organized according to the vertical model of the US majors which brought together production, distribution and operation under the control of a single subject. Gonzaga, one of the most interesting figures of Brazilian cinema of the thirties, he cast prestigious names such as Mauro and Almeida Fleming and produced successful films, even directing some of them (Alô, Alô, Brasil !, 1935, together with Wallace Downey, Alô, Alô, carnaval !, 1935).