- From the Aesthetics of Hunger to the Cosmetics of Hunger in Brazilian Cinema: Meirelles’ City of God
In 1965, Glauber Rocha presented his political film manifesto “Eztétyka da fome” (“Aesthetics of Hunger”) in Italy. Linked to the Brazilian film movement known as cinema nôvo, Rocha was part of a generation of filmmakers across Latin America that understood cinema as a central weapon in revolutionary struggle. Key to Rocha’s film theory was the idea of hunger as a complex, contradictory cinematic mode of cultural practice. According to Rocha, films with an aesthetic of hunger “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” (par. 10). But for Rocha, hunger is more than the prelude to starvation, it is a state of craving, of need, of desire. These are the bases for his aesthetics of hunger: “Economic and political conditioning has led us to philosophical weakness and impotence.… It is for this reason that the hunger of Latin America is not simply an alarming symptom: it is the essence of our society” (par. 3). Hunger here is more than a lack; it is actually a form of violent expression and a source of critical power. It is, in fact, the only form of expression, for Rocha, appropriate for political filmmaking in Brazil.
Over thirty years later, Brazilian cinema experienced a resurgence, and young directors like Fernando Meirelles produced films that were released alongside those of veterans of cinema nôvo like Carlos Diegues. One of the breakthrough films of this boom was Meirelles and Katia Lund’s Cidade de deus (City of God) (2002), which broke box office records in Brazil for a national film and had a major worldwide distribution. Using an aesthetic that borrows from television, advertising, and music videos, the film presented a graphic look at urban violence and was quickly criticized for its cosmetic, slick view of the tragedies of Brazilian daily life. One of the harshest critiques of the film was leveled by film critic Ivana Bentes who compared City of God to the work of Rocha and suggested that Meirelles and Lund’s film replaced Rocha’s “aesthetics of hunger” with a “cosmetics of hunger” (Bentes par. 1). Meirelles [End Page 95] countered, though, that the film’s success had to be measured not only by the work itself, but also by the debates that it provoked and by the way that it broke down the supposed antagonism of entertainment versus social critique that had governed Latin American approaches to filmmaking: “if you ask some journalistic film critics, they will tell you that it is just a film made to sell popcorn. It’s amazing how dialectics ruins people’s minds. They are unable to conceive of entertainment, emotion, and reflection in the same package. They always think in an exclusive or an antagonistic way: it’s either art or entertainment. It’s sad” (qtd. in Johnson 2005, 13–14). He drew attention to the fact that the film had generated hundreds of articles and debates, a detail that suggested to him that City of God had, indeed, been successful at engaging the Brazilian public to reflect on the social themes central to the film.
By tracing this trajectory in Brazilian cinema, this paper theorizes the idea of hunger as a troping mechanism for politically engaged filmmaking and compares Rocha’s revolutionary aesthetic of hunger with Meirelles’ cosmetics of hunger.1 Central questions to consider are whether it is ever possible to depict hunger on the big screen in ways that avoid the fetishizing of poverty. And, if some measure of spectacle is always already part of the aesthetic of hunger, then how to reconcile the cosmetic with the critically reflective? Central to these questions is the fact that hunger is inseparable from violence, i.e., the violence caused by hunger is (or should be) unthinkable without attention to the violence that produces hunger. In this sense, a cinema of hunger is a cinema invested in the biopolitical realities that construct hungry communities while denying the very right of these...