The forthcoming Brazil film festival pulses with the South American nation's particular rhythms, writes Peter Calder

In his khaki fatigues, tightly laced calf-length black leather boots and white helmet, the cop looked like any other policeman in a Latin American republic under military rule. Except for the LP record he was holding in one hand as he directed the traffic.

The sight remains an abiding memory of my introduction to six months in Brazil in the 1970s and probably marks the moment when I fell in love with the place.

He would probably have been an unremarkable sight to a local, but it impressed me because it seemed so emblematic of how music saturates Brazilian culture.

That's a theme reflected in the 11-movie line-up of the fifth Reel Brazil Film Festival which begins in Auckland next week. A based-on-fact feature, Out of Tune, which opens proceedings is from 2008, but the story it celebrates is timeless.


Fact and fiction get woven together pretty freely. "Out of tune" (in Portuguese "Os desafinados") was the name of a song by Antonio Carlos Jobim and of the first band of the great Gilberto Gil. But the film gives a great account of the birth of the bossa nova (think the rhythm of Jobim's The Girl from Ipanema) in a time of political turmoil.

A more demotic view of the place of music in Brazilian life is found in The Samba Within Me, a comprehensive introduction to the "samba schools" that are the essence of Brazil's legendary Carnival. It follows the preparations of the Mangueira school, in Rio's Maracana neighbourhood, which is renowned as one of the best and is certainly one of the oldest in the city.

The schools are not places of instruction but rather teams who vie to produce the most spectacular show at the pre-Lenten carnival which runs non-stop for several days.

The film uses a combination of street-level observation and talking heads to provide the best view of samba you could get without going to Carnival.

Brazil's dark political history has not attracted as much attention as the "dirty war" in Argentina or the excesses of the Pinochet regime in Chile, but the sobering The Day That Lasted 21 Years makes up for that. It analises in detail the role played by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 60s in subverting and finally over throwing the popularly elected left-wing president Joao Goulart in 1964 in the name of containing the spread of communism.

Director Camilo Tavares obtained dozens of eye-popping declassified documents and gets good commentary from historians and political scientists to tell a sobering tale.

His formal tricksiness can be very irritating, particularly when he tampers with famous images for polemical effect but he shines a light on an dark chapter in the subcontinent's recent history.

The "big" film of the programme is a cracker: Bald Mountain is a modern western set in the real-life gold rush that occurred in the Amazon rainforest in the 1980s, it's a magnificently realised, if slightly formulaic, story of two men who set off to find their fortunes and find themselves corrupted in different ways.

The gold rush, miles from the nearest road-end was famously celebrated as the biggest site of manual labour in history (at one time 100,000 worked there; the pyramids had a workforce of barely 4000) and director Heitor Dhalia does a magnificent job of depicting the mud-sodden life on the diggings and the brutally dangerous conditions in the frontier town that grew up nearby. It's well worth seeing.

At the other end of the spectrum is Elena, a heartfelt evocation of a woman's search - metaphorical and literal - for her lost sister. Less a documentary than a work of poetic imagination, it is probably the most intensely cinematic film on the programme and by some margin the most original and unusual of those I saw.

Also of interest:

The return of Who Cares? which sold out several sessions last year. It's a film about social entrepreneurship billed as being for people who believe you can change the world.

• FLA x FLU, which football fans will know stands for Flamengo and Fluminense, Brazil's biggest football clubs and perennial rivals. Just the thing to get you in the mood for the FIFA World Cup, which starts in June in (where else?) Brazil.

• Until Sbornia Do Us Part, politically infused animation with a strong musical thread, of course.

What: Reel Brazil Film Festival 2014
Where: Rialto Cinemas from Thursday

- TimeOut