Diegues, Carlos (1940–)

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Diegues, Carlos (1940–)

A significant figure in Brazilian political and cultural life from the late 1950s, Carlos (Cacá) Diegues was central to the Cinema Novo movement.


In 1959 Diegues began legal studies at the Ponificia Universidade Católica (Catholic University) in Rio de Janeiro, an institution increasingly engaged in politics. Diegues became active in politics through the Juventude Universitária Católica (Catholic Youth Movement) and the Centros Populares de Cultura (Popular Cultural Centers), or CPCs, both originating in leftist student politics. In the CPCs Diegues started his career as a filmmaker. The Centers stimulated political discussion and artistic innovation related to the creation of a genuine popular culture and the problematic linkage between intellectuals and artists, on the one hand, and the popular sectors on the other. Other independent and communist intellectuals joined the discussions, among them filmmakers Glauber Rocha (1938–1981), Nelson Pereira dos Santos (b. 1928), Arnaldo Jabor (b. 1940), Leon Hirszman (1937–1987), and Joaquim Pedro de Andrade (1932–1988).

In 1962, Diegues participated in the collective film Cinco vezes favela (Five times favela), making the episode Escola de samba: Alegría de viver (Samba school: Joy of living), in which he criticized the popular classes' involvement in Carnival and urged them to unionize as workers. The film's five episodes depicted landlords and bosses as exploitative, cruel, and decadent and the popular classes as alienated but with elements of solidarity and hopes for social change. This movie marked the distinctive engagement of the Cinema Novo group with social issues that flourished during the 1960s. Diegues radicalized his ideas and social vision, presenting a portrayal of the brutality of seventeenth-century slavery and Afro-Brazilian resistance in Ganga Zumba (1963) that was in tune with the leftist ideas of the CPCs and a political atmosphere permeated by the anti-colonial ideas of Frantz Fanon. From the mid-1960s, divergences of opinion about engaged art led Diegues and other Cinema Novo members to distance themselves from the CPC and leftist groups, creating a more sophisticated aesthetic language and demonstrating a more commercial sensibility.


Amidst the growing repression of the dictatorship in Brazil after 1968, the experiment of the CPC disappeared, and Diegues and the cinemanovistas transformed their project in content and aesthetics. Diegues made Joana Francesa (Joanne the Frenchwoman) in 1975, at a moment of extreme repression. In this film, the author depicted the decadence of a family belonging to the Northeastern aristocracy of Alagoas that disappeared as a consequence of modernization. Xica da Silva, made at a moment of opening in Brazilian cultural and intellectual life in 1976, told the story of an eighteenth-century black slave woman who gained power through a liaison with a rich Portuguese official of the Crown. The film gave rise to a significant debate in the public sphere about the depiction of black characters, the relationship between art and politics, and the public role of the intellectuals. Leftist critics judged the film banal and less complex than his previous films dealing with racial themes.

Intellectuals such as Roberto da Matta and Gilberto Freire, the critic Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes (1916–1977), and the filmmaker Glauber Rocha (1938–1981) participated in the discussion. The controversy persisted and increased with the release of his movie Chuvas de verão (Summer Rains) in 1978, when some of the former Cinema Novo filmmakers were accused by leftist intellectuals of being co-opted by the cultural industry and abandoning their old ideas about art and politics. In 1984 he made Quilombo, continuing his representation of Brazil's endemic racial issues. The film sustained the process opened with Ganga Zumba. Where in the first film the slaves escaped from the plantation to Palmares (a community of runaway slaves), in Quilombo the black women and men built a new community. As in Xica da Silva, Diegues depicted Afro-Brazilian culture imbued with carnivalesque images, creating at certain moments a romantic idea of slavery and the Afro-Brazilian condition. An idealistic vision of poverty and blackness in the favelas (slums) pervades his later works, especially Orfeu (1999).

Creative, passionate, and controversial, Diegues has been a major figure in modern Brazilian cinema. He has built a personal representation of the popular in his movies that eclectically combines elements of mass culture, folklore, popular culture, and high culture far from his former ideas about the popular classes' culture.

See alsoCinema: From the Silent Film to 1990; Cinema: Since 1990; Cinema Novo; Rocha, Glauber; Santos, Nelson Pereira dos.


Diegues, Carlos. Cacá Diegues: Os filmes que não filmei. Interviewed by Silvia Oroz. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1984.

Johnson, Randal. Cinema Novo x 5: Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.

Stam, Robert. Tropical Multiculturalism: A Comparative History of Race in Brazilian Cinema and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.

                                        Paula Halperin