Considering its critical acclaim, international success, and Oscar nominations, it's not a stretch to say that Fernando Meirelles's 2003 film "City of God" put Brazilian cinema on the map. But such an assertion does a disservice to a great movie tradition that began in the 1920s. The Museum of Modern Art's Premiere Brazil, 2008, which starts July 17, seems to go out of its way to prove that there's more to the country than favelas riddled with drugs and violence. Indeed, this sixth edition of the program has curiously omitted all films piggybacking on the success of "City of God"; the most notable exclusion is José Padilha's "Elite Squad," which scored the top prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival and an American distribution deal with the Weinstein Company.
Instead, Premiere Brazil, 2008 offers looks at several facets of life in that country, and also at various strata of Brazilian society — from average citizens to people on the very fringes. There are stories here about ordinary folks maneuvering through bureaucratic red tape, indigenous people struggling to hold on to their heritage, seven dwarfs touring with a circus, and drifters wandering through the barren landscape.
One thing the series makes clear is the importance of music in the Brazilian culture. Carolina Jabor's documentary "The Mystery of Samba," which finds several veteran musicians rehearsing in Rio de Janeiro's top samba school, is a wonderful ode to these underappreciated masters, reminiscent of Wim Wenders's "Buena Vista Social Club" documentary on those legendary Cuban musicians. Lirio Ferreira's "The Man Who Bottled Clouds" is a documentary on songwriter-lawyer-congressman Humberto Teixeira, which is making its world premiere on the MoMA program. With "Out of Time," the filmmaker Walter Lima Jr. gives bossa nova a dramatic treatment, tracking historical events, from the 1960s through the military dictatorship of the 1980s, via the career of a fictitious band. Unfortunately, the film, which occasionally devolves into melodrama about doomed romances, is likely to disappoint fans of the breezy musical genre, just as Bruno Barreto's 2000 film "Bossa Nova" did.
The fiction entries in this year's "Premiere Brazil" lineup aren't as impressive as their documentary counterparts. There are, however, a couple of solid offerings with Hollywood cash courtesy of Columbia Pictures that seem destined for some sort of English-language remake. Jorge Furtado's "Basic Sanitation, The Movie" is an amusing comedy about townspeople who take desperate measures to fix the local sewer problem, tapping into a governmental grant earmarked for a film project, which of course requires these amateurs to put together a movie. It's a crowd-pleaser in the fashion of "Waking Ned Devine."
The highlight of the program is Belisario Franca's documentary "The Xavante Strategy," about the indigenous Xavante nation sending its young men off to the "big city" to learn Portuguese and become familiar with Brazilian culture, the better to defend their own tribal heritage and land. Through interviews with the young men who have since returned to their tribe, and also with the foster families that hosted them during their time in Ribeirao Preto, the film weaves together an utterly engrossing, sometimes heartbreaking, and ultimately triumphant portrait of cultural exchange. It's truly inspiring to hear about these young children who leave their home and loved ones behind for an utterly foreign destination with an utterly foreign language, and who ultimately break down stereotypes and thrive in the outside world before returning home to reclaim their old way of life. Since the archival footage available is scant, "The Xavante Strategy" certainly has its narrative limitations. But if there's a film here that really screams for a remake or dramatization, this certainly would be the one.
Thursday through July 28 (11 W. 53rd St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-708-9400).