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Cinema and the Invention of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s Capital of the Twentieth Century

Turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro: this period was a time of radical changes for what was then Brazil’s capital.  These changes intended to make the city Brazil’s “capital of the twentieth century” (to paraphrase Walter Benjamin). Rio’s transformations were part of broader changes taking place in the country. In 1888 slavery had been abolished in Brazil, followed a year later by the ousting of the imperial family. These events marked the start of the First Republic (1889-1930) and signaled a new era for the country. Once in power, the Republican government set out to reinvent the country’s identity. The former colony’s peripheral character was to be a thing of the past. Incorporating European imperial ideas that promoted universal values of civilization and progress, the elite turned its back on Brazil’s rural, slave-holding history to rewrite its identity as a modern nation-state, a nation of order and progress, as the new flag announced–one equal to any other on the Western world.

The arrival and development of cinema in Brazil was linked to Rio’s new civilized makeover. Film’s first appearance in Brazil was in Rio and the medium’s subsequent development drew on and incorporated the capital’s transformations, with the emergence of a film culture that was based in, and contributed to, the city’s modern identity. Cinematic representations and exhibition practices drew on and helped to shape Rio’s new urban topography, making it real for urban subjects. This two-way relationship between the city of Rio and the cinema evidences what scholars like James Donald, Giuliana Bruno, Anne Friedberg, Leo Charney, and Vanessa Schwartz have illuminated as the inextricable links between processes of urbanization and early cinema in Europe and the United States. While their work has examined these links as developing in synchronicity with scientific and technological inventions, in Rio the cinema-city connection was based not on such material changes, but rather on a political project of modernity that dramatically altered the capital.

The relationship between cinema and Rio has a specific starting point: July 8, 1896. It was on this day in a small theatre in the capital that the first exhibition of the cinema took place, just six months after Lumière had exhibited his invention in Paris. By then, however, audiences in Rio were accustomed to new visual forms of entertainment that had been imported from Europe. Pre-cinematic forms, like the magic lantern and kinetoscope, had become part of the city’s cultural landscape since the mid-nineteenth century. Their appearance was fostered by routes of transatlantic commerce that brought imported manufactured goods into the country. These routes increased with the start of the Republic, as the new government embraced economic liberalism, exchanging primary products like coffee for foreign manufactured items. More imported goods made their way into Brazil, mainly through the port of Rio. The capital’s inhabitants were increasingly able to purchase clothes, foods, and household items from Europe, and to partake in the latest imported technological products. Consequently, what Brito Broca calls a worldliness took over the city.

Fig. 1. Rio de Janeiro’s Rua do Ouvidor, ca. 1906.

The center of this worldliness was Ouvidor Street (fig. 1). It was here that French and British merchants took root, introducing imported commerce into Rio. The Ouvidor was home to English teahouses, French cafés, and department stores that sold foreign fashions, as well as novelty shops that displayed new technological wonders from Europe. With its seductive display of European luxury goods, the street became a landscape of nascent consumerism. Commentators praised the Ouvidor for its variety of luxury goods, with one declaring “the Ouvidor shines. Its commerce ranges from the ostentation of luxury to variety.”[1]

As a shrine to commerce, the Ouvidor was Brazil’s equivalent to the Parisian arcades analyzed by Benjamin. Benjamin highlights the arcades as a space of cultural and spatial ambivalence, their architectural design—pedestrian streets under roofs of iron and glass—upsetting boundaries between light and dark, public and private. The Ouvidor shared little of the arcades’ architectural design: it was an open, not a closed, street. Yet it was ridden with its own cultural and spatial ambivalence: with its amalgamation of imported items, it was a passage between Brazil and the outside world.

It was on the Ouvidor, then, that film found its initial home in Brazil. Its appearance there was hardly surprising, as the medium arrived in the country on board ships that brought imported goods into Brazil. The exhibition of movies quickly became tied to the Ouvidor’s cultural and social milieu. Films were shown in novelty salons as part of a display of foreign novelties, in French coffee shops and German beer halls. Film was not just part of this worldly space, it contributed to its production. Early film was what Tom Gunning identifies as a “cinema of attractions,” which appealed to viewers with the new technology, rather than the story-telling forms that appeared after 1907. In Brazil, however, the cinema was attractive in and of itself as an import. Accounts of movie shows stress this, highlighting film’s imported, foreign status. On July 13, 1896, A notícia newspaper described cinema as a medium that “has been causing much admiration in Paris.” A writer for A cidade do Rio announced that he has attended “a marvelous spectacle currently exciting audiences in European capitals.” More than attraction of the new technology itself, Rio’s commentators emphasized cinema’s allowing viewers to share experience with audiences around the world.

Cinematic images reinforced this worldly experience. In 1897, Jornal do Commércio noted film’s capacity to parade before our eyes, in their exact dimensions, Parisian boulevards, with their men, women, children, cars, buses, animals—everything. With these vistas of foreign cities, the imported views produced the experience of an accessible globality among Rio’s inhabitants. In 1905, Pachoal Segreto exploited cinema’s worldly appeal, constructing a version of the Hale’s Tours popular elsewhere. These “tours” placed spectators in the role of passengers, with the movie screen displaying images of passing panoramas and the exhibition venue replicating a train carriage. Segreto dubbed his Hale’s Tours a Global Railway and promised to take spectators on “a journey around the world in twenty-five minutes” (fig. 2). Cinema was imagined and marketed as a medium that could facilitate a global journey.

Fig. 2. Paschoal Segreto’s Hales Tour, 1909.

Cinematic sights of civilized European cities in Rio fed a fantasy that the country’s new identity was making progress. Yet if this fantasy was desired it was also a source of anxiety. While early film images, with their imported vistas, enabled audiences to share in the experience of civilization, this civilization was produced elsewhere, so that the viewing subject was caught in a dialectics of seeing, being a voyeur rather than a participant of modern life. This produced a self-conscious spectatorship, an awareness of the image as image, which was generated by and reinforced a distance between the places in the screen and in Rio’s reality.

This distance imbued spectatorship itself. At first, movie shows were irregular in Rio and the production of films was also extremely rare. After 1906, however, cinematic activities (exhibition and production) began to flourish. Brazilian critics attribute this to the development of electricity. 1906 saw the inauguration of a reservoir on the outskirts of Rio, providing the city with electricity for, among other things, entertainment, rapidly fostering a film culture. This was all part of larger urban improvements implemented by the Republican government. These began in 1902 and involved a sanitation program to rid the capital of diseases like yellow fever that had made Rio an insalubrious place, especially for foreign visitors. The city’s infrastructure was reformed as well: narrow streets, which had made the transfer of consumer goods around the city difficult, were widened, new boulevards constructed, and colonial buildings destroyed and replaced with modern structures. In 1905 the reformed capital was unveiled in an inauguration ceremony on November 15—the anniversary of the Republic. The new city was clearly conceived as a monument to Brazil’s modern identity (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Rio de Janeiro’s New Avenida Central, ca. 1905.

Rio’s new identity, however, was not born in Brazil. Its blueprint was the 1850s redesign of Paris known as Haussmanization, which had transformed the French capital into the capital of the nineteenth century. The Brazilian capital’s sweeping boulevards were modeled on Paris. New buildings too, like the Municipal Theater (1909; fig. 4), incorporated architectural structures and motifs of French eclecticism, expressions of the École des Beaux Arts seen in Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s reforms.

Fig. 4. Rio de Janeiro’s Municipal Theater, ca. 1909.

Indeed, the cariocan theatre was directly modeled on the Parisian opera house designed by Charles Garnier. The influence of the French capital on Rio’s facelift even encompassed flora and fauna, with plants and sparrows imported from Paris. Contrived by Napoleon III and his prefect Haussmann, Paris’s reforms intended to modernize the city’s infrastructure. So it was that the French capital became a model for Brazil’s new capital, one that could be reconstructed anywhere. In Brazil, the transcendence of this urban space was tied to the Republic’s worldly design—the materiality of its built environment intended as an expression of the nation’s intent to belong to the modern world. 

The center of the new Rio was Avenida Central, which became its main artery. New buildings, like the Municipal theatre, were located there, making it what Jeffrey Needell calls “a showcase for civilization.” Needell’s description of Central points to a visual element in Rio’s new spaces, which perhaps unsurprisingly echoes accounts of Paris in which scholars like Schwartz have emphasized the spectacular aspects on Haussmann’s redesign on the French capital. Visuality underpins Gilberto Freyre’s account of Rio’s reforms, as he describes the reformed Brazilian city as involving a process of “unshadowing, ” as alleyways were replaced with wide boulevards, opening the city up to the gaze.

Fig. 5. Postcard of the reformed Rio de Janeiro, 1908.

Rio’s spectacularity was reinforced in cultural forms. Developments in the printing press, specifically photoype, made the reproduction of photographs more available in Brazil. This led to an obsession with display in the press and gave rise to a proliferation of illustrated journals. Magazines published photos of Rio’s reforms, printing images of each stage of the reconstruction of the capital, allowing readers to chart its progress. The period also saw the proliferation of postcards that depicted the modernized capital, as well as photo albums with photos that displayed Rio’s new image (fig. 5). Images were also the prevalent subject of stereopticon slides, cards of twin photographs seen simultaneously through a special viewer to produce a three-dimensional appearance. Largely devoid of people, the wide-angle views of new empty spaces heightened the atmospheric display of the city’s modern buildings and thoroughfares. The images thus reproduced the city as a set piece, designed to be exploited for visual pleasure. The municipal government too produced maps that pinpointed the city’s visual sights, plotting new buildings along new boulevards (fig. 6). These visual depictions reinforced Rio as a visual attraction, evoking it as an object to be looked at.

Fig. 6. Map of Rio de Janeiro’s new sites, 1909.

Film rapidly became part of this spectacular city. Exhibitors migrated from the older Ouvidor to Avenida Central. More than twenty movie theaters opened there in 1906, making it a cinematic hub that would later be dubbed Cinelândia. Just as film was implanted in this new city, so filmmakers played a part in constructing the capital’s modern identity. Following the reconstruction of Rio, films rarely focused on exotic landscapes that had previously represented Rio, like Sugarloaf Mountain. Tropical visions gave way to urban images as filmmakers turned their gaze towards new streets. The city’s changes also became a popular cinematic subject, with movies like Improvements of Rio de Janeiro (1906) and Eradication of Yellow Fever (1909) charting the construction of the new capital. There were practical reasons why the cinematic lens focused on these new areas. Older streets were too narrow and dark for feature films, which required a great deal of light. It was as if the modern invention of the cinema was only suited for registering Rio’s new identity, reinforcing film’s affinity with the new city.

The movie camera was thus aligned with the project to reconstruct Rio as a modern city. This association of film with the new city-space had repercussions for the content and reception of cinema. Old places and customs were deemed unsuitable for films and abstracted from the civilized identity to be projected to spectators. This abstraction underlay Rio’s urban design. The capital’s reforms involved the destruction of São Bento and Castelo hills, natural spaces deemed an obstacle to the city’s modernization. It also included the demolition of 590 colonial buildings. These were predominantly residential and their displaced inhabitants, mainly blacks and former slaves, fled to shanty towns in the hillsides. The capital’s new built space lacked any traces of the country’s past, particularly its slaveholding past. From new buildings to flora and fauna, the capital was devoid of features specific to the country’s history. Rio cancelled out any links with the past, situating itself instead in a universal empty time.

This dehistoricization was matched by strict urban policies that were based on a condemnation of habits tied to the memory of traditional society: the negation of any element of popular culture that could disturb Rio’s new civilized image; a rigorous policy of expelling popular groups from the city-center, which became for the exclusive use of the elite; and an aggressive cosmopolitanism that was identified with Paris. Popular customs connected to the past came under attack from the state in order to maintain Rio’s civilized image, and the marginal classes were outlawed by the center. It was this historical moment when the opposition of civilization to barbarism became not just the cornerstone of intellectual debate but also the foundations of urban space, giving rise to social and spatial segregation that remains in Rio today. With theaters located in the new center, movie-going became an elite activity and filmmakers visualized a sanitized spectacular urban space, playing their part in producing the social and spatial configuration of the city.

While symbolic, Rio’s reforms also had practical intentions: to lure overseas commerce and a new white European workforce to the tropics. In 1904 one commentator stressed the capital’s need to impress foreign capitalists and immigrants, stating: “the foreigner who disembarks here brings away from his brief visit to our impoverished city a sad idea of the country. To turn Rio into a modern, comfortable and civilized city, is an undeniable and immediate necessity in our economic plight.” Rio’s visuality can be read as an attempt to turn the capital into a marketable commodity for foreign interests and for an external gaze. Indeed, the forms used to depict Rio—maps, postcards, stereoscopes, photo albums and films—were able and intended to circulate nationally and internationally. This desire to attract European investors threateningly suggested an interest in being re-colonized, not by a second-class power, as Portugal was then perceived to be, but by a first-class European empire, like France or Great Britain.

Rio’s attraction was figured not in terms of an exotic otherness, of a prodigious landscape waiting to be exploited, but instead as a modern nation, equal to any other global metropolis. It was by subduing tropical nature into a civilized order that Rio was to be converted into a material object, a commodity. This strategy clearly aimed at foreign investors and immigrants who might shy away from exoticism and tropicality—from difference. Despite its sometimes superficial-seeming aspects, the strategy can be considered successful. European immigrants arrived and European investment soared. Foreign commercial and infrastructural forms also escalated after Rio’s reforms, most located in the new city center. This suggests that the urban image projected was actually mirrored by the people and investment it conjured up, not vice versa. It was representation that created the referent, not the other way round. The movie camera was clearly deemed important in this representation, both as a means of narcissistically projecting Rio’s modern identity to its own urban inhabitants and of fetishistically displaying it for others.

Early film practices in Brazil were thus linked, materially, symbolically and politically, to Rio’s dramatic changes, playing a part in the Republic’s project of inventing modern life. The imported medium was from the start part of the capital’s fabric of worldliness, which imported images of far-flung cities helped to reinforce. Films, like other forms of visual media produced and distributed at the time, registered and screened the capital’s new space, helping people to see, and to believe in, Rio as Brazil’s capital of the twentieth century.


[1] Danilo Gomes, Uma Rua chamada Ouvidor (Rio de Janeiro: Prefeitura da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, 1980), 40.