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Film's 'New Barbarians.'

By Dennis VolmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 22, 1984

Rio de Janeiro

WE are the new barbarians of world cinema,'' proclaims Brazilian director Carlos Diegues. Barbarians unencumbered by the chains of a long movie tradition, nurtured by a rich popular culture, and therefore in a position to address a problem whose solution has so far eluded most filmmakers.

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Diegues, director of the international film hit ''Bye-Bye Brazil,'' defines that problem as ''making mass-market films that are also artistically valid and stylistically innovative.''

He feels that few good films are being made anywhere now:''Cinema is caught between Hollywood's empty 'gadget' movies and the contemplative depression of films made by European intellectuals.'' Brazilians will break this bind, he says , ''because we must invent everything. We're not imprisoned by large budgets and studio systems like Hollywood, or by a commitment to high culture and correct ideological lines like Europeans.''

''Soon Brazilian films will be visionary and popular, giving back zest to a cinema in which art and the people won't be enemies.''

Some Brazilian directors would disagree with Diegues's optimistic assessment. But most observers see the country's cinema entering a period of renewal.

They credit this renewal, in part, to the gradual liberalization of the military regime that has ruled Brazil since 1964 - a development known as the apertura (opening, or political liberalization). The limits of apertura are unclear and constantly shifting, and repression still lurks in the background, but there's no doubt that artistic freedom has increased since the process started in 1977-78.

As direct political limitations have faded, however, economic limitations have increased. Brazil's deepening economic crisis makes independent financing difficult to obtain. This leaves Embrafilme, the government-dominated national film corporation, as the major source of funds for most filmmakers.

Nevertheless, after years of either remaining silent or producing mass-market potboilers, some moviemakers are again speaking of the search for an ''authentically Brazilian national culture'' in cinema. Once again, they are cautiously beginning to make movies about repression and poverty.

But they're doing so with the mass market in mind. Financial limitations demand this. The production of worthy mass-market films seems the main challenge facing Brazilian cinema, given today's economic realities. It's a challenge common to most art in the third world. (See accompanying story.)

The debate between art with a capital ''A'' and art for the masses has preoccupied Brazilian cinema since the '60s. Many of today's leading directors started their careers in that decade's ''Cinema Novo'' (New Cinema) movement.

This movement was inspired in part by the French ''New Wave'' cinema. Like those films, Cinema Novo was intelligent, innovative, definitely avant-garde, and definitely inaccessible to the general public. According to one Cinema Novo veteran, director Paulo Cesar Saraceni, filmmakers wanted to turn away from the ''second-rate Hollywood movies'' Brazil was then making and produce a film industry ''showing Brazilian social realities and reawakening national feelings.''

The hopes of moviemakers, students, and Cinema Novo itself ended with the 1964 military coup. Years of government repression followed, growing especially fierce from 1968 to 1977. By 1973-74 Cinema Novo was dead, largely replaced by low-grade, mass-market films marked by soft-core pornography.

BY the late '70s, however, some moviemakers again started to make better films. The move toward quality was spurred on by the success of some of these films on the international market, such as ''Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands'' by director Bruno Barreto, Diegues's ''Bye-Bye Brazil,'' and ''Pixote'' by Hector Babenco.