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.
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.
One of the best known of the new films is Leon Hirszman's ''They Don't Wear Black Tie,'' a movie that achieved both critical acclaim abroad (winning the ''Golden Bear'' at the 1981 Venice Film Festival) and box office success (especially in Europe). ''Black Tie'' deals with the life of a labor organizer and his family in a working-class suburb of Sao Paulo.
Hirszman is another Cinema Novo veteran. He is the son of Polish Jewish immigrants and has a reddish-blond beard, large frame, and intense manner more frequently found among New York intellectuals than in Rio de Janeiro's laid-back art and film scene. During lunch at his Copacabana apartment, Hirszman emphasized the importance of making first-rate films for the general public:
''It's not enough to make films analyzing 'the situation of the people,' as Cinema Novo did. These films must also be seen by the people,'' he says.
''To make the kinds of films I want, you have to learn how to provoke real emotion and not engage in fake manipulation,'' he explains. ''The movies I am interested in should have a national character. They should reflect the national realities that the people are living.''
Some directors, however, are not very impressed by the results produced so far by the new union between art and the marketplace.
Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, the son of a well-known Brazilian intellectual, is another leading director from the '60s.
In his Ipanema apartment in Rio, sitting in a library overflowing with books on cinema, philosophy, and Brazilian culture, Andrade voices his doubts: ''Brazilian cinema is not going through a good stage now. In fact, we are passing through a quite mediocre phase. We (Brazilian filmmakers) need to make a greater effort of imagination. One film after another has failed. It is true that some humanist films have been successful, but they are stylistically too conservative and full of sticky sentimentalism.'' Andrade says Brazil is going through brutal transformations in its way of life. ''Social and family relations , the ways people behave toward each other daily, are changing rapidly. We need films which reflect these changes, films which change the viewers' sensibilities.''
Julio Bressane is Brazil's leading director of avant-garde or ''underground'' movies. He points out that given the cost of a ticket, a majority of Brazilians can't afford movies. Thus, he argues, no matter how ''mass market'' it strives to be, the Brazilian film industry is producing for what is, relatively speaking , still an economic elite.
Most observers agree, however, that although Brazilian cinema is not making the kind of ground-breaking, artistically venturesome films that marked the Cinema Novo period, some of the mass-market movies have a freshness, color, and sense of life that compare favorably with much of Hollywood's output.
Much of this new filmmaking deals with themes from Brazilian history and literature. ''As Brazilian art begins to unfreeze, the explanation of Brazil's past is unfreezing with it,'' says Saraceni.
For Nelson Perrerra dos Santos, one of the most famous Cinema Novo directors, historical films are particularly useful for holding up a mirror to the present. As he explains it, ''the history of Brazil is cyclical - what happened in the ' 70s happened also in the '30s. In 1945 we had an apertura like the present one.''
Perrerra is now directing a film called ''Memorias do Carcel'' (''Memories of Jail''), which takes place during the dictatorship of Getulio Vargas (1930-45), a period particularly relevant to Brazil's present. The movie is based on a novel by Brazilian author Graciliano Ramos.
The book, written in 1953, tells of the author's political imprisonment during the 1930s. For Perrerra, ''The prison here serves as a metaphor for Brazilian society. It contains people of all walks of life and political persuasions . . . for me the book shows us that people and societies make their own prisons, and don't leave them because they don't know how. The final goal of both the book and my film is to show what liberty is and the importance of it, to free man from his social and psychological bonds. Even in prison, man can be free.''
After years of dictatorship, freedom is a major preoccupation for Brazilian filmmakers. As one young actress puts it, ''In Brazil we have forgotten how to be free; now we will have to learn again.''
Long-term repression often creates habits of self-censorship, passivity, and abdication of responsibility, habits sometimes difficult to shake off. For some , however, the years of authoritarianism in the '70s had a strengthening effect, teaching them to develop their inner resources.
Carlos Rippert, Brazil's leading cinematographer, put it this way in a recent interview: ''Freedom is internal; the important thing is to be free in your head. Freedom is inside of you, not outside.''
Not all restraints on freedom in Brazil are inside people's heads, however. Several directors said that since most films are heavily financed by Embrafilme, which is under the directorship of the Brazilian Ministry of Culture, self-censorship remains a problem. According to Andrade, there is a lot of competition for Embrafilme financing. ''In a typical year,'' he says, ''out of over 200 (proposed) film projects, Embrafilme financed 28. Embrafilme does not have specific defined criteria, but there is an unspoken consensus of what the limits are. This has stopped up creativity.''
ACTRESS and director Anna-Maria Maghalaes is a dark-haired, almond-eyed beauty whose directness and warmth clash agreeably with the exotic aloofness of her looks. Starting her career as an actress in Cinema Novo films, she went on to TV acting and is now embarking on a directing career.
Sitting in one of Rio's ubiquitous neighborhood coffee bars, slipping in and out of her espadrilles, she speaks of some of moviemaking's problems: ''The Brazilian film industry lives on expensive imported material. Almost all equipment and film negatives have to be brought in from abroad and must be paid for in increasingly scarce foreign exchange. Inflation has caused tremendous rises in production costs. The fall in the cruzeiro's (the Brazilian national currency) value has made imports paid for in dollars wildly expensive.''
Given high production costs and admission prices that remain relatively low, the average Brazilian film must be seen by at least 2 million spectators to make a profit here, compared with only 360,000 spectators in France. Rather than growing, however, the moviegoing market is shrinking. Since 1981 Brazilian film attendance has dropped by roughly 10 percent each year.
Miss Maghalaes, like every other director interviewed, emphasizes the challenge posed to the cinema industry by the dramatic rise of Brazilian TV. Television dominates mass entertainment in Brazil, and a forest of antennas sprouts from the roofs of even Brazil's poorest favellas (slums). Millions of Brazilians watch TV soap operas and films nightly. But Maghalaes and her fellow directors complain that most of these films are foreign.
Even if Brazilian films eventually withstand the challenge of TV, the future of Brazilian cinema is very much bound up in the evolution of Brazilian society. If a democratic regime does come to power, it will face the triple challenge of economic growth, demands for social justice, and maintaining itself in power. If it fails, Brazil could return to strong-arm government of either the right or the left, and the film industry could split between those who toe the government line and a marginal, embittered opposition.
In the meantime, most Brazilian filmmakers will continue to test the limits of the present liberalization and hope for the best. As Hirszman puts it, ''Brazil is in a profound crisis. From this crisis can emerge a film industry dominated by demagogy and the wrong sort of nationalism . . . or a mature, artistic movement could arise, a movement based on Brazilian realities, and based on the principles of participatory democracy, pluralism, and humanism.''