From 1952 to 1954, Guerra studied filmmaking in Paris at IDHEC; he broke into film production in France as an assistant cameraman and assistant director. Though best known as a director, Guerra has also worked as an editor, cinematographer, producer and actor (he played a Spanish "conquistador" in Werner Herzog's "Aquirre, Wrath of God" 1972). Guerra generally scripts or co-scripts the films that he directs. Although he has experimented with a wide range of styles, his strongest films show a similiar thrust: they are politically sophisticated, aesthetically innovative explorations of socioeconomic oppression and exploitation. Though he has made films in several countries, Guerra is primarily associated with Brazilian cinema as a leading figure in that country's important Cinema Novo movement in the 1960s and early 70s. His first feature, "Os Cafajestes" (1962), was one of the few commercial successses of Cinema Novo. This controversial film, influenced stylistically by the French New Wave, ignited a scandal in Brazil for its powerful depiction of sexual violence and the immoral lifestyle of hustlers ("cafajestes") in Rio de Janeiro. Two of Guerra's features, "Os Fuzis" (1964) and "Os Deuses e os Mortos" (1970), are regarded as masterpieces of Cinema Novo. In "Os Fuzis," the director blends fiction and documentary techniques within the framework of a realist aesthetic to portray political oppression afflicting starving peasants in the impoverished Northeast region of Brazil. "Os Deuses e os mortos" is a visually stylized political allegory in which Guerra draws on ritual, magic, and the symbolic use of color to explore the violent history and the economics of a cacao-growing region. "A Queda" (1978), co-directed with actor Nelson Xavier, is a provocative stylistic experiment that examines the job-related and personal problems of the protagonists of "Os Fuzis" years later, when they have become members of the exploited working class in Rio de Janeiro. In the late 1970s, after Mozambique had gained its independence, Guerra returned to his native country to advise the newly formed national film institute. At that time, Guerra made Mozambique's first feature-length film, "Mueda" (1979). The film records a "people's theater" recreation of a massacre perpetrated by Portuguese soldiers in the 1960s. In the mid and late 1980s, Guerra abandoned the radical treatment of political themes and made two beautifully photographed and edited features that offered broader commercial appeal. "Opera do Malandro" (1986), a Brazilian "Threepenny Opera," touches on serious economic and social issues such as racism and American cultural influences in Brazil at the time of WWII while masquerading as entertaining musical comedy. "Fabula de la bella palomera" (1988) is a lush period piece and love story based on an original story by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Guerra has not confined his talents to filmmaking. In Brazil he has directed plays, worked as a playwright and collaborated as a lyricist with leading pop musician.
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