Carmen Santos: the life and art of a movie pioneer

“A talent in permanent rebellion against all conventions, preconceptions and social lies.” This is how journalist Afonso de Carvalho, in article published in the newspaper A Manhã in 1935, described the first muse of Brazilian cinema, Carmen Santos.

Confronting the sexism and the conservatism characteristics of her time, Carmen Santos was one of the first women to ever produce and direct a film in history. Actress, filmmaker and businesswoman, she broke the dichotomy between the vamp and the immaculate virgin, being recognized — in and out of screens — as a woman of free and transgressor spirit. Today we look through her life and art.

(Image: Reproduction)


Maria do Carmo Santos Gonçalves — or simply Carmen Santos — was born in Vila Flor, a small village in the North of Portugal, on June 8th, 1904. In 1912, at eight, she immigrated to Rio de Janeiro with her family. Her father, João dos Santos Gonçalves, was cabinetmaker, and couldn’t support his offspring. As the eldest sister, Carmen abandoned school to work in a fashion house, where her function was to nail buttons.

Researcher Ana Pessoa, in the book Carmen Santos e o Cinema dos Anos 20 (Carmen Santos and the 1920’s Cinema), relates the early years of the actress and the feminine condition of her time: “The manufacturing industry, “clothing and toilet”, as the textile industry, are the most receptive work fronts to women and girls from low social classes. The activities of weave, sew and nail buttons in the sewing factories turn the domestic universe of yarns, needles and reels into production unit”.

From working girl, Carmen is promoted to the post of saleswoman, being praised for her beauty.

Carmen Santos as Lenita in “Flesh” (1924) (Image: Reproduction/Flickr)


The national artistic panorama was shaken when American technician Willian Jansen arrived in Brazil and established Omega Film Production in Rio de Janeiro. Lover of cinema, Carmen decided to do the test for Omega and was selected to play the suffering and helpless Marta in the 1919 movie Urutau, directed by Jansen.

Following this first experience, she played young women in the blossoming of sex, Lenita and Rosalina, in the respective A Carne (Flesh, 1924), adaptation of Júlio Ribeiro’s novel, and Mademoisselle Cinema (1925), both uncompleted. Even though any of those movies were never released commercially, Carmen was already a star in ascension.

Carmen Santos as Lenita in “Flesh” (1924) (Image: Reproduction/Flickr)

By that time, Carmen met Antônio Seabra, young and wealth businessman of textile branch, and they began an open relationship. Carmen kept on living with her parents in a house in Tijuca, Rio, being sustained by Seabra, who offered her financial supports for her endeavors in film.

(Image: Reproduction)

The relationship, target of gossips and conservative society’s moral, was maintained distant from publicity. Carmen was about 15 or 16 years old when she met Seabra, and so she broke another boundary in the fate reserved to the women of her social condition. “The passion increases the nonconformity of the young actress, making her not only affirm her professional perspectives as well to break one the most sacred values of the society of her time: virginity”, writes Pessoa. “According to the jury precepts in vogue, the precocious sexual relationships were rigidly punished — the defloration of under-16 girls, independent on non-violence, was considered rape.”

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In 1929 Carmen became partner of director Humberto Mauro. In their first movie, Sangue Mineiro (Blood of Minas Gerais), she plays a young romantic girl, also called Carmen.

Carmen Santos in Blood of Minas Gerais (dir. Humberto Mauro, 1929) (Image: Reproduction)

However, Carmen’s wish was to play sensual flappers, women of strength and autonomy, and, later, she revealed that accepted the role in Blood of Minas Gerais just to integrate the artistic cycle of Cataguases — city of Minas Gerais which, by that time, was ahead of Modernism, in the early years of Brazilian cinema. “I think I must play exactly the modern, ‘crazy’ woman, in the vulgar expression, with some sincerity and sentimentalism”, she told Cinearte magazine.

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In 1930 she starred a little role in the mythical Limite (Limit), Mário Peixoto’s masterpiece, recently restored by Martin Scorcese. After that, Peixoto invited her to star his new production, Onde a Terra Acaba (Where the Earth Ends). Carmen found in this film the concretization of her wish to play strong women: she plays Eva, a writer who goes to an island searching for inspiration for her novel. Her presence puts in check the friendship of two men who live in there. Her love affair with one of them awakes him to an unknown reality, and the plot develops from the existentialist drama. Unfortunately, the production of Where the Earth Ends failed, and the filming was permanently interrupted.

Carmen alongside poet Vinícius de Moraes and director Mário Peixoto during the filming of Limit (1933) (Image: Brazilian Cinematheque)

In association with Humberto Mauro, Carmen founded her own production company, Brasil Vox Filmes - which, in 1935, became Brasil Vita Filmes. She produced and starred films like Favela dos Meus Amores (Slum of My Beloveds, 1935) and Cidade-Mulher (City-Woman, 1936), both directed by Mauro.

Carmen Santos in City-Woman (dir. Humberto Mauro, 1929) (Image: Reproduction/Flickr)


In 1936, Carmen declared not feeling fulfilled with her latest projects: “Because of my gypsy and romantic temperament, because of all I’ve been suffering, because of my way of seeing life, just the strong roles for the great emotions can satisfy me.”

(Image: Reproduction/Flickr)

In the prime of the New State (period from 1937 to 1945 where Brazil was under the leadership of Getúlio Vargas), she founded her own studio and integrated the movement for request of govern support to the national film production. In note, she wrote to President Vargas: “In the Brazilian cinema, I’d be very upset if they gave the title of ‘star’ — I am a brain that works incessantly from 8 to 24 hours, that fights for the organization of the cinematographic industry in our country with all the sincerity and, because of that, almost everytime, alone. I want work, conscientious production; cinema in our language; mores, ambient, technic, everything Brazilian; absolutely, essentially Brazilian.”

(Image: Reproduction/Flickr)

From then on, Carmen became dedicated to her greatest and most ambitious project: the screen adaptation of the Inconfidência Mineira (unsuccessful Brazilian separatist movement occurred in 1789), which she scripted, directed and in which she acted as Bárbara Heliodora, the poet of Inconfidência.

Brasil Gerson, author of the argument of Inconfidência, described the profile of the heroin idealized by Carmen: “Bárbara Heliodora was the most beautiful, cult and lovely woman of the 18th century Brazil, and, however, none of these things prevent her from being a heroin, dedicated of body and soul to a great collective cause, a revolutionary who loved, had four children and sacrificed herself to the delivery of her people. There’s nothing more false, therefore, than say that women who forget about themselves to dedicate to endeavors considered for male only are ugly, cold, insensitive and unadaptable to all things related to the subtle and pleasant things God created…”

Carmen as Bárbara Heliodora in Incofidência Mineira (1948) (Image: BCC/Brazilian Cinematheque)

The magnificent production took 11 years to be concluded. During this period, Carmen almost didn’t come to public. When asked by Cine-Rádio Jornal about her next projects, she replied: “I intend, but nothing is settled until now. For a while, I just want to finish Inconfidência and don’t formulate any other project.”

Carmen as Bárbara Heliodora in Incofidência Mineira (1948) (Image: BCC/Brazilian Cinematheque)

In Inconfidência Mineira, the then young actor Anselmo Duarte — winner of Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1962 for O Pagador de Promessas (Keeper of Promisses) — starred on screens as extra. “Carmen, who was Portuguese, was a great pioneer of Brazilian cinema and destroyed her career because of her obsession of telling the story of Inconfidência Mineira”, told Anselmo. “She planned the movie in 1937, started filming in 1939 and just finished in 1948. There were plenty of problems. Rodolfo Meyer was Tiradentes and I debuted on screens as extra, with no right to speak.”

Carmen as Bárbara Heliodora in Incofidência Mineira (1948) (Image: BCC/Brazilian Cinematheque)


In 1940, Carmen starred in her most known film, Argila (Clay), by Humberto Mauro. She plays Luciana, a young and wealth widow who falls in love with a simpleton craftsman, Gilberto (Celso Guimarães), with whom she shares the passion for indigenous art. The controversial kiss boosted by Luciana illustrates the image of the ad, exposed during the exhibition of Argila in theaters.

Carmen Santos and Celso Guimarães in scene of Clay (dir. Humberto Mauro, 1940)

Since 1935 Carmen maintained a relationship with the communist journalist and screenwriter Brasil Gerson. Gerson exiled in Argentina for political reasons. He and Carmen were accused of integrating a communist group during the years of repression.

Carmen Santos and the her team in the set of Inconfidência Mineira (1948) (Image: Reproduction/Flickr)

The filming of Inconfidência Mineira began in 1941 and were only finished in 1948, although the production had already been started in 1937. 11 years of work resulted in box office failure. Broke, Carmen sold her studio.

Carmen Santos died of cancer on September 24th, 1952, at age of 48. Her autobiography, in which she describes her years of fight in the Brazilian cinematographic industry, is entitled Seventeen Years in Hell. Most of her movies were destroyed in fire. From Inconfidência Mineira, just some frames are left. From the period of silent era, there are Blood of Minas Gerais and Limit, and, from her talkies, there’s only Argila. However, her legacy as a movie pioneer is still rescued and appreciated.

Carmen as Bárbara Heliodora in Incofidência Mineira (1948) (Image: BCC/Brazilian Cinematheque)

“Manly. Strong, rigid, imperative personality”, wrote Afonso de Carvalho. “Fast, incisive, rectangular movements. No wiggle, no artificial, no curves, no frivolities. Spirit of decision, qualities of a leader. Unquiet energy. A spirit of a general seeking an army… Indomitable, uncompromising will. A woman who walks like a man, in Louis XV heels. Large, firm, tough, rhythmed steps. A straight line crossing the crowd, indifferent to sidewalks, rain or men…”

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