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By Stephen Eisenhammer
LONDON (Reuters) - With movies ranging from an American poet's sexual awakening to a love story cut short by betrayal, cocaine and a Winchester rifle, the 5th Brazilian Film Festival in London opens this Thursday.
Latin America's largest nation is enjoying a cinematic renaissance, boosted by the success of directors like Fernando Meirelles, behind "City of God" - a gritty portrayal of life in a Rio de Janeiro slum - and Walter Salles, whose recent feature "On the Road" starred Kristen Stewart and Sam Riley.
"For our first festival in Miami (in 1997) we only had 12 films to choose from. Today we produce around 400 films a year and as an industry we're growing every year," festival organizer Adriana Dutra told Reuters.
"Now we have loads of movie professionals working abroad... All positively influencing the industry at home," she said.
Until recently, international names were the exception in an industry that struggled for funding and acclaim. In the early 1990s the Brazilian government, in a wide reform to public spending, dissolved the national body which had helped fund cinema and the number of films produced fell to almost zero.
Now, directors like Meirelles and Salles have opened the door for younger filmmakers and actors who are emerging.
London, home to an estimated 200,000 Brazilians, is a perfect place to showcase Brazil's renascent cinema, Dutra said.
"London is a great cultural city and an important partner for Brazilian film in terms of co-productions so we hope our presence can improve these ties," she said.
Many of Brazil's exported films have been set in Rio de Janeiro, with its urban slums and breathtaking natural backdrops, but the feature closing this year's festival, "Brazilian Western," focuses on the modern capital, Brasilia.
Based on a 1980s ballad from Brazilian rock group Legiao Urbana, the film was one of the biggest domestic box office hits of recent years drawing 1.5 million viewers. It is in the running to be Brazil's selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.
"I wanted to show the real Brasilia, away from just the government, so that people could see what it is really like," director Rene Sampaio, born and raised in Brasilia, told Reuters.
It tells of a poor black man, Joao de Sao Cristo, who leaves his family home in the countryside after the deaths of his mother and father to find a better life in Brasilia. He is sucked into the city's underworld, selling dope to children of the political elite.
He falls in love with a senator's daughter who urges him to turn away from dealing drugs. He tries but by then it is too late and he is embroiled in a tragic turf war.
"The film is about someone striving for personhood, but who's being refused it because he's poor," Sampaio said.
One striking scene shows the senator throwing his daughter out of their home after discovering she is in a relationship with Sao Cristo, an evocation of the often unspoken but continuing racism and animosity felt towards the poor by Brazil's elite.
The other stand-out film is "Reaching for the Moon," which tells of U.S. poet Elizabeth Bishop's journey to Brazil and her love affair with architect Lota de Macedo Soares.
Directed by Bruno Barreto, it explores how the exoticism of Brazil and her relationship with Macedo Soares initiated one of the poet's most productive periods, while pushing her partner to despair.
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Angus MacSwan)