LONDON, England (CNN) -- In the minds of many, the words "Brazil" and "culture" conjure up images of beach footballers and dancers in vivid carnival costumes. Filmmaking and cinema on the other hand, haven't always figured amongst Brazil's cultural staples.
Brazilian director, Jose Padilha, earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival where he took the top award, the Golden Bear, for his film "Elite Squad."
Repressed and censored by a military dictatorship throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s, Brazilian filmmakers struggled to make an impact on audiences abroad.
Then, shortly after the country's return to democracy, the Ministry of Culture was closed and the state-supported film industry crumbled almost overnight. A consequent lack of funding caused Brazilian cinema to reach a low point in the early 1990s, producing fewer than ten films a year.
Today, less than two decades after the collapse of the industry, Brazilian cinema is enjoying a renaissance, wowing audiences and critics alike.
So, why all the excitement over Brazilian cinema now?
Since the start of 2008 Brazilian films have gone from strength to strength on the festival circuit.
In February, director Jose Padilha's controversial drama about police violence and corruption, "Elite Squad," took Berlin Film Festival's top award, the Golden Bear.
Another triumph followed at Cannes Film Festival in April. Sandra Corvelloni won the best actress award for her role in Walter Salles' "Linha de Passe." She plays a heavily pregnant, chain-smoking mother of four boys who are all in their own ways attempting to transcend their working-class lives.
Salles' film was also nominated for the prestigious Palme d'Or, as was "Blindness," the latest offering from fellow Brazilian and director of "City of God," Fernando Meirelles.
Bruno Barretto's true story of a bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro in 2000, "Last Stop 174," is tipped as a contender for the Academy's Best Foreign Language Film award at the upcoming Oscars, so Brazil's cinematic hot streak looks set to continue into 2009.
Brazilian films are all about favelas and violence, then?
Indeed, one of the most celebrated Brazilian releases of the past years, 2003's "City of God," as well as this year's "Elite Squad," feature ultra-violent narratives set mainly in slums, or "favelas" as they are known in Brazil. Both of these films, incidentally, were scripted by screenwriter Braulio Mantovani.
Both films were widely acclaimed for their honesty and gripping storytelling, but condemned by certain critics for "excessive" depictions of violence.
At the time of its release, "City of God" -- which has inspired a whole genre of imitators with its fast-paced editing and bright colors -- was accused of glamorizing cruelty.
Similarly, "Elite Squad" has been said to promote fascism, as it depicts the often-brutal methods employed by Brazil's special police force in the ongoing battle with drug gangs in the favelas. Variety magazine even dubbed Padilha's oeuvre "a recruitment film for fascist thugs," with "Rambo style heroes."
But Padilha defends the film's violent tone, insisting that it was necessary in order to drive home its message. "The bottom line is we are trying to say that the whole violence that goes on in Rio is mainly caused by ourselves and we can possibly undo that," he told CNN.
Other Brazilian directors are taking a less bloody approach in telling the stories of the working classes. Lucia Murat's "Mare, Nossa Historia de Amor," for example, is a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in one of Rio's hillside shantytowns -- a novelty in Brazilian cinema.
Meanwhile, Salles' "Linha de Passe" may be heavier in tone, but avoids violence and ultimately conveys a message of hope. It is a sentiment likely to feature again in Salles' next project: a film adaptation with Francis Ford Coppola of Kerouac's cult-novel "On the Road."
We'll soon be seeing Salles and co. in Hollywood?
While the likes of Salles and Meirelles are often courted by Hollywood production companies and invited to direct studio movies, both prefer to work on independent films.
With a budget of $25 million, Meirelles' "Blindness," a Brazilian, Canadian, Japanese co-production is as close as "South America's Scorsese" has come to producing a Hollywood film.
In various interviews he has confirmed that he has little interest in moving to Hollywood and has often cited the proverb "Speak of your village and you will be universal," as his motto.
Like Meirelles, "Last Stop 174" director Bruno Barreto also tried his hand at English-language productions after making a name for himself in Brazil. Following mixed reviews for the likes of "Carried Away" with Dennis Hopper, and "One Tough Cop" starring Stephen Baldwin, Barreto chose to return to Brazil, where he's experienced a career resurgence.
Salles has also expressed an interest in returning to Brazil after shooting "On the Road," in order to continue his exploration of the Brazilian psyche. "Brazil is still a country in the making," Salles told CNN. "Our identity is being crystallized as we speak and there is so much happening, there are stories that seem completely unlikely and pop up on an everyday basis."
With Brazilian society's countless facets and stark contrasts serving as their inspiration, it would seem the film festival circuit hasn't seen the last of Salles, Meirelles and co.
What about must-see films?
• "Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol" ("Black God, White Devil") (Glauber Rocha, 1964)
• "Central do Brasil" ("Central Station") (Walter Salles, 1999)
• "Cidade de Deus" ("City of God") (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)
• "Casa de Areia" ("House of Sand") (Andrucha Waddington, 2005)
• "Tropa de Elite" ("Elite Squad") (Jose Padilha, 2007)