Born in São Paulo in 1933, Coutinho was a law school graduate. He worked as copy editor at the magazine Visão between 1954 and 1957, and after that he went to France to study film direction at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques.
Back to Brazil in 1960, Coutinho collaborated with the Centro Popular de Cultura - CPC (Popular Center of Culture), an intellectual group associated to the União Nacional de Estudantes -UNE (National Student Union), where he produced the 1962 film Cinco Vezes Favela.
Chosen to direct CPC's next production, Coutinho started to work in a fiction based on the death of João Pedro Teixeira, a peasant leader of the Ligas Camponesas in Pernambuco, titled Cabra marcado para morrer. The own rural workers would play themselves in the film, including Elizabeth, Teixeira's widow. The production was interrupted by the 1964 military coup d'état, and part of the production was imprisoned. After the end of dictatorship in Brazil, in 1985, the film was resumed, but as a documentary with shots of the original film and interviews of the surviving production members.
In 1966, Coutinho has constituted a film production company with Leon Hirszman and Marcos Faria. He wrote and directed ABC do Amor in 1967, The Man who Bought the World (1968) and Faustão (1970).