by Hans Proppe and Susan Tarr
Jump Cut, no. 10, 1976, pp. 45-48
The “discovery” and elucidation of a national culture in the cinema novo of Brazil is a progressive step forward from the deformed and plastic imitations of Hollywood film which preceded it. However, cinema novo, exciting, dynamic and progressive as it is, has internal limitations that some audiences and critics are unwilling to grapple with.
Just as political consciousness develops dialectically from one stage to progressively higher stages, the art or cultural (artifacts produced will correspond to these stages of development and reflect material reality. It is important to be able to distinguish these stages and, while encouraging all steps forward in this developmental process, not to give premature total approbation to the more primitive and limited stages. In the case of European and U.S. audiences, cinema novo has received accolades and political laurels in which the enthusiasm is based more on a well-intentioned cultural paternalism than on constructive political criticism. In the area of political films, this attitude is by no means limited to evaluations of the cinema novo. It is symptomatic of a difficulty that arises when a film is exported and viewed and interpreted by people without a real knowledge of the fundamentals of the national context.
Godard’s films, intended for the organized political cadre of France, are denounced by unorganized students in the United States. A film designed for organized Peronist workers and militants is mistakenly hailed by Godard as a “Latin American POTEMKIN.” The same film is equally mistakenly denounced by certain American audiences as being “Peronist propaganda” and therefore fascist. In political struggle as well as in cultural struggle, tactics and strategy must be evaluated from the perspective of the concrete historical circumstances from which they derived. Such is the case with cinema novo.
Numerous claims have been made by advocates of cinema novo and particularly by Glauber Rocha as to the revolutionary intention and effect of this body of work. When Rocha, a prolific writer and influential film theoretician, makes such contradictory claims as that cinema novo wants to “make a contribution to the revolution” and that he does not “believe that we will arrive at that state by educating the people” because “the film, after all, is a game like sports... a stimulant like drugs” , it becomes necessary to take a critical look at cinema novo, specifically the films of Rocha.
It will be argued here that the symbolism and metaphor upon which cinema novo relies so heavily, rather than clarifying the audience’s experience, serves to further mystify and perhaps even exacerbate a painful reality. Principally at issue is whether or not the three recurrent themes and protagonists of cinema novo, the bandit cangaceiros, the fanatical mystics and the all-pervasive peasant suffering have been utilized in such a way as to raise political consciousness and elucidate the situation. Similarly, notwithstanding the stated intention of the cinema novo filmmakers to obscure political meanings in order to avoid censorship and repression, the political ambiguity of many of these films is as much a function of a mistaken political analysis as anything else. In addition, the unique visual aspects of cinema novo can be viewed as attempts to establish a film style which emphasizes the aesthetic rather than the political.
Since most of the best known cinema novo films deal with the social conditions of the Northeast of Brazil, we must first examine that area and its extreme culture and way of life.
OF CANGACEIROS, SANTOS AND SERTANEJOS
The Northeast can be divided into two general regions—the eastern coastal area extending 30 to 40 miles inland and rich in vegetation and the western interior, the sertao, an arid desert periodically subject to droughts in which as much as a third of the population of the area die. In the early centuries of Portugese rule, it was the Northeast coastal region that determined the destiny of Brazil as it was the seat of colonial rule.; The eastern area is dominated by large landholdings and sugar cane plantations (the engenhos) while the sertao is dominated by cattle raising interests (the fazenda). The rise of the engenhos resulted in feudal social relationships, including the importation of slaves from Africa, and the sugarcane monoculture destroyed the soil and prevented agrarian diversification. The social and productive relationships of the sertao region have been described as most closely resembling a form of primitive capitalism, with a large, desperate and unorganized labor force creating a free labor situation exploited by the rulers of the cattle empires.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century and coinciding with the overthrow of the monarchy in 1889, the locus of Brazilian power began a shift to the south. Competition from Cuba in the area of sugar production and the rise of coffee, grown primarily in the south, as the nation’s most important export were the primary factors in determining this shift. Meanwhile, an emerging and more modernized sugar industry began to grow up in the south as well and these producers were soon producing sugar at lower prices than the producers of the Northeast. At the close of WWII, world sugar prices rose steeply and a number of plantation owners who had left their property returned with the intention of cashing in on the new demand for their product. Their efforts to expel the peasants who had taken over small plots and were raising subsistence crops resulted in the first Peasant League formations.
The sertao has historically been a great disaster area. In addition to severe droughts, heavy rains contribute to flash floods that frequently wipe out entire settlements along the riverbanks. The inhabitants of the sertao originally included runaway and freed slaves as well as the Negro-Portugese, Portugese-Indian and Indian-Negro mixtures common in the area. The sertanejo or “backlander” clings tenaciously to this area that appears ill suited to human habitation. While the devastating droughts that take such a toll can be seen as simply a curse of nature, the anachronistic relationship of landowners to peasants is the real clue to the misery of the Northeast. The cinema novo filmmakers frequently focus on the effects of this exploitative relationship, on the aberrent social and psychological phenomena that result, and less on the explicit nature of the relationship itself.
Josue de Castro in Death in the Northeast describes the psychic rhythms which appear during periods of famine as being schizoid, where the polar temperaments become the outlaw-bandit cangaceiros of the mystical and fanatic santos or visionaries.
The periodic rise of religious fanaticism in the Northeast seems attributable as well to the combination of isolation, misery and frustration that is exploited by a charismatic religious leader relying heavily on the traditionally mystical religious elements, a combination of Catholicism and African religious ceremony called macumba. From Portugal came another ingredient, a popular quasi-religious belief system known as Sebastianism, which prophesied the return of the Portugese king Sebastian who vanished in Africa in 1578 while fighting the Moors.
Cangaceiros, santos and sertanejos, the peasants of the sertao, are the central sources of cinema novo. VIDAS SECAS (1963); BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL (1963), ANTONIO DAS MORTES (1968) and THE GODS AND THE DEAD (1970) deal explicitly with these themes, while CINCO VEZES FAVELAS, THE GUNS (OS FUZIS), and GANGA ZUMBA (1964) have their historical reference points in these dominant sociological and psychological figures and events, while dealing with them less directly. Although the history of the Northeast is full of examples of religious rebellions stretching back into Brazilian history such as those of Joazeiro, Caldeiro and the events at Pedra Bonita in 1836 as well as the bandit activities of the cangaceiros Antonio Silvino and Rio Preto, two outstanding examples will suffice to explain the dimensions of the phenomenon, Antonio Conselheiro and Lampiao. These two are the most famous examples of the religious fanatic and the bandit of the Northeast, and references to them and the movements they spawned are prominent in the cinema novo films.
“It was natural that the deep-lying layers of our ethnic stratification should have cast, up so extraordinary an anticlinal as Antonio Conselheiro” is the opening line of Euclides da Cunha’s description of the religious fanatic who led a millenarian movement at the turn of the century. Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel, or Conselheiro as he came to be known, was indeed a natural outcome of the physical and psychological forces which interact in the sertao. Da Cunha, in Rebellion in the Backlands, a remarkable account of the Conselheiro-led rebellion at Canudos in 1897, states that Conselheiro “was doing no more than to condense the obscurantism of the three separate races (sic)” which he categorizes as the “anthropomorphism of the savage” or the Brazilian Indian, the “animism of the African slaves” and the “historical atavism” of the mestizo.
Wandering through the backlands of the Northeast in the 1880’s for more than ten years, Conselheiro gathered a large following as a mystic and ascetic amalgamating Roman Catholicism, African religious belief and indigenous mysticism. This amalgam developed into a millenarian movement like that Europe had seen centuries earlier. Like its predecessor this movement had three main characteristics:
As a wandering prophet and pietist longing for the promised kingdom of God which Conselheiro felt had been subverted and abandoned by the orthodox church, he preached against both the established church and the newly established republic. In 1882, the Catholic archbishop of Baia, alarmed at the large following Conselheiro was attracting, instructed his pastors as follows:
Conselheiro made no great distinction between the Church and the State, branding the republic as the instrument of the “Anti-Christ” and “a supreme heresy” . Citing the return of Dom Sebatiao (King Sebastian), Conselheiro prophesized,
After a number of confrontations with representatives of the government and the Catholic Church, Conselheiro and his followers retreated to a small town, Canudos, to establish a religious settlement which eventually grew to a population of three thousand. For the most part, those who flocked to Canudos were destitute peasant families. Also numbered among the settlers were a large group of cangaceiros, hardened and desperate bandit-outlaws, well schooled in the use of weapons and techniques of survival in the inhospitable backlands. Prior to 1897, several expeditions of Army troops sent against the settlement were completely unsuccessful against the fortified town and the fierce dedication of the inhabitants of Canudos. Finally, in 1397, a new Army expedition was organized involving thousands of well armed soldiers who proceeded to wipe out the town and kill every man, woman and child in Canudos.
If the millenarian movement of Conselheiro seems anachronistic coming at the turn of the century, the most recent and popular of the cangaceiros, Lampiao, who led a movement in the 1930’s, indicates the nature of more contemporary developments in the Brazilian hinterlands. Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, known as “the Captain” or Lampiao, is perhaps the most popular legendary hero of the sertao and a direct model for such films as. ANTONIO DAS MORTES, BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL and THE GODS AND THE DEAD. Lampiao exemplifies the inherent limitations of the social bandit in regard to the alleged “revolutionary” role of such figures. The development of a contemporaneous movement in Brazil, the Prestes column, provides a useful counterpoint when considering the activities of Lampiao and his band of followers.
Eric Hobsbawm in Bandits discusses Lampiao’s exploits and provides a political framework to clarify the phenomenon of social banditry. Hobsbawm sees the bandit as a reformer not as a revolutionary, as an activist not as ideologue or prophet from “whom novel visions or plans of social and political organization are to be expected.” Rather, as champions, heroes and avengers,
Lampiao was born into a middle class farming and cattle raising family. More than literate, he was an excellent poet and otherwise intellectually versatile. As was the case with many other cangaceiros, a blood feud was the starting point for his banditry. When Lampiao was seventeen, his family was expelled from their farm by another family, an expulsion to which Lampiao responded by forming an outlaw band consisting of his brothers and some thirty others (including several women) in order to avenge the wrong. The realities of Lampiao’s subsequent career are difficult to sort out from the countless poems, legends and songs written in tribute to him. Hobsbawm’s investigation of Lampiao leads him to conclude that Lampiao was unlike other cangaceiros such as Antonio Silvino (1875-1944) who are remembered for their good deeds and concern for the poor:
Lampiao, though a hero, was not a “good” hero. Lampiao lasted almost twenty years, not only because the rugged Northeast offered shelter from government authority but because he was able to exploit political situations and economic conditions to the extent that enabled him “to build up so strong a force as to constitute not merely a potential reinforcement for any great ‘colonel’ of the backwoods, but a power in his own right” (Hobsbawm, p. 80).
Also revealing was the relationship of Lampiao and his band to other organized forces operating in the region at the time. In the mid-1920s, a sizeable guerrilla band which had been operating in the south central portion of Brazil arrived in the Northeast. Led by Luis Prestes, who was later to become the leader of the Brazilian Communist Party, this well organized and politically conscious group was seen as a serious threat to the stability of the Northeast by the ruling class.
The Federal government turned for assistance to the most powerful religious figure of the area, Father Cicero, “the messiah of Ceara,” with the promise of Federal troops to quell any incipient rebellion sparked by the presence of the Prestes group. At Father Cicero’s urging the government attempted to enlist Lampiao’s assistance by offering his band official pardon for past crimes and offering Lampiao himself official rank as captain as well as ammunition and rifles. Thus legitimized he was expected to pursue and eliminate the real social threat posed by the Prestes column. According to Hobsbawm, Lampiao’s enthusiasm for his semi-official military status and his “mission” only waned when he was warned by friends that once he had eliminated Prestes and his group, his own newly found legitimacy would quickly be revoked. Lampiao decided to take his friends’ advice and retreated, mission unaccomplished to the sertao, his old sanctuary, never attempting to either pursue or join in common cause with Luis Prestes.
There have been social bandit types who have developed into activists playing a revolutionary role, Sandor Rozsa of Hungary as well as the Bolshevik Kamo are examples. The cangaceiros generally, and Lampiao specifically, never seemed to evolve out of self-serving banditry and terrorism although such a development is possible. In relation to cinema novo, which is based in such large part on the activities and context of the cangaceiros, it is important (when examining the claim of cinema novo to be a body of revolutionary film) to explore to what extent and in what ways the cinema novo deals critically with the limitations that these social forces represented.
BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL and ANTONIO DAS MORTES
What distinguishes Glauber Rocha’s work is his description of his films as being political and politicizing. Rocha describes his thesis and intention this way:
But what does Rocha communicate “qualitatively” in BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL and ANTONIO DAS FORTES? And, using his criteria, is this communication indeed revolutionary? Both films are an amalgam of the social forces of the Northeast and examine the relationships between the religious fanatics, the peasants, the jacungos (hired assassins) and the cangaceiros. Although not precisely intended as a sequel to BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL, ANTONIO DAS MORTES continues’ the development of the central character Antonio who is hired gun, bounty hunter or revolutionary, depending on which analysis is made of his actions.
Antonio, as introduced in BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL, is intended by Rocha to be simultaneously an instrument of oppression and liberation. He is a “gun for hire,” and as such his philosophy and morality is a function of the highest bidder for his services, which in BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL is the church and state and in ANTONIO DAS FORTES the coffee and landowning oligarchy. Hobsbawm points out that traditionally in peasant societies there have been bandits who serve the landlords as well as those who ally with the oppressed. The practice of landlords hiring “deputies” in cases of local peasant rebellion is still extant in the Northeast today, and Antonio is not only a plausible and realistic character but serves an allegorical purpose as well.
Antonio is hired by the Church to destroy a nascent fanatical religious movement and its leader—that is seen as representing a threat to the rule of the established clergy. Antonio’s journey has its coincidental parallel in the journey of a peasant, his wife and infant who set out on a quest of their own. Manuel, with a life not unlike that of the peasant in VIDAS SECAS and TROPICI, kills his landowning boss in an argument over a steer. For Manuel, the act is morally repugnant, and great guilt as well as fear of the authorities drives him to become a follower of the mystic Sebastian (a character based on such figures as Conselheiro of Canudos and Father Cicero of Joazeiro). In order to prove his dedication and devotion to Sebastiao, Manuel indulges with all of Sebastiao’s followers in ritual ascetic acts such as carrying huge boulders on his head for many miles.
Then in an act that had its parallel in a call for a blood sacrifice made by a backlands prophet in 1838, Sebastiao called for his followers to make the ultimate sacrificial offering to prove their devotion. Manuel offers up his own son. Manuel’s wife, outraged at the loss of her child and disillusioned with the prophet, murders him. Manuel and his wife then flee into the sertao.
Antonio, who has been tracking the group which remains on the move looking for the “promised land” in spite of the loss of Sebastian, massacres the entire following in a ritualistic and bloody sequence. In the course of his flight, Manuel encounters an outlaw bandit group led by the cangaceiro Corisco (who in real life was a lieutenant of Lampiao and formed a separate band) and becomes peripherally involved with them. Having dispatched the threat to the religious status quo, Antonio now begins to pursue Corisco and his band in order to eliminate the threat to secular authority.
Antonio catches up with the outlaws and murders Corisco and all his followers in the same ritualistic way, and Manuel is left to wander alone in the desert. The entire film is linked together by a blind old peasant narrator who relates, in songs and words, the exploits of Sebastiao, Corisco and Antonio. In the final sequence the words in a song refer to the day when the sertao will be the sea and the sea will be the sertao and ends with the words, “The Earth belongs to Man and not to God or the Devil.” Thus, Rocha has assigned Antonio a cathartic role, a man who must purge the Northeast of both the impotent and delusionary mysticism and the self-serving, lumpen banditry of the cangaceiros.
Rocha, according to Ernest Callenbach in an excellent review of ANTONIO DAS MORTES in Film Quarterly (winter 1969), has declared that just as imperialists are necessary to dig their own graves, “so Antonio is necessary to bring about the revolution, or at least its spiritual precondition.” Antonio frees the peasant from investing his hope for change in the futile and meaningless perturbations of the beatos and cangaceiros in BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL. It is this theme, reformulated, to which Rocha returns five years later in ANTONIO DAS MORTES.
The characters and actions symbolize the army’s going over to serve the oppressed. Many of the characters in these two films are taken from the actual history of the Northeast while others are derived from Rocha’s personal experience. In ANTONIO DAS MORTES, Mata Vaca, the colonel’s bodyguard and gunman, is patterned after an individual Rocha claims killed one of his relations when he was a child and who was killed sometime later by one of his cousins in revenge. The character of Antonio is modeled on Jose Rufino, an actual cangaceiro hunter with whom Rocha spent much time. Much of the second half of BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL is based on what Rufino told him and when Rocha wanted to make ANTONIO DAS MORTES, he learned that a new cangaceiro had arisen in the Northeast, called Ze Crispin, and that Rufino had gone to catch him because the local police force was unable to do so.
Antonio, like his real-life counterpart Rufino, in the opening sequences of ANTONIO DAS MORTES, is sought out by the manager for a despotic landowner, “the Colonel,” whose feudal hegemony is threatened by a local uprising of peasants sympathetic to Coiriana and his fellow cangaceiros. Whereas in BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL the cangaceiros and the followers of the prophet were two completely distinct, if not antagonistic groups, Coiriana’s band includes a girl dressed entirely in white and referred to as “the holy one” as well as a Black man dressed in red who Rocha says symbolizes a Brazilian St. George, a saint who frees the people from oppression. Coiriana is depicted as a somewhat “responsible” social bandit who moreover has a broad-based peasant constituency and who is seen by both peasants and landowner as a potential change agent. Therefore, when Antonio challenges and kills Coiriana in a ritualistic duel while the peasants and religious figures look on passively, he openly serves the forces of repression.
Having killed the bandit leader, Antonio is confronted by the corrupt and greedy landowner and his promiscuous and treacherous wife, and undergoes a change which Rocha describes as “moral and personal.” Antonio now sides with the peasants and the remaining religious figures and demands the distribution of food to the poor. In response, the landowner hires another band of killers to eliminate the turncoat Antonio. The film concludes with a multilayered resolution by blood-letting: the landowner’s wife, frustrated by the impotence of the manager in their joint plot against her husband, kills the manager by stabbing him to death. Antonio, joined by the local schoolteacher (intellectual turned activist), emerges victorious from a dramatically filmed shootout with the gang hired by the landowner; and the landowner is ceremoniously dispatched by the Black St. George who runs him through with a lance from horseback.
Needless to say, the characters and their actions have, as Ernest Callenbach points out, “symbolic equivalences.” If the “Colonel” represents the feudal landowner whose unswerving dedication to maintaining the status quo without concessions (an idea further emphasized by his being represented as blind in the film), the wife and the manager, Mate Vaca, represent the nationalist bourgeoisie which is divided against itself—between maintaining the institutions of the status quo or overturning them in order to benefit their own class interests. The local schoolteacher, says Rocha, is symbolic of the leftwing intellectual of middle class background who is “freeing himself from the dust of his bourgeois way of thinking.” By jointing Antonio in the last battle he represents a “person who must pass, must go from irony and skepticism to action” and thereby “become effective in the struggle for the people.”
Coiriana, “the holy one” and the Black St. George represent both actual characters of Northeast typology and symbols of “false hope” who are looked up to and passively followed by the peasantry. Finally, Antonio, the pivotal character in the film and the figure upon whom much of the political analysis must rest, symbolizes the army, traditionally the tool of repression and the armed servant and protector of the oligarchy. As Callenbach, points out,
Rocha, in response to Callenbach’s analysis and critique of ANTONIO DAS MORTES, which Callenbach compares to the 1938 Errol Flynn version of ROBIN HOOD because “both are fundamentally conservative, and constitute (like most folk art) diversions of thought and feeling from tender political questions,” agrees at least partially with Callenbach’s description of Antonio as the vested power and potential of the military. Although he maintains that Antonio’s change is “profoundly mystical and personal,” Rocha makes lengthy references to the progressive role played by the armies of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia.
Assigning the army a progressive role is a questionable proposition. Numerous examples, the most recent being the role of the supposedly “progressive” armed forces of Chile, point in quite an opposite direction. The nature of Antonio’s sudden conversion, attributed by Rocha to a change both “moral” and “personal,” is also questionable for, as Callenbach points out,
If one looks to the film for guidance in understanding Antonio’s reversal of allegiance, it appears that Antonio is moved not by the exploitation and suffering of the peasants, but rather is influenced by the virtue and piety of “the holy one,” the girl saint. It is she who motivates him to join the peasants and his conversion is just that, a religious change from “sinfulness” to “righteousness.”
The principal flaw of most of the cinema novo films stems from their interpretation of two key aspects of the Northeast, social banditry and archaic mysticism. The error inn their analysis of these phenomena is twofold, the former is romanticized while the revolutionary potential of the latter is overlooked. The cangaceiros are held up as heroic figures (even if not always heroes) while the beatos and their peasant followers are depicted as engaged in a futile and self-defeating process totally without potential for change into a more viable and revolutionary movement.
As Hobsbawm points out, social banditry exists in three forms: the archetypal Robin Hood or noble robber, the primitive resistance fighter such as the haiduk and the terror-bringing avenger, typified by the cangaceiros. The noble robber represents the reformist aspects of social banditry (Robin Hood fought against the injustices of the “wicked” John while remaining loyal to the monarchy, the “good” King Richard). While the terror-bringing avenger may become a symbol of the rejection of official authority and values through his anarchic and highly individualistic acts of rebellion, he is unlikely to be concerned with, or act in the interest of, the larger peasant community. The cangaceiro band is not organized to alter the social structure but rather to win for its outlaw members personal rather than class advantages within the existing structure.
Although social banditry and millenarianism are historically congruent, it is only when social banditry aligns itself with a millenarian movement that it can contribute in a significant way to social change. Social banditry alone “has next to no organization or ideology and is totally inadaptable to modern social movements” and its strength “is in inverse proportion to that of organized agrarian revolutionism and Socialism or Communism.” (Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels, p. 23)
Millenarianism, on the other hand, while also existing in a variety of forms, can be a potentially revolutionary movement as it is always directed toward fundamental and radical change of the existing order, unlike the outlaw movements. Hobsbawm points out that the tendency is to dismiss millenarian movements as religious in nature (particularly the chiliastic type) while the millenarianists are frequently equally fervent about and concerned with radical social change. It is true that they most frequently look backwards, to the outmoded social forms of the past for their inspiration, resulting in an essentially reactionary quest. In addition, the millenarianists are frequently not makers of revolution,
Hobsbawm describes two other forms of millenarianist movements: the “libertarian communist,” such as that of the Chilean “red zones” of the 1930’s, where the peasant movement attempts to establish small self-governing communities owing allegiance to neither Church or State; the third form being that movement typified by the organizations of Sicilian peasants, still extant, in which the forms of “village anarchist organization” has necessarily evolved into more politicized and politically active units. The Northeast had its own village anarchist organization equivalent in the development of the “peasant leagues” in the early 1960’s.
The point of this elaboration is not to deny the particular forms that both millenarianism and social banditry have taken in Brazil, but rather to illustrate that social banditry is rarely a viable political force (and therefore its choice as metaphor is a poor one), and that millenarian movements are not necessarily devoid of revolutionary potential. What cinema novo has done is to exaggerate by the utilization of symbol, metaphor and allegory the revolutionary potential of the cangaceiro and simultaneously hopelessly enmesh the millenarianist movement in mysticism, thereby robbing it of its potential secular and social significance.
There is another no less important criticism that must be made of the cinema novo films. Almost without exception the characterization of the peasantry is that of an inert, hopeless and deadened mass, uninvolved and uncomprehending. It is a cinema of despair and pessimism. In OS FUZIS, by Ruy Guerra, when a lone truck driver rebels against the injustice of a well-stocked food warehouse protected by the army from starving peasants, his call to rebellion and peasant insurrection goes unheeded. He is pursued through the streets of the village by the soldiers and although the peasants do some looting, they take no active part in this rebellion and watch passively as the rebel is tracked down.
In ANTONIO DAS MORTES and BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL the peasants are depicted as a mass which may follow but never lead, blind and mute appendages to a mystic, cangaceiro or an Antonio, never taking an active role in the struggle. One must question why Rocha chooses to present the peasants in this way as this depiction does not reflect historical reality. Recent organizing efforts in the Northeast point in the opposite direction and the powerful Peasant Leagues of the sixties indicate vast potential for active and engaged organization and struggle. The men and women assembled at Canudos with Antonio Conselheiro died fighting, while the followers of Luis Prestes, many of whom were peasants, marched same 20,000 miles, epitomizing the struggle of the poor against the rich. Undoubtedly, many feel hopeless and cynical about the possibilities for change, but little encouragement is to be gained from continually depicting the peasants as hopelessly mired in mysticism, fatalism and resignation.
While this despair and cynicism is most pronounced in the depiction of the peasants, it is not limited to them. Rocha further investigates the psychological dynamics of a character like Antonio in TERRA EM TRANSE (1967) which Rocha considers an “intellectual work” and his most important film. Attacked by some groups on the left as a fascist film, TERRA EM TRANSE attempts to deal with the problems of the intellectual in post-Goulart Brazil. The central character, Paulo Martins, is ambivalent like Antonio and, according to Rocha, reflects his own doubts and political ambivalence.
In O BRAVO GUERREIRO by Gustavo Dahl, also set in contemporary Brazil, the central character is Miguel Horta, a radical politician, union official and lawyer who is gradually coopted by the ruling regime; at the end of the film, in despair Horta holds a gun to his mouth.
In some of the non-sertao films of cinema novo, the ambivalence of individuals on the verge of making political commitments is generally treated in a non-critical and ambiguous way. Antonio’s own conversion is essentially ambiguous. Cinema novo presents characters who are neither politically coherent nor committed. If this is the actual situation in Brazil (as Rocha and the cinema novo filmmakers see it) it would seem all the more important to offer more than a filmic reflection of the intellectual and ideological confusion.
More than anything else the political weakness and ambiguity of the cinema novo films derives from the double seduction of the desire for a nationalist film movement and the availability of a rich and esoteric folklore upon which to base it. Rocha is more involved and more articulate when dealing with theories of filmmaking and the cultural characteristics of the Northeast than he is when analyzing the political implications or applications of either. When Rocha claims for cinema nova a “revolutionary” role in Brazil, he is doing so at the cultural and not the political level. While the influence of such Hollywood filmmakers as Peckinpah and Hawks is highly evident, there is little question that Rocha’s films and cinema novo generally constitute a successful attempt at cultural decolonization. While all reclamations of a national culture constitute a first step in establishing a national identity and consciousness, it does not follow that all cultural expositions have meaningful political effects.
Rather than dealing with the limitations and the potential of millenarian movements and social banditry of the cangaceiro type, Rocha has allowed his film form, content and style to be trapped by the irrationality and obscurity that hinders these very movements. Rather than his films and characters rising above and out of the obscurantism of the Northeast mythology, Rocha chooses to descend and finds refuge in its rich but distorting reality. Brazil, like other Latin American countries, has had to labor under the impact of American and European cultural domination.
Rocha, like the colonized artist of whom Fanon speaks in Wretched of the Earth, has forgotten that” [t]he colonized man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope” rather than using cultural “instruments... which he wishes to be national, but which [are] strangely reminiscent of exoticism.”
The development of cinema novo over the past ten years illustrates this problem of orientation. Rocha, in an interview in Cineaste (Summer, 1970) describes three phases of cinema novo: the first phase he simply calls “films about the Northeast” (GANGA ZUMBA, VIDAS SECAS, OS FUZIS and BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL). He describes the second phase, such films as O DESAFIO (THE CHALLENGE), TERRA EM TRANSE (LAND IN ANGUISH) and O BRAVO GUERREIRO (THE BRAVE WARRIOR) made after the coup d'etat, as films about political power primarily in urban Brazil. The third phase, such films as MACUNAIMA, BRASIL ANO 2,000, O ALIENISTA and ANTONIO DAS MORTES are referred to as “tropicalist.” It is this third phase, characterized by a mixed bag of social and political themes against a backdrop of characters, images and contexts not unlike the richness and florid ness of the Brazilian jungle, which is “strangely reminiscent” of an artificial “exoticism.” These are films in which the rich cultural texture of Brazil has been pushed to the limit and exploited for its own aesthetic ends rather than for its appropriateness as political metaphor.
Ruy Guerra in OS FUZIS manages to avoid the trap into which Rocha has fallen by having an act of demystification performed within the film by the victims of mystification themselves. Through most of the film, the peasants are shown to be enmeshed in the mystico-religious system which is part of the Northeast. An old man retells the story of Conselheiro and we see the starving peasants worshipping and pampering a holy ox. After the truck driver’s futile revolt against the army which is guarding a store of food for the landlord, the peasants in a fury of rage and frustration descend on the ox and butcher it, exclaiming that after all “it is only meat.” Ruy Guerra is modest in his political claims for his film and understands, probably more clearly than Rocha, the translation of his convictions and intentions into film form:
This simple statement, “It is only meat,” begins to point in the direction of demythologizing and intervening in the vicious cycle which is at the root of traditional mysticism and transforms it into secular rationalism, whereas Rocha places the form and content of his films squarely within this arcane system.
The political and economic hegemony enjoyed by the sugar and coffee barons of the Northeast during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been replaced by the urban bourgeoisie and high investment capital of the industrialized centers of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo. With this shift of wealth and power from the countryside to the cities, a large industrial working class has developed. If, as Rocha claims, the cangaceiros are utilized by cinema novo filmmakers to relate to the peasant consciousness and the tropicalist characters serve to relate to the consciousness of Brazil’s urban middle class, when and how do the cinema novo filmmakers direct their attention to the working class? While it seems a fatal omission to ignore the urban working class, granting Rocha the right to direct his attention where he wishes, are there not cultural or historical events involving the peasantry that are better suited for political explication and development of consciousness than tales of the cangaceiros and santos?
Cinema novo completely ignores the nascent revolutionary developments which occurred throughout the Northeast from 1924 through the 1960’s. In 1924, a series of rebellions of young army officers broke out in Sao Paolo. A young army captain, Luis Prestes, began his famous march at this time, covering some 21,600 miles throughout the vast interior regions attempting to incite the rural masses to revolt. In 1935, the Communist Party launched an armed rebellion, the Pernambuco “putsch,” the first and only time that a Communist Party bound to the Moscow line ever engaged in violent revolution in Latin America. Their call was for “Bread, Land and Liberty for the People.”
In the mid-1940’s, the Communist Party organized (and then quickly disbanded) the original Peasant Leagues In the mid-1950’s, Francisco Juliao began his association with the New Peasant Leagues which were to attract large numbers of organized peasants and national attention. In the decade from 1950 to 1960, the Peasant Leagues were only one of a number of rural union organizations and there were numerous strikes and demonstrations which the landlords fought bitterly and bloodily.
The above is hardly an exhaustive list of all the struggles engaged in by the peasants of the Northeast. One must ask why Rocha and the cinema novo filmmakers have chosen to concentrate on the “romantic” and mystical elements of Northeast history when there are so many vital and progressive historical movements. With the exception of GANGA ZUMBA by Carlos Diegues, concerning the Republic of Palmares set up in the backlands by rebellious and runaway slaves during the seventeenth century, few other cinema novo films use successful or constructive historical events or personages for their subject.
While the people of Brazil are presented with one aspect of their culture and history in the cinema nova films, they will not find any clearly defined alternative to sporadic and futile individual rebellions against the violent and repressive conditions under which they currently live. Instead, cinema novo turns their attention backward and inward to archaic political and social forces which are by their very nature incapable of producing meaningful social change. Callenbach, in summarizing ANTONIO DAS MORTES, states it clearly: