Cross-Cultural Film Guide/ Patricia Aufderheide
The American University/ ©1992
Plot: The action takes place in the sertao, the desertified Northeast backlands of Brazil traditionally beyond the rule of law, and the site of some of Brazil's most enduring folklore. Here, the sertao is the region of myth, encapsulated by the historical world of progress symbolized by the highway. The tale employs the cast of folklore characters: the colonel (as in "Kentucky colonel") of the ranch; his mistress; the colonel's sidekick; the colonel's enforcer; local bandits (typical of the gangs that grew up in the region either as enforcers or as rural poor abandoned by a patron who lost a local battle); a group of millenialists (similarly, typical of groups of disenfranchised rural poor); the local teacher, a dependent of the colonel.
Antonio das Mortes is a character at at war with himself. The dark figure of an earlier film, Black God/White Devil, he has, he thinks, murdered the last bandit and has retired to the city. (The opening sequence reprises his past role.) In this film, he undergoes a transformation to become an agent of the oppressed.
He comes at the call of the colonel to kill Coirana, the self-proclaimed inheritor of celebrated bandit Lampiao; he undertakes the job as a work of honor. Coirana, who is leading his band into town, has sworn vengeance for the death of his predecessor. He refuses to listen to a black member of a millenial group, Antao (a figure of black resistance), who cautions him to respect authority and himself dreams of return to Africa. Coirana meets Antonio, and they have a long, choreographed fight during which Coirana explains how he came to be a bandit. Coirana here takes on the aspect of the "good guy," St. George (the Catholic saint who slayed the dragon, also Ogum in the African pantheon that pervades Brazilian folk Catholicism.)
Coirana dies, transferring the role of St. George to Antonio, who then meets a band of millenialists he had wronged (they are in this film, unlike the earlier, a positive force) and takes their side.The colonel's mistress and her lover carry Coirana lovingly into a house, where he dies.
Antonio decides to bury Coirana in the sertao, and at the same time the colonel's mistress, who has murdered her lover for infidelity, drags him into the sertao. She passionately begins an affair with the teacher, symbolizing both life and death.
Antonio then crusades against the colonel's enforcer Mata Vaca, who has attacked the millenialists. He kills Mata Vaca (an aspect of his own past). Meanwhile, Antao, who has undergone humiliation at the hands of the teacher, also takes on positive aspects of the dead bandit, who has been represented as an incarnation of Ogum. The teacher flees the mythic world of the sertao to the historic world of the highway, but Antonio pulls him back. They discover Coirana lying in a crucifix position on the tree. The teacher seizes Coirana's weapon and undertakes his mission, killing the landowner.
In a spectacular ending that pays ironic obesiance to the American genre of the western, the old order passes. But Antonio is left to wander in the new Brazil, one of trucks cutting through the old regime's ways and bringing new problems.
Style: Rocha employs many techniques that are intended to distance the viewer from a simple acceptance of the melodramatic story line: excessive violence (sometimes so exaggerated as to be comic); theatrical gesture and staging; stop and repeat frame. (His style has often been called operatic, for its ritualistic theatricality). Background music includes traditional northeast songs (the cordel), sometimes commenting importantly on the action. The most excessive and delirious of his narrative films, the film is fiercely allegorical, and operates simultaneously on several levels. In his allegorical universe, characters do not stand merely for one characteristic or element, but in themselves exemplify contradiction and metamorphosis (here, the shifting figure of St. George, which inhabits different characters at moments of their transformation).
In this film, Rocha expressed a faith in the resources of traditional culture. As he explained, "...the most vital popular force in the Brazilian northeast is mysticism. Although it is a very negative phenomenon in sociological terms, I think that it is very positive from a subjective and unconscious point of view, because it signifies a permanent rebellion of the people against the traditional oppression of that region." (Johnson, Cinema Novo X Five, p. 143)
Background on director/film: Glauber Rocha, born in a small town in the state of Bahia in the southern part of the Brazilian northeast (the town of Salvador da Bahia was the colonial capital, and the region was the original site of Portuguese settlement in Brazil) in 1938, was the undisputed genius of cinema novo. A critic, filmmaker and scriptwriter, each of his 11 directed works is distinctive. Rocha's objective was to create a cinematic expression of what he saw as the central dilemma of Brazilian culture: to find its identity, given the contradictions of a colonialist heritage and the realities of underdevelopment. He saw the goal of the filmmaker as finding new forms to express not only a unique reality but a transformative mechanism. He united political and aesthetic goals, saying, "If commercial cinema is the tradition, auteur cinema is the revolution. The politics of a modern auteur are revolutionary politics: and today it is not even necessary to qualify an auteur as revolutionary, because auteur is a totalizing noun...The auteur is responsible for the truth: his esthetics are his ethics, his mise-en-scene his politics." (Johnson, Cinema Novo X Five, p. 121.)
Barravento (1962), his first directed work, uses a realist style influenced by neorealism, to describe conflicts within a fishing village. Black God/White Devil (1964), was a kind of predecessor to Antonio das Mortes. Also set in the sertao, it has a similar cast of characters. The mysterious Antonio das Mortes sets out on contract to murder first a millenialist prophet, and then the bandit Corisco. In fact both are done in by their own contradictions. Rocha's Land in Anguish (1967), about the failures of the Brazilian left, reflected the bitter polarization of Brazilian politics at the time. Antonio das Mortes revises the role of the historyless Antonio, this time making him a brooding figure who inherits Coirana's mantle of opposition to the powers that be. This reflects a changed and more optimistic political perspective. Rocha went into exile, and continued to make films, revising and self-criticizing at every juncture. He died in Rio de Janeiro in 1981.
Film production context: Glauber Rocha participated from the early days of cinema novo, which began in the late '50s and whose veterans continue to make films today, although its heyday was in the '60s and early '70s. He articulated the goals of the movement in controversial statements, including one polemic calling for "an aesthetic of hunger" (1965). In it, he wrote, "...while Latin America laments its general misery, the foreign onlooker cultivates the taste of that misery, not as a tragic symptom, but merely as an esthetic object within his field of interest...For the European observer the process of artstic creation in the underdeveloped world is of interest only insofar as it satisfies a nostalgia for primitivism...From Cinema Novo it should be learned that an esthetic of violence, before being primitive, is revolutionary. It is the initial moment when the colonizer becomes aware of the colonized...The love that this violence encompasses is as brutal as the violence itself because it is not a love of complacency or contemplation but rather of action and transformation...Wherever one finds filmmakers prepared to film the truth and oppose the hypocrisy and repression of intellectual censorship there is the living spirit of Cinema Novo; wherever filmmakers, of whatever age or background, place their cameras and their profession in the service of the great causes of our time there is the spirit of Cinema Novo...Cinema Novo is not one film but an evolving complex of films that will ultimately make the public aware of its own misery." (Johnson and Stam, 1982, pp. 69-71)
Rocha, although a spokesman for a movement, produced works that were distinctive within it, the most heralded internationally and the most relentlessly self-critical. He could be thought of as a counterpart to Jean Luc Godard, who also restlessly explored the limits of the medium, and acted simultaneously as critic and filmmaker. Although many Brazilian filmmakers of his generation and since have been inspired by his work, his style is inimitable and rooted in the historic moment of each of his works.
Importance: Antonio das Mortes, like others of Rocha's work, received wide international acclaim, and had a successful release in the U.S. It was not widely seen in Brazil at the time, because of the combination of political censorship and economic resistance from distributors. It is now seen in Brazil as one of the great classics of cinema novo.
Roy Armes, Third World Filmmaking and the West.
Glauber Rocha, "An Esthetic of Hunger" and "The Tricontinental Filmmaker: That Is Called the Dawn," in Robert Stam and Randal Johnson, eds., Brazilian Cinema, Associated University Presses, 1982
Glauber Rocha, "History of Cinema Novo," in Coco Fusco, ed., Reviewing Histories: Selections from New Latin American Cinema, Buffalo, NY: Hallwalls, 1987.
Randal Johnson, Cinema Novo X 5: Masters of contemporary Brazilian film, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984
Randal Johnson, The Film Industry in Brazil: Culture and the State, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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