I know people who can't get their head around Black God, White Devil
and find this much more accessible. It's probably more relatable to some of the radical European cinema of the time, plus it's more urban, it's whiter and its political dimension is much more explicit, but, on an initial encounter at least, I find this film far more impenetrable and alienating.
It's still visceral and magnificent, but I find its political dimension weirdly mysterious, despite its explicitness. The film portrays rival demagogues (or wannabe demagogues) feinting at one another through backroom machinations, media exploitation and passionate public displays. The turbulent political climate in Brazil at the time, with the intensifying pressure of the military dictatorship that ultimately forced Rocha and other artists into exile, permeates the film, but this doesn't seem to be a simple reflection of real events or a straightforward allegory. It's more like an abstraction of the politics of the time, or the politics being employed as an allegory for something else entirely. The film's engagement with colonialism is more direct, but it also feels more metaphorical than the previous films.
The film focusses on Paulo, a journalist who straddles / explores the dividing line between politics and poetry, and it ends / begins with the character exploding into violent but ultimately futile action. On our way from Point A to Point A we're confronted with a series of chaotic rallies, Dionysian parties, violent showdowns, conspiratorial discussions, and television parodies.
was La terra trema
+ Que Viva Mexico!
+ I Walked with a Zombie
, and Black God, White Devil
, I don't know, Simon of the Desert
+ Man of the West
+ At Land
, then maybe Earth Entranced
+ 8 ½
+ Memories of Underdevelopment
. Except that it's nothing like that, or only like that momentarily, if you consider moments in isolation.
Stylistically, the film is extrordinarily fragmentary - even more so that Black God, White Devil
- with Rocha taking the lessons he'd learnt from Eisenstein and Godard and using them to dismantle bourgeois cinema before our eyes. Sound is assaultive and incongruous - as is, frequently, silence - and the montage is often violent and barely associative. What is for me most liberating about Rocha's radical montage style in this film is the way it plays with point-of-view. I thought of describing it as having a 'fluid perspective' on events, but the leaps in point-of-view from shot to shot are anything but fluid. 'Unstable' doesn't do the trick either, since the perspective leaps are constructed carefully into sequences. In some cases there's a leap in narrative mode from sequence to sequence, as when some material is presented in the form of a mock current affairs broadcast, but more often there's a bracing uncertainty about where the next shot within a sequence will be coming from. As fatcats conspire on a rooftop patio we suddenly leap to a God's-eye-view of the scene looking straight down on them from hundreds of feet in the air (it's a static shot, not a helicopter fly-by). With the next shot we're jolted back to eye level. (Still, why shouldn't we be considering God's perspective on what's going on?).
Throughout the film, Rocha forces the viewer to juggle multiple perspectives on the same actions, some character-driven but some purely style-driven. There's a great cut when Sara enters Paulo's office for the first time, begins to remove her sunglasses, and then the shot starts again. The repetition evokes memory's facility for instant replay ("this," it seems to say, "was a significant moment") but it does so without implying that it's either Paulo's or Sara's memory in particular that's being evoked. In fact, for a film that plays so strenuously with shifting perspectives and points-of-view, often expressed through a roving hand-held camera, it seems to carefully avoid shots that identify themselves as first-person within the world of the film. When the camera swoops around a dissipated soiree it does so as an implicit participant in the festivities, but not as any particular one. Similarly, when characters from time to time address the camera directly, they're addressing the audience in scrupulously Brechtian fashion, not addressing another character.
It's a very demanding film: there's so much happening in every scene, and the cultural referents are, for me and probably many others, elusive, but it's riotously alive at every moment and I can't take my eyes off it.
The Versatil disc is another triumph, with an incredibly detailed multi-part documentary that runs longer than the film itself and contains some fascinating context and behind-the-scenes information. It seems, for example, that we have Glauber to thank for Straub's Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach
. When he met Straub at a festival in 1967 (Cannes or Locarno, I guess) and heard that he couldn't get funding to finish the film, he simply handed Straub the prize money he'd just received for Terra em transe
Also on the disc is another excellent restoration documentary and Rocha's short reportage Maranhao 66
. It seems a little odd to me that the discs so far have avoided including contemporaneous shorts (i.e. no Patio
, no Amazonas, Amazonas
on Black God, White Devil
, no 1968
on Antonio das Mortes
), even though many of them are extracted in the supporting documentaries - I wonder if they're planning a disc of the shorts later on? The exception made here is presumably because of the very close connection between short and feature in this case, Terra em transe
incorporating a handful of shots from the documentary.