March 11, 2009

graceful and ridiculous, lecherous and angelic, happily lost


I remember my walk from the Solar to the movie theatre where Land in Anguish was playing. It must be said that I found the film even more uneven than Black God, White Devil. [Both films by Glauber Rocha.] The lamentations of the main character – a left-wing poet torn apart by conflicting ambitions to achieve the “absolute” and social justice – were at times frankly sub-literary. In addition, certain intolerable conventional shortcomings of Brazilian cinema – high society parties staged unconvincingly, female extras encouraged by directors to enact deplorable provincial caricatures of sexy glamour, an overall lack of narrative clarity – these were all in painful evidence (though less intensely.) Yet as in Glauber’s previous films and a great many other Cinema Novo productions, suggestions of a different vision of life, of Brazil, of cinema, seemed to explode on the screen, overwhelming my reservations. The poet-protagonist offered a bitter, realistic vision of politics – in flagrant contrast to the naïveté of his companions – as he resisted the recently imposed military dictatorship. The film stages the moment of the coup d’état as a nightmare he has at the moment of his death: a confusing spectacle evoking at once Buñuel’s La fièvre monte à El Pao (Republic of Sin), mixed with some of the bad habits of the New Wave and strokes of Fellini’s 8 ½. But that chaos contributed to the parodic force of the film. And the effect was not entirely a disservice to the character, even though his desperate attempts at maintaining a critical perspective on his political objectives while sustaining the will to carry them out – the kind of dilemma that would lead so many to madness, mysticism, or the trenches of the opposition – lead, rather gratuitously, to his death. It is touching to think, today, how such a series of events might provide, with slight variations, a succinct biography of Glauber himself.

The film was naturally not a box-office success, but it scandalized the intellectuals and artists of the Carioca Left. Some in the audience – leaders of politically engaged theatre – jeered as the lights came up. One scene in particular shocked them: During a mass demonstration the poet, who is among those making speeches, calls forward a unionized worker and, to show how unprepared the worker is to fight for his rights, violently covers his mouth, shouting at the others (and at the audience), “This is the people! Idiots, illiterate, no politics!” Then a poor wretch, representing unorganized poverty, appears from among the crowd trying to speak, only to be silenced by the point of a gun stuck in his mouth by one of the candidate’s bodyguards. This indelible image is reiterated in long close-ups.

I experienced that scene – and the indignant, heated discussions that it provoked in bars – as the nucleus of a great event whose brief name I now possess but did not know then (I would try to name it a thousand ways for myself and for other people): the death of populism. There is no doubt that populist demagogues are sumptuously ridiculed in the film: they are seen holding crucifixes and flags in open cars against the sky above the Aterro do Flamengo, a wide modern road by the sea, lined with landscaped gardens. There they are in their gaudy mansions, celebrating the solemn rites of the church and Carnival that touch the heart of the masses, and so forth. But it was their essential faith in the popular forces – and the very respect that the best souls invested in the poor man – that here was discarded as a political weapon and an ethical value in itself. It was a hecatomb that I was facing. And I was excited by the prospect of examining what drove it and anticipating its consequences. Tropicalismo would have never have come into being but for that traumatic moment.

This assault on traditional left-wing populism liberated one to see Brazil squarely from a broader perspective, enabling new and undreamt-of critiques of an anthropological, mythic, mystical, formalist, and moral nature. If the scene of the poet and the worker that incensed the communists charmed me with its courage, it is because the images that came before and after it were trying to reveal something about our condition and ask questions about our destiny. A great cross on the beach overshadows a gathering of politicos, transvestites dressed to the nines for a ball, and Carnival Indians; one feels the presence of the grotesque and with it the revelation of an island always newly discovered and always hidden – Brazil. Among the multitude at the rally, a little old man is dancing samba, graceful and ridiculous, lecherous and angelic, happily lost – the Brazilian people captured in a paradox. One does not know whether they are meant to seem despairing or suggestive; political decisions are discussed on cement patios with black lines dividing the floor, asserting a denial of the comings and goings of the characters. The camera weaves among groups of four, five, six restless agitators, who express disagreement over tactics through their body language, all shot in black and white with enormous areas of light threatened by ominous, looming shadows. It was a political dramaturgy different from the usual reduction of everything to a stereotype of class struggle. Above all, here was the rhetoric and the poetics of post-1964 Brazilian life: a deep scream of pain and impotent rebellion, but also an updated vision, nearly prophetic, of our real possibilities to be and to feel.

– Caetano Veloso, from Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution In Brazil


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