Literary, Artistic and Political: The Films of Glauber Rocha

By 19 November, 2012

If the accolade ‘polymath’ can apply to someone who excels at a multitude of humanities and arts subjects, rather than just the sciences, then Glauber Rocha certainly was one. During his comparatively short but intensely influential career he tried his hand at everything from journalism and radical left politics to law, before finally settling on filmmaking after the critical recognition gained by his first short Pátio. He did also continue to write, and alongside his cinematic works he has left us with a wealth of poems, essays and aphorisms which describe his unique take on aesthetics and politics.

His films are often talked about by cinematic academics due to their alternative take on Italian neorealism and the French New Wave, but they are also held up as popular cultural icons by the Brazilians themselves, who voted Black God, White Devil as the best Brazilian film of all time. Foreign viewers, up until now, might have found it hard to track down his films but thankfully, the internet age and its multifaceted means of distribution have opened up his work to a wider audience. Rocha’s films tend to be the embodiment of various strands of his own interests – the literary, the artistic and the political – all drawn together to form rich tapestries buzzing with complex ideas and rich visual imagery.

Those who would be put off by Rocha’s overt intellectualism should remember the point about his popularist streak, as they are not intended to alienate the casual viewer. In fact they attempt to push Marxist ideology and try to give a voice to some of the voiceless and oppressed. Much of the Cinema Novo movement which Rocha was instrumental in setting up was based around an ‘Aesthetic of Hunger’ which he expounded in an essay of the same name.

Behind the abstract montages and numerous political references and symbols are actually some quite simple stories or moral parables which are nowhere near as pretentious as they might first sound. The films of this trilogy take the form of folk tales and as such, the plots are fairly easily palatable, even if some of the references to specific political situations might go a bit deeper and become more confusing. However, this doesn’t hamper the possible enjoyment of the films, as challenging scenes are usually side-by-side with simple views of Northern Brazil’s expansive countryside, or of lengthy shots of whole villages singing and dancing, leaving the soundtrack, usually a mixture of traditional Brazilian folk music and Villa Lobos, to do the work.

The following reviewed films are part of a trilogy. Filmmakers seem to relish the trilogy for grouping films more than other numbers, for some arbitrary reason, and for the arty among them, a trilogy is not just an original and two sequels. Rather, naming the films as a trilogy means that the films might represent a certain concept the director had been fixated on for some time. This might allow us to see past the small failings of a particular film, in order to appreciate the greater message, or it might be a way of showing several routes to the top of the same mountain. This unnamed trilogy of some of Rocha’s most celebrated works is comprised of two instalments of harsh life in northern Brazil with a recurring hitman/bandit character, Antonio, which sandwich a political allegory set in a fictional country.

Rocha was very vocal about the purposes of his films, and I include some of his own views on each.

Black God, White Devil (Deus E O Diablo Na Terra Do Sol) 1964

“I started from the poetic text. The origin of Black God, White Devil is a metaphorical language, the literatura de cordel. In the Northeast of Brazil, the blind men in the circus, in the fairs, in the popular theatres start a story by singing: ‘I am going to tell you a story which is truth and imagination, or else, which is true imagination’. All my upbringing took place in this context. The idea for the film came spontaneously.”

Literatura de cordel are popular and cheap printed booklets containing folk novels, poems and songs, sold by sidestreet vendors in the northeast of Brazil which the film imitates by tackling maniacal religious themes, warrior saints and violent cults through the epic personalities which you’d find in myths.

Black God, White Devil is Rocha’s most well known work, and takes the form of a worker’s parable, with the story compelled along with Brazilian folk music. The poor and lowly cowherd, Manuel, is pushed slightly too far by his callous and unfeeling boss. Manuel then spontaneously murders him and flees to join a cult in the wilderness which is led by a saint who preaches a doctrine of violence against the rich landowners.

Though certain scenes make you think that this film is the closest the Brazilians have come to making a western, it strongly reminds me of soviet cinema (Dovzhenko in particular). While most were edited to ensure the state’s propaganda message was getting through, they are undoubtedly masterpieces of early cinema, and I think you could even go so far as to say that the morals expressed might even chime well with a modern audience, as the heroes bravely stand up against their rich and cruel oppressors. The rich landowners would be the kulaks in the Russian analogy and it would be amazing if a Marxist like Rocha hadn’t intended some kind of comparison.

Entranced Earth (Terra Em Transe) 1967

“Convulsion, shock between different parties, different political tendencies and economic interests, and violent power struggles. These are what take place in Eldorado, tropical country or island. I placed the film there because what interested me was the general problem of the Latin-American trance, not the Brazilian one alone. I wanted to open the theme “trance”, that is, the instability of the consciousness.”

Of the trilogy, this is the most avant-garde, complex and ambitious (which is really saying something for Rocha) and the only one not set in Brazil. It has layers and layers of thick allegory and symbolism which almost give you a choice of enjoying all the imagery in its confusing wonder, or of taking notes, studying hard and trying to grasp the plot in full with all its implications.

It concerns corrupt Latin American politicians, doing as they do, while a poet, journalist and former friend of both of them tries to do his best to oppose them in the next election. The result is a swirling tragic dream sequence which involves black flags, the unruly masses, the Catholic Church and some ornate staircases.

The forces at work between popularism and conservatism; between the elite and the masses; and between the aesthetic and the pragmatic makes this epic a must for anyone interested in Latin American politics who can stomach high art cinema without feeling too queasy.

Antonio Das Mortes (O Dragão Da Maldade Contra O Santo Guerreiro) 1969

“Initially, the dragon is Antonio das Mortes and Saint George is the cangaceiro. Later, the true dragon is the landholder whereas the warrior saint proceeds to be the teacher when he holds the cangaceiro‘s and Antonio das Mortes’ guns. Briefly, I wanted to say that such social roles are not eternal or static, and that such components of social groups that are solidly conservative or reactionary or accomplices of the powerful can change and contribute to changes. They only have to understand where the true dragon is.”

A cangaciero was a type of social bandit, a Robin Hood type figure who, in the face of peasant hardships, decided to revolt against the landowners for the good of the population at large. This film focuses on the shifting allegiances of Antonio, the hitman from the first film, who was thought to have exterminated the last of these bandits. It also abounds with myths in the style of traditional song about the protagonists chanted throughout the film as if we were hearing the reprise in an opera or theatre production.

Some of the grandest imagery is of the bandits, festooned with coloured ribbons blowing in the breeze and impossibly long narrow knives known as peixeiras, they complicate matters for Antonio, who cannot seem to escape the cycle of hardship, death and meaninglessness.

Just like the translations of his writing, Rocha’s films are difficult and clunky in places. But that shouldn’t put you off what is clearly a brilliant, passionate and exciting mind at the height of its creativity and drive. The aesthetic and conceptual richness of his films merit a thousand viewings, unlike most westerns or political propaganda pieces and should be properly celebrated and enjoyed as visual and mental overloads, led along by the repeated incantations of the soundtracks.

“From Amanda to Vidas Secas, Cinema Novo narrated, described, poeticised, discoursed, analysed. It aroused the themes of hunger: characters eating dirt, characters eating roots, characters stealing to eat, characters killing to eat, characters fleeing to eat; dirty, ugly and starving characters living in dirty ugly dark houses. It was this gallery of the hungry that identified Cinema Novo with the miserabilism so condemned by the government, by criticism at the service of anti-national interests, by producers and by the audience, who cannot bear images of its own wretchedness.”

All of these films have been released on DVD by Mr Bongo Films in the UK. More information available at

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