At the top of the certificates handed out at film festivals to the winners of the International Critics’ Awards is a simple drawing by Glauber Rocha, the leading light of the Brazilian Cinema Nuovo which revolutionised cinema in that country in the 60s and became admired throughout the world. At one point, an all-night screening of Cinema Nuovo films at the National Film Theatre in London was hopelessly over-subscribed.
But the movement, encouraged by the period of democracy instigated by the fall of the dictator Getulio Vargas and the emergence of the liberal President Goulart, was stunted by the return of the Generals, for whom the outpouring of dozens of radical films proved a threat they could not countenance. Glauber Rocha, potentially a great film-maker, died a disappointed and drug and alcohol-riven man at the age of only 43 in 1981.
Cinema Nuovo presented itself as a political and popular cinema, but it never built an effective bridge between the Latin-American bourgeoisie and the masses it was supposed to emancipate. Glauber Rocha’s films, however, are an extraordinary legacy of the greatest days of the Brazilian cinema.
His first feature was Barravento (The Turning Wind, 1961) in which a radical from the city attempts to activate the fishermen of the remote coastal region of Bahia. Good as it was, there were few hints in it of the epic Black God – White Devil which followed.
That film takes place in northern Brazil, where a poverty-stricken cowpoke kills his abusive boss and becomes the disciple of a black religious revolutionary who preaches violence. The film’s style is that of Italian neo-realism infected by the cutting of Eisenstein and the audacity of the French New Wave.
If this hit western viewers like a clap of thunder in 1964, Antonio das Mortes, made five years later won Rocha the Best Director award at Cannes. In it, a hired killer decides to side with peasants against brutal landlords. The film is like an epic poem, lionising revolutionaries like Che Guevara as it lovingly photographs the mountains and plains of the country – a land whose people are being destroyed by post-colonial exploitation. Glauber Rocha originally called the film The Dragon of Evil against the Warrior Saint, with the landlord Horacio as the dragon, accompanied by the attractive and enigmatic Laura, one of several female figures Glauber Rocha seemed to regard as capable of treachery.
The film is as violent as any made in Latin America – only when he is confronted with violence can the coloniser understand the strength of the culture he exploits – but it is also ritualised and theatrical.
Antonio das Mortes is a unique film of great beauty and power in which music and images gel together to produce something much more than a tract. If Rocha eventually realised that art was incapable of producing change, at least he tried to see if it could.