“Cinema Novo put Brazil’s face on the screen. It exposed our contradictions, our desires, our fears, and our convulsive energy.”
Throughout this essay I shall aim to consider the relation between Glauber Rocha’s Black God White Devil (1964) and the ‘movement’ he was part of, and one of the main theorists, Cinema Novo.
I will first give a general background for the discussion of Cinema Novo’s ‘spirit’, to then move forward to a close textual analysis of my chosen film as a means to discuss whether it reflects distinct social conditions or particular aesthetic traditions.
The chronology of Cinema Novo runs roughly from 1960 to 1974. Obviously, like all other organised artistic forms, with a poetics of their own, Cinema Novo has its origins in a complex past, whose traces become, something to which the directors feel a need to respond to proactively, in their own individual, even if hybrid, as we will see, ways.
I was struck recently by a King Mob poster whose slogan read: ‘We must develop our own standard of beauty’. Formally so, Cinema Novo goes a step further, “for this is a cinema devoted to the denunciation of misery and the celebration of protest,” as Michael Chanan famously pointed out.
With all the historical and contextual differences, there was a spirit – critically but widely recognised – that from the ‘60s started to permeate decidedly the cultural activities of all those artists who developed some dissatisfaction over the limitative techniques and content of mainstream (thus dominant) culture. And it is in this sense, primarily, that Cinema Novo has to be studied: as a spirit, as a ‘structure of feeling’, to borrow from Raymond Williams.
Practically, “low-budget productions, while lowering the technical level of films, nevertheless offered the conditions – in conjunction with a policy of freedom of creation, invention, and treatment – for the emergence of Cinema Novo.” The strive for and idea of freedom, both political (we ought to remember that the political situation of Brazil and Latin America in general was often instable and subject to a number of various revolts, dictatorships and totalitarian governments) and artistic, is fundamental for a correct understanding of the Cinema Novo spirit. As Carlos Diegues points out in his treatment ‘Cinema Novo’, “Cinema Novo is a committed cinema, a critical cinema, even when, because of the youth and inexperience of its members, this commitment and this critical attitude become somewhat naïve and lacking in analytical focus. But even this naiveté is valid, for Cinema Novo it is, above all, freedom.”
What such directors were trying to do is represent Brazil’s issues from a Brazilian perspective, overcoming the apparent (and non-apparent) legacy of colonialism embedded in socio-political and cultural aesthetic discourses. As Chanan explains, “The need for a third cinema was a consequence of the conditions of neo-colonialism which had ruled the evolution of cinema in Latin America.”
In order to achieve such goal, to a degree – and here we need to bear in mind that Cinema Novo develops in conditions that are radically different and more ‘outsider’ to those in which European avant-gardes of this period develop (full modernity) – in line with the principles of the Nouvelle Vague and Italian Neorealism (major influence on Cinema Novo, e.g. use of non-professional actors, outdoor settings, etc.) Cinema Novo directors discuss the relevance of an auteur theory that would benefit the social conditions they aimed to translate on the screen. “In Cinema Novo,” Diegues puts forward, “expressive forms are necessarily personal and original without formal dogmas, because form is merely one of the terms of a totality of simultaneous instruments directed toward the communication of a truth.”
Their approach favoured the ‘popular’, rejecting the totalitarianism of the Hollywood style, yet mixing it (often in an ironic way, as we will see when discussing Black God White Devil), and integrating it within a broader formal spectrum, reaching thus intertextuality. This resulted in bricolage, in the sense of the term coined by Lévi-Strauss, which consists in the graphic depiction of the ‘hybrid’ approach to a culture that is heterogeneous in its influences and themes (in our case, colonialism and post-colonialism, rural life, traditional and popular themes, modernism, messianic and Catholic beliefs). The efficacy of critical integration rather than narrow-minded rejection is a trait common to most Latin American artists, as we have seen with, amongst the many, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
And it is precisely here that I discovered the biggest fascination in the Cinema Novo films. The conditions of ‘real’ Brazilians (and Latin Americans in general) are what our directors are interested in portraying, and they will therefore go out in the streets and use those as their film school.
Subsequently, violence is certainly a main character in Cinema Novo films. As Glauber Rocha in his ‘An Aesthetic of Hunger’ (1965) puts forward, “the hunger of Latin America is not simply an alarming symptom: it is the essence of our society. […] The most noble cultural manifestation of hunger is violence.” What is important to point out is that violence does not surge to a mythical status, but is represented (as Rocha suggests) as a ‘revolutionary’, rather than primitive force, as the allegorical dialectics between Apollo and Dionysus, I would say, to go with Nietzsche, through which the people of a country like Brazil express their shout for freedom against the colonizers (a formulation also put forward by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth).
Rocha’s lyrical portrayal of North-Eastern rural Brazil in Black God White Devil, about social banditry and a messianic cult, is a glorious bricolage with a documentary and theatrical feeling to it. The actors (not all professional) are so convincing that I had to continuously remind myself (assuming that I wanted to) that is was a film I was watching, rather than a ‘reality’ account.
Yet this very consideration could be what Rocha was trying to reflect: to sensitise foreign eyes, as much as those of the locals, to a condition that needed to be problematised and, eventually, solved. The filmic form might by essence by fictional, but if it is a very much felt and alive reality that it is portraying, doe it not become, provokingly, reality of a reality?
Black God White Devil opens with a slow and strong establishing shot of the droughty Sertão, to then move to a close-up of an ox’s carcass, and Manuel, the main character, a cowherd, sadly acknowledging the harsh reality of the region. It is our first of a numberless series of punches in the stomach. Right away we are confronted with the underlining themes of the politics of hunger as described by Rocha in ‘Cinema Novo’: desolation, alienation, exhaustion, hope in miracles, work (so central even in such non-industrial desolation), hunger and violence.
From the very start, the theme of the miracle, which like a deus ex machina, or the equivalent of what death represents in the Faustian tradition – the only ‘way out’ – is hoped for by Manuel and Rosa, his wife: ‘Rosa, they say a miracle will save us all.’ Still Rosa does not reply to Manuel, and keeps working, opting for a more ‘rational’ solution to their problems. Yet hers is a very eloquent and powerful silence, one of desperation and misery, and her still face, like that of most characters in the film (e.g. Sebastian’s followers), reminds me of the many portraits of Latin Americans that speak of their frustration and hopes through their eyes, their wrinkles, their mixed origins (hybridity once more). The importance of showing the faces of Brazil is something that one of the biggest appreciators of Cinema Novo, Walter Salles, takes up – yet through different stylistic approaches – in Central Station, in those moments when Dora, the letter writer, faces (note also here the documentary style) the illiterates across her table in the Central Station.
Manuel is an allegory for the ‘average’, ‘common’ Brazilian man, the microcosm exemplifying the macrocosm mentioned earlier. He is in some way the everyday ‘proletarian’ (even though he does not have children that we know of) hero, depicted in a ‘realistic’ fashion, i.e. not glamourised at all. His description and significance is reached thought form and content practices that avoid all the Hollywood signifiers to best and most dramatically portray the desperate, violent, hungry condition the ‘average’ Brazilian man suffers his life through. Rocha is interested in the dialectics, in the aesthetics of ‘development’ and indigenous life, in what they imply for ‘the real people’, the poor: “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.”
One of these great causes is without doubt the fight for a fairer society. When Manuel goes to the market, the owner (Colonel Morais) of the cattle he had been looking after refuses him his allotment, we have a strong critique of a whole system for which the poor suffers not only out of a harsh nature, but also out of a ‘big business’ (with the law on its side – as Manuel ingenuously wonders: ‘which law is it that doesn’t protect what’s mine?’) that oppresses him. Later on, after having killed Colonel Morais, in the first immediate and disastrous outburst of violence, Manuel will look for hope in a ‘possessed’ faith in the Black God, San Sebastian (the leader of the Afro-catholic cult that is subverting the Sertão region), who will – it is clear for the audience – oppress him just as much, this time though with the difference that this oppression is exerted on the (assumed) divine promise of water and gold, allegories for prosperity. The use of allegory is a particular, founding trait in Cinema Novo, as Ismail Xavier argues in his essay ‘Black God White Devil: The Representation of History’. Allegories will become an even stronger necessity after the 1964 (and 1968) military coup, which once more shows how Cinema Novo’s aesthetic traditions cannot be separated from its topical political and social conditions.
The moment when Antonio Das Mortes, slayer of Cangeceiros (to whom Rocha will dedicate an homonymous feature in 1968), enters the scene is worth pointing out in our discussion of aesthetic traditions and distinct social conditions, in that once more it makes use of bricolage. The predominant style here is that of the Western (Hollywood but probably more specifically proper of Leone’s Westerns). Because of the influence exerted on Latin America by America, Rocha suggests that discussions on the particular politics of Cinema Novo (and in general Brazilian cinema) cannot start but with a comparison with Hollywood cinema. Hollywood, as Fernando Birri theorises, presents us with false ideas on who we are and the actual condition of our societies. On the same line of thought, Rocha claims that by reproducing Hollywood techniques in Brazilian films the director would not be doing but draw attention to the mainstream, dominant discourses, and that would be detrimental for an ‘underdeveloped’ country like Brazil. Therefore, “the first challenge is to propose to the Brazilian filmmaker how to conquer the public without making use of American formulae which, already today, have spread into European sub-forms.” From here, for example, the choice for cinematic politics that prefer open spaces, on location shooting rather than studio-based features, or the use of hand-held camera (especially in the fight scenes).
The usage of long takes in Black God White Devil is also another distinctive feature, if juxtaposed to the relatively short takes typical of Hollywood movies. Though such technique Rocha is able to gain a great deal of audience’s participation, stretching their emotional and attention span to the limit. An example of the resonance of such techniques the scene that sees Manuel carry a boulder, knees down on the ground, up an interminable hill, as an expiatory practice, with Black God standing, expression-less, next to him.
In a later scene, where Das Mortes kills San Sebastian’s followers, Rocha opts for a ‘discontinuous visual montage’, which finds a precursor in Eisenstein’s technique, and serves here to create a dilatation of space and time that nearly abstracts us from the event itself and makes it a general principle, a paradigm for the ‘sensing’ of a whole country’s suffering.
Das Mortes represents possibly the official law and catholic church (which reaches high levels of ideological hypocrisy in its support for the government), yet has an edge to him that makes him transcend such signifieds, in an attempt to attribute characteristics to him proper of someone who is aware of the condition of his country and is exploring his own individuality. A crucial scene sees him anticipating what will be one of the core issues of the film. As he says to a corrupted priest and a representative of the governments, ‘The father might think Sebastian made a pact with the Devil, but he has also made a pact with God.’ An important issue that rises out of this is that of the inadequacy of binary oppositions in talking of human conditions in general, and of Brazil in particular (civilized/ primitive, etc.). In fact, by the end of the movie the spectator is left with an uncertain feeling about who to part for. Whilst both San Sebastian and his follower, Corisco (whom Manuel will join after Sebastian’s death by the hand of Rosa) are both portrayed as possessed evil individuals, there is a sense of appreciation from Rocha’s point of view for the strength and decision with which they take up their fight.
Who can deny the veracity of Corisco’s shout: ‘Cursed government’? Really, what we are left to sympathies with are the people, in general, and their condition.
The ‘mysticism’ here represented, as Chanan argues, was for Rocha the expression of a permanent spirit of rebellion against constant oppression, a rejection and refusal of the condition in which the people had been condemned to live for centuries.” Now, whilst mysticism could have a revolutionary potential, arguably Rocha still engages himself and the audience to have a critical approach. In fact, religion, and its fake illusions are harshly criticised in a scene that sees Manuel so possessed that he is no more able to distinguish between reality and fiction. Rosa will be telling him, standing by his side, that all such promises for prosperity are not true (albeit later she will join the illusion too): ‘There’s only hunger and death.’
Moving on towards a later scene, and once more in accord with what said so far of the social conditions in their aesthetic expression, before going to kill Corisco, Das Mortes recalls the importance of action: ‘This is my destiny and I must fulfil it without doubt or regret.’ This call for action is significant furthermore in that it places Rocha (and Cinema Novo in general) in the broader picture of the revolutionary atmosphere of the ‘60s, with all the differences, which will be marked by the Sartrian call to take up responsibility for ourselves in order to give our own independent meaning to our existence.
Coming towards a conclusion, I would like to emphasise once more that we have been looking at Cinema Novo films from a European perspective, which is in some way advantaged: most of us will never experience, the misery, the hunger, the violence these films portray. As Glauber Rocha says, “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 aesthetic object within his field of interest. […] For the European observer the process of artistic creation in the underdeveloped world is of interest insofar as it satisfies a nostalgia for primitivism.” Accordingly we might find ourselves lacking of the emotional background that will allow us to get deeply involved with the society portrayed. This is why it was a double challenge for Cinema Novo. And this is why though Cinema Novo is to me so successful – in having been able to reflect, though specific and revolutionary aesthetics, distinct social conditions so far away from ours yet made so humanly intense and actively persuasive. Rocha specifically has succeeded in reflecting an extremely political and politicised situation, where (like we saw in Frida Kahlo) the protagonists are embedded in the earth itself, Mother Nature, generous and hostile at the same time, within a broader structure that tends to be hostile, of the politics of modernity without modernisation, in formally innovative ways. From here, Carlos Estevam’s cry that “This is why we affirm, in this country and at this time, that outside of political art there is no popular art.”
Unfortunately, the 1964 military coup (which put an end to Brazil’s short-lived democracy) – and the 1968 ‘coupe within the coupe’ translated into renovated government oppression and the limitations of artistic freedom, which resulted in many Brazilian directors moving to ‘freer’ countries, thus slowing down the process initiated by Cinema Novo.
Marshall Berman, in his thorough analysis of modernity in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, offers us a sensitive and heartfelt summary of the condition of literary production of Latin America, which I am sure the reader will not find difficult to transfer to our discussion of the specifics of Cinema Novo and Black God White Devil in particular. As we said earlier, it is ultimately emotions, aims, passion and all of their opposites that we are dealing with. “It is this spirit, at once lyrical and ironical, corrosive and committed, fantastic and realistic, that has made Latin American literature the most exciting in the world today – though it is also this spirit that forces Latin American writers to write from European or North American exile, on the run from their own censors and political police.”
This last quote serves me to the purpose of emphasising the complexity of our theme. I have left the lyrics of the song that gives us a farewell for the end of this paper, as a way of summing up the film and the importance of our research, which, in the best tradition, should aim at a critical and ‘mind-opening’ approach to any social and cultural expression. The Sertão, the song proclaims, will become sea… if we act and react, prosperity might finally come. One day we will be prosper, the drought will go. One day we will see the sea (the symbolism of which, to trace a parallel with New Wave, we notice also in the closing scene of Truffaut’s 400 Blows).
The auteur is (metaphorically) singing to all of us about the importance of going, to borrow from Nietzsche once more, beyond good and evil. And this is something that sums up, passionately, all of our discourses on Latin American culture.
You’ve heard my true story, of my imagination. I hope those who followed my tale draw the same conclusion. A world shared out unfairly is a world of evil. The land belongs to the people, not to God nor to the Devil.
• Martin, M. ed. New Latin American Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997)
• Johnson, R. & Stam, R. Brazilian Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988)
• Berman, M. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (London: Verso, 1983)
• Chanan, M. ed. Twenty-five Years of the New Latin American Cinema (London: BFI & Channel 4 publishers, 1983)
• Rocha, G. ‘History of Cinema Novo’, in Framework – A Film Journal, issue 12
Rocha, G. Black God White Devil (1964)
Rocha, G. Antonio Das Mortes (1968)