Brazilian Filmmaker Glauber Rocha Retrospective

the Non-Conformist and Unrepeatable Voice of Cinema Novo

“There are many blacks suffering, oppressed in the world. Whichever one frees himself can free a thousand others,” says the antagonist of Glauber Rocha’s first film, summing up the essence of his films: staunchly political, risky, avant-garde, and refreshing, not only because of their themes but also because of the forms and languages he found to approach them. The International Film Festival of Cartagena, FICCI, pays tribute to the leader of Cinema Novo, a movement that, since the 1960s, brought together a generation of Brazilian intellectuals and artists who used art as a form of thinking and acting politically, and whose legacy is fully valid to this day, even though the circumstances which inspired it may have changed.
Glauber Rocha was born in 1939, in Vitória da Conquista, in the state of Bahía. He studied law and was a journalist and film critic before turning to cinema as a way to talk about the uniqueness and force of his country, which like the rest of Ibero-America, was riddled with profound social inequalities and catastrophically governed by old elites and diverse authoritarianisms. During the military dictatorship that took over Brazil in the mid-sixties, Glauber Rocha exiled himself in various countries of Europe and Latin America for a decade –since 1971—, and only came back to his native land to die prematurely at the age of 43.

His films, marked by political urgencies and at the same time decidedly risky and avant-garde, were able to establish his own aesthetic, defined by what he himself set forth in theoretical manifestoes (violence, dreams, hunger, delusions). Thus, he built the idea of his own utopia, in conversation with the world and in permanent movement: “Cinema Novo supported the Brazilian utopia. If it is ugly, irregular, dirty, confuse, chaotic, it is, at the same time, beautiful, brilliant, and revolutionary.”

Rocha brandished his left-wing convictions in almost all his films, while displaying a profound empathy for his characters and an enormous capacity to refract diverse traditions and influences through his own prism. His ten feature films, but especially Black God, White Devil (1964), Entranced Earth (1967), and Antonio das Mortes (1969) are clear examples of that nonconformity that followed him throughout his life.

As Godard and Rohmer lead the French New Wave, and Polanski, Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Kurosawa, and Cassavetes developed their unique and meaningful narrative styles, Glauber Rocha was growing tired of seeing the Third World be exclusively depicted in exotic, stereotyped, or patronizing ways, whether from a Eurocentric perspective or from the lens of all-powerful Hollywood. Soon he concluded it was useless to make films only as a passive resistance; they had to become a weapon to subvert consciences and shake down the established social order.

This retrospective was organized in conjunction with the Márgenes festival and with the support of the Brazilian embassy in Colombia. We would especially like to thank the Colombian director, artist, poet and photographer Paula Maria Gaitán, who was Glauber Rocha’s wife, companion and unwavering right hand for much of his career, and his daughters, the artist Ava Rocha and the director Paloma Rocha, for the unconditional support and boundless generosity they have shown this project, and the admirable efforts they and their siblings have made all these years to preserve and propagate their father’s legacy.

Six of Rocha’s productions will be part of this retrospective presented in FICCI 58.

“Barravento” is a strong wind in Portuguese, but metaphorically, as we are told at the beginning of the film, it is also a moment of violence when the things of the earth and sea are transformed, when sudden changes occur in love, life and society. From his very first film, Glauber Rocha made it clear that he was on a mission to combat capitalist oppression and the “acceptation” of poverty. Filmed in a small town near Salvador de Bahia, the local fishermen are faced with a dilemma: keep up their traditions or find a way to free themselves of the past and look to the future. A close relative of Italian Neo-realism, both aesthetically and in terms of its themes, Barravento is full of cultural references to the blackest part of Brazil: capoeira, Candomblé and, of course, music. But above all, it denounces injustice and calls for social change, leitmotifs that were to reappear in all Rocha’s films.

In the desolate sertaos of northeast Brazil, a couple of farm laborers kill their employer for mistreating them and leave everything behind—which is next to nothing—to enter the ranks, first of religious fanaticism and then of the cangaceiros. In the company of these infamous bandits who attack wealthy landowners, they will have to take on Antonio das Mortes. What ensues is an epic battle between rich and poor, the oppressor and the oppressed. In his first film, it was the Candomblé of black Brazil and fishermen; this time around it is the Catholicism of white Brazil and farm laborers, but in both cases it is the false promise of a better world in which the tables are turned and the underdogs become the big fish that ends up impeding real social change. Hunger hurts and hunger leads to violence. What we are witnessing is the birth of so-called Cinema Novo. Borrowing heavily from the aesthetic of the Western, but with notable narrative and score differences, it was this film that shot Glauber Rocha to international fame at the tender age of 25.

It is the swinging Sixties and we are in a hypothetical county called El Dorado, which could be anywhere in America. Paulo is a poet and journalist and as the politicians make their campaign platforms, he finds himself wondering about his own future and that of an entire nation ruled by chaos and corruption. Intended to serve the people, politics, it seems, does anything but, whether the promises come from the populist Felipe Vieira or the conservative Porfirio Díaz. How far are we willing to go to defend what is rightfully ours? This is the premise of Cinema Novo. Rocha is of the belief that when people are hungry, prayers are of little use; that the only alternative is to take up arms, but despite the unequivocal political message of his films, they are profoundly poetic, imbued with an unmistakable aesthetic and the clear intention of showing the world a reality completely different to the folklore and exoticism tourists have been exposed to. And Entranced Earth is no exception.

In his first full-length color feature, Rocha returns to the sertao of his native Brazil to revisit the social and political themes so close to his heart. Antonio das Mortes, who we saw previously in Black God, White Devil, also makes a comeback, but will find himself forced to take a long, hard look in the mirror in his crusade to put an end to the cangaceiros who rob the local landowners and share their loot with the villagers. Music is key to the narrative of Antonio das Mortes, which draws from the Western aesthetic and the brutal honesty of Italian Neo-realism in what many deem to be Rocha’s finest film and certainty one of cinema’s all-time greats. Cinema Novo openly vindicates the aesthetic of violence, cinema as a discourse on social reality that makes its own judgments of history outside the colonial box. You can sense Rocha’s urgency, as if it were his duty to address issues like hunger, social inequality and the violence they engender. The crude, stark, yet deeply poetic way he does it was to leave a permanent mark on the history of film.

During his time in exile, Glauber Rocha sought out scenarios with timeless, universal qualities where he could create metaphors or parallelisms with Brazil’s hinterlands or even his own mythical El Dorado. Filmed in Brazaaville, at a time when Africa was fighting its own wars of decolonization, the Congo provided Rocha with such a backdrop against which to talk about emancipation and freedom in this free interpretation of the seven-headed beast of the Apocalypse. Yet Rocha defined this as a theoretical film in the tradition of the dialectical theater of Bertold Brecht, in which the characters’ words do not always coincide with their actions. This was a means of eliciting a reaction from the spectator, much as Godard and the French New Wave directors did by experimenting with and deconstructing traditional film structures. There is also a clear Einsenstein influence in the way Gauber employs montage to evoke certain emotions.

Glauber Rocha’s last film is a surrealistic opera in which music, symbolism, dreams, the baroque, poetry and religion come together to reveal the director’s very personal view of Brazil. Misunderstood by many, The Age of the Earth is definitely the least commercial of his films, one that makes the spectator ill at ease. Rocha himself said he wasn’t interested in giving the critics what they were looking for; that he had come to offer them a film that looked to the future. Inspired by a poem by Castro Alves and bearing more resemblance to a painting by Picasso than a conventional narrative, its purported aggressiveness aside, The Age of the Earth is a fascinating composition of seemingly unrelated snippets, many of which are biographical, according to those who knew the director well.