BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL
Director: Glauber Rocha
Writers: Walter Lima Jr., Glauber Rocha, and Paulo Gil Soares
Cast: Geraldo Del Rey (Manuel) Yona Magalhaes (Rosa) Lidio Silva (Sebastian)
Release date: 1964
Aspect ratio: 4:3 PAL
Shot in Sertao the arid north-eastern region of Brazil BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL tells the story of Manuel a poverty stricken cowhand hoping for a miracle, his life takes a turn for the worst when he kills his corrupt an abusive boss in a fit of rage.
His actions force him to flee his home after his boss’s henchmen come after him. After his attempted capture goes horrible wrong including the death of his mother he tells his wife “We have nothing to take but our destiny” and so their journey begins.
As outlaws they soon join up with self-proclaimed saint Sebastian who condones violence in the name of god, and preached some very disturbing doctrines followed blindly by his parishioners. Manuel soon becomes his lieutenant carrying out his every whim in the vain hope he will one day be blessed when they reach their promised land. A land only his wife believes dose not exist, her scepticism leads her to be ostracized by the not just Sebastian’s followers but also by Manuel who is compliant in the sacrifice of their baby son by Sebastian to rid Rosa of the devil. This single act of infanticide then sets off chain events that lead Manuel and his wife Rosa having to flee yet again when the assassin Corisco is hired by a senior priest to assassinate Sebastian he accepts the job with a very heavy heart, as he himself holds Sebastian in high esteem. But when Corisco turns up to find this great man already dead he massacres the camp and turns his attention to seeking out Manuel, pursuing him and his wife across the arid deserts of Brazil. Not alone for long they seek shelter in the arms of gang leader Antonio and his heavily depleted gang. This is where the WHITE DEVIL in the title comes into play as Antonio changes Manuel’s name to Satan. As he battles with his faith Manuel moves into a life of crime as a member of Antonio’s gang who wages war on the wealthy landowners viewing their crimes as part of the fight against the ruling classes in the name of the oppressed, with Corisco in hot pursuit Manuel lives in constant fear of capture.
As a visual experience the film takes its style from the images of the Mexican Mural Movement the public arts movement from the1920’s lead by Jose Orozco and Diego Rivera whose murals and paintings inspired by the Russian socialist realism movement went on to document a generation. Glauber Rocha use of these paintings as visual blueprints married with a washed out hand held camera with its disjointed framing, experimental use of lighting, extensive use of symbolism (the rotting horse carcass in the opening shots) the most obvious use this visual prop was in the boulder scene where the messianic preacher Sebastian has him carry a boulder up a hill, this scene is clearly based on the Greek myth of Sisyphus who was condemned to a life of conducting the meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain then down again. Rocha has taken the absurdity of the story and applied it to the question of belief and what makes someone follow someone or something blindly with no real end in sight just the repetitive act of pushing a metaphorical boulder up and down a hill searching for meaning and clarity.
This idea is brought sharper into focus with the amazing folk sound track with the folk singer acting as a narrator as he lyrically charts the fortunes Manuel and Rosa and their journey to find their destiny. With the stirring melodies of Bach the atmospheric sound design which detaches and reattaches to the image, and on many occasions allowing sentences to just hang in air. The beauty of this style is what feels like out of sequence sound editing is in fact the abstract sound mixes and the magnification of the ambient sound married with direct sound that gives the film a surrealist bend that intensifies the spiritual elements of the film eluding to emotions that couldn’t be reproduced in pictures. These creative touches became the staple diet of what became know as CINEMA NOVO. A Brazilian filmmaking movement who were heavily influenced by the Italian Neorealist cinema (which was also a strong creative influence for the French New Wave film movement) lead by the great Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini where religious humanism communism and poetic realism feature heavily in their work. These themes make regular appearances in the CINEMA NOVE films within a Brazilian and Portuguesa context. Many of Glauber Rocha films deal with class conflict and social inequality mixing none verbal representation with cultural symbolism, the brooding man with the silent women looking on with a powerless sense of frustration. Rocha’s follow up to BLACK GOD WHITE DEVIL was ANTONIO DAS MORTES in 1969 also known as THE DRAGON OF EVIL AGAINST THE WARRIOR SAINT. A continuation of the historical tale of class conflict set against the arid backdrop of the Brazilian Sertao in theatre of absurdities.
Brazilian film history is littered with these little gems, so get digging you never know what you might find.