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Black God, White Devil (1964) follows two peasants, Manuel and Rosa, as they journey through northeast Brazil. The first phase of the film follows Manuel’s work as a ranch hand until after constant harassment, he kills his boss. Then, he and Rosa join a religious cult under a false prophet, Sebastian. Rosa is forced to kill Sebastian and they then join an outlaw bandit. The film ends with Manuel and Rosa alone, searching for a new life.
Flirting with Democracy: Brazilian Politics in the 50s and 60s
The last blog left off at the start of Vargas’ presidency in 1931. After World War II, his popularity dwindled, many people protested, his allies left his side, and he was forced out. Though he still served as a senator. In 1946, Eurico Gaspar Dutra was elected president. He promised a lot of change and for a while, it seemed possible. The communist party was legalized and membership grew quite a lot. However, Dutra promptly rescinded its legal status after protests. For right and left-wing Brazilians, his empty promises made him forgettable.
Soon the public turned back to Vargas who was democratically elected in 1951. Vargas adopted economic nationalist policies, creating the state-owned oil company, Petrobras, but again his reign was mired in pretty serious corruption charges. After an assassination attempt on his political rival, Carlos Lacerda, many fingers were pointed at him. By 1954, the pressure had become too much and Vargas committed suicide, though he claims the assassination attempt had nothing to do with it. In 1956, Juscelino Kubitschek was elected president. Under his rule, the capital city, Brasilia, was built, American corporations flocked to Brazil, and many of his promises in his “fifty years in five” campaign were met. Unfortunately, high inflation persisted and the next president, Janio Quadros, would not deal with it as well.
He distanced himself from the US in order to ally himself more with Cuba and other African countries which made congress very hostile towards him. He ended up resigning after months in office. He distanced himself from the US in order to ally himself more with Cuba and other African countries which made congress very hostile towards him. He ended up resigning after months in office.
The two-time former vice president, Joao Goulart, replaced him, much to the dismay of Congress and the military as he had communist ties. Once he was elected, they decided to change Brazil to a parliamentary democracy rather than a presidential one so Goulart would not have so much power. Goulart denounced this and when he held a public vote on the change, the people agreed with him. During his presidency, he established the vote for illiterate men, initiated agrarian and urban reform, and supported economic nationalist policies. Unfortunately, his efforts did not cool the growing inflation. The final nail in Goulart’s coffin was his support for seizures of under-utilized land. This scared foreign investors as well as the military. In 1964, the military instated a coup against Goulart and he fled to Uruguay.
Brazil’s democratic experiment was coming to an end when Black God, White Devil came out and the film’s spirit is marked by this. There is an equal sense of hope and despair in this epic.
Reactionary vs. Revolutionary Violence
The director, Glauber Rocha, writes in his 1965 essay, “Aesthetics of Hunger” about the difference between reactionary and revolutionary violence and how best to portray it on film. When performed by peasants, revolutionary violence can often appear to be a primitive action, but it is not. Revolutionary violence allows the colonizer to finally be aware of the colonized. The first instance of revolutionary violence in the film is when Manuel kills his boss. After another injustice at his hand, Manuel has had enough and kills him with a machete. The camera shows his boss’s horrified face. He’s horrified not just because he will die, but because he realizes he has created the situation for his death. It’s a quick moment that does not linger on the gore of the scene but allows for the feeling to be emoted. Reactionary violence in the film is shown in an entirely different manner. It exists without a revelation, it is repetitive, and it is slow. When Manuel joins Sebastian, the prophet, he is forced to perform the Sisyphean task of carrying a rock up a hill. It is an extremely long take with no lesson learned and remains excruciating to watch. Rocha sets a blueprint for the ethical way to portray violence.
Brazil’s Past and Future
Rocha uses this film to tell the history of Northeast Brazil which has often been viewed as an impoverished wild west to the rest of the country. The three phases of the film represent three important phases in the Northeast’s history. The first phase is representative of coronelismo which I covered in last week’s essay on Limite, the second phase focuses on beatismo (growth of religious fervor), and the last phase focuses on cangaço, the era of outlaws. The final shot of the film represents a new era that has not yet been written. After running away from the bandit, Manuel and Rosa are separated and running alone. This shot is Rocha’s vision for the future. It appears that just like Mario Peixoto, he thinks that marriage has no place in modern society since the couple is separated. The ending is also ambiguous. Are Manuel and Rosa heading to a good place finally? We don’t know. It’s our duty to find out on our own. With some powerful performances and moving cinematography, this film has earned its spot in film history and Brazilian history.