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Ganga Bruta (1933) tells the story of Marcos, a rich engineer, who upon discovering his bride is not a virgin, murders her. He is acquitted and quickly moves to the countryside where he becomes involved in a love triangle which culminates in the death of the other man and him marrying his new love.
Ganga Bruta is a film that is still dealing with the question of what modernity and technological advancement will mean for the continent. This was another movie that was examining this phase in Brazil’s development and came out 2 years after another Brazilian classic, Limite. In his article, “Humberto Mauro and the Historical Situation”, the famed Brazilian director, Glauber Rocha compares the two films: “If Limite corresponds without a doubt to the French avant-garde cinema and reveals an artist full of subjective aestheticism, Ganga Bruta not only corresponds to the poetic vein of filmmakers like [Jean] Vigo or [Robert J.] Flaherty but is also implemented within a situation that did not limit Mauro to pretentious language. […] He had before him the landscape of Minas Gerais and inside of him the vision of a filmmaker educated by sensitivity, intelligence, and courage.” Ganga Bruta is a film whose politics very much go against my own and those of the Cinema Novo movement, but the aesthetic choices he made and the mix of styles made it the first truly Brazilian film, made by and for Brazilians.
At the heart of the director, Humberto Mauro’s philosophy is the fact that the only thing that can be truly trusted are the machines of the future. Nature, just like the women in Marcos’s life can be deceptive. In flashbacks of his previous relationship with his murdered bride, all the scenes show them galavanting on the beach, either swimming or sailing, enjoying the pleasures of each other’s bodies. Blinded by the sun and her beauty, this engineer is unable to see that she is not pure. His new life, on the other hand, is guided by modern machinery. He is going to the countryside to build a factory and the camera closes in on the wheels of the train moving at a rhythmic pace as they take him there.
His relationship with Sonia, his new love, is also marked by the machines around him. In one of Sonia’s first attempts at flirtation, she asks an indifferent Marcos if he would like to take a ride with her in her car. It becomes clear later, that the car is an erotic zone and that ride was almost like an invitation to sex. As their relationship progresses, they finally go on a date which consists of Marcos taking Sonia’s photo at different sites of the construction. Their relationship culminates finally in a declaration of love and then a quick cutaway to a montage of drilling, explosions, long, hard metal machinery, and fire. This Freudian episode details the euphoric nature of the modern machine.
Nature is not so euphoric, though it does have its moments. Water plays a big symbolic part in the film as well. For Sonia, the water seems to be a purifying element. One day, she falls and almost drowns when Marcos saves her. This is a sharp turn from having killed a woman at the beginning of the film. They play in water when they are together and these moments seem to connect them to what really matters in life. But as I said before, Marcos’s flashback to his time with his ex-bride shows him and his love on the beach. And later, when Sonia’s lover, Decio, confronts him, he falls and drowns under a waterfall. Nature is fickle, machines are a certainty. Though Marcos can find harmony in these two areas, we can only really trust one.
We can also only really trust one type of person, the engineer son of wealthy urbanites. It’s clear that is the real message of the film based on its title. The meaning of gangue is “the worthless rock or vein matter in which valuable metals or minerals occur.” Sônia’s boyfriend and Marcos’s first wife are like society’s gangue, disposable and left to accumulate in the form of colluviums, so that Marcos, patriarchy’s valuable ore, can maintain his privileged position in a rapidly changing world. Marcos’s workers also appear to be caricatures. In the bar where he meets them and heroically beats them all up, they appear to be blind, drunk idiots who don’t know a thing about the machines they are tasked with operating. They need to step aside and let Marcos do his work as he sees fit.
The film ends in a wedding scene for Sonia and Marcos, who seems to finally be redeemed… or is he? The service is shot almost identically to his first wedding. After a shot on his solemn face, the camera cuts to a sculpture of Jesus on the cross. It almost contradicts the film’s central message. Did modern machinery lead him to the right place? Maybe they did, but his journey is just not over yet. For how much I abhor the politics of this film which see the white bourgeois man as the answer to Brazil’s problems, it is this contradiction and variety that makes the film really interesting.
Upon its release in 1933, it was not received well by the Brazilian audiences with some critics calling it the worst of the year. But, it’s important to return to the words of Glauber Rocha, the most prolific director of Brazil’s Cinema Novo, to know why years later, it was viewed as a foundational film for Brazilian cinema. As Rocha puts it, “Mauro creates an anthology that seems to encompass the best of Renoir’s impressionism, of Griffith’s audacity, of Eisenstein’s strength, of Chaplin’s humor, of Murnau’s compositions in light and shadow. . . . Expressionist in its first five minutes (the wedding night and the wife’s murder by the husband), it is a realist documentary in the second sequence (the liberty of the assassin and his tram rides through the city). The film then evolves toward the Western (the brawl in the bar, with the main fight in the best John Ford style) and grows with the strength of the classical Russian cinema (the possession of the woman, the erotic Freudian connotations of the metaphoric montage at the steel factory). And while the mise-en-scène during the discussion between Sônia’s boyfriend and the criminal husband . . . reminds us again of German Expressionism, all of the final sequences are impregnated with an air of adventure melodramas.” Mixing sound and silence, melodrama and realism, the film can resemble L’Age D’Or, Los Olvidados, or even The Graduate. A mess of styles that all seem to fit well in the same rhythm? Sounds like Brazil to me.