O Pagador de Promessas & the Power of the Individual

Para la versión en español, cliquea aquí


O Pagador de Promessas (1962) follows Zé, a poor farmer who makes a promise to Saint Barbara that if his donkey recovers from his illness, he will carry a cross all the way from his home into Saint Barbara’s church in the state capital. But when the local priest finds out that he also prayed to other Gods, he refuses to let him in the church and fulfill his promise. Against Zé’s wishes, he becomes a religious martyr and political activist to those who misinterpret his message leading to fatal consequences.

As the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema was waning, a new type of cinematic movement was being born in Brazil. Where the previous greats of Latin America’s cinematic industry sought to create a second kind of Hollywood thanks to the influence of American culture at large and the governmental Good Neighbor Policy, the new generation of filmmakers was trying to change things. The world was changing and the US was no longer a beacon in art or politics. The Cuban Revolution in 1959 marked a new guidepost for many in the continent and the popularity of Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave spotlighted other ways of making movies. For the Cinema Novo filmmakers of Brazil, the anti-Hollywood philosophy was clear: with a camera in your hand and an idea in your mind, any movie is possible.

Anselmo Duarte accepting the Palme D’or at Cannes

One of the most impactful films from this era in Brazilian filmmaking is O Pagador de Promessas. Not only was it hailed in Brazil, but it helped buck artistic trends that had been at play for years. Though most Latin American filmmakers spent their time trying to copy American or European style, by winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes, O Pagador de Promessas gave European filmmakers a Latin American movie to envy. Though French filmmakers were already beginning to show an interest in Brazilian culture after the success of the 1959 Palme d’Or winner, Black Orpheus, this movie showed that Latin American stories were still worthwhile when written and directed by Latin Americans. By 1966, the Cahiers du Cinema hosted their own Brazilian Cinema Novo Film Festival in no small part due to this Anselmo Duarte film.

Originally a play produced in São Paulo in 1960, O Pagador de Promessas breaks through cultural barriers because of its unique and modern moralist tragedy about a man whose convictions are more powerful than the biggest institutions. Dias Gomes, the playwright, has described the piece as “born primarily out of my own awareness of being exploited and impotent in the exercise of the liberty than, in principle, is given to me… Zé do Burro does what I would like to do– to die so as not to yield. He does not prostitute himself, And his death is not useless or merely a gesture of individualist affirmation; on the contrary, it gives conscience to the people.” Because of this, Duarte’s film differs from other Cinema Novo films which use their protagonist as a symbol for larger political and economic strife. Zé is trying to break free of those bonds in every sense as there is no one enemy. His beliefs are being twisted by the State, the press, and most of all the Church.

O Pagador de Promessas

Zé does not exist as a political tool and, for better or worse, exists in his own world. He has blinders on for everything that doesn’t have to do with his promise to Saint Barbara. This is true, even to a fault. He often ignores the feelings of those close to him, especially his wife. On the first night they arrive at the Church steps, Bonitão, a local pimp stops by and offers to take his wife to a motel for the night. Zé doesn’t think twice, but his wife, Rosa, knows nothing good can come from it. It seems that even God knows because lightning strikes when Bonitão offers. In his world, no one would be so cruel and sinister. His vision of religion is very different than reality. In the beginning, we find Zé at a Candomblé ceremony and praying to a Catholic saint at the same time. In reality, the two religions and their participants are often at odds, as shown in a montage near the end of the film where director Anselmo Duarte uses fast cross-cuts between close-ups of pounding drums and the face of the anxious priest banging his bells in response.

It’s Zé’s idealistic views of his surroundings that make his convictions so strong. He refuses to be a pawn for anyone. When his case becomes a regional battle cry for reasons that have nothing to do with him, he doesn’t declare to either side that he will stand by them and instead says he won’t leave this spot until the people truly understand him. His ideology does not fit squarely on one side over the other. He can’t choose one religion over the other, they both healed his donkey. The same goes for politics. When he describes his need to fulfill his promise to Saint Barbara, he describes it as a business negotiation. In capitalist terms, if I buy something, I have to pay for it. Meanwhile, his promise means he must divide up his land leading others to see him as a communist agrarian reformer. 

He won’t be exploited and he won’t exploit others. When people come after hearing the legend of this Christ-like martyr, they see him, expecting to be healed. He refuses to even pretend. He won’t lie to anybody for his own gain. But for all Zé’s attempts, the public still sees him as a symbol of a collective religious or political goal, not a man. None of this aids Zé’s struggles and just puts him in more danger. Newspapers sensationalize his situation and his beliefs and create tensions with the state when Bonitão, in a bid to take Rosa from him, tells his cop associate that Zé is an agent of chaos for the communists.

O Pagador de Promessas

Meanwhile, the Church views him as a poisonous seed that could destroy the entire operation. As the New York Times wrote upon the film’s release, Padre Olavo’s religious convictions “are close to fanatical. Perhaps at bottom this is a proof of the absence of conviction and an act of self-defense. His intolerance– which makes him at times collide headlong with principles of his own religion and to confuse as enemies those who are really on his side– is probably nothing more than a shield behind which he hides his lack of faith.” Padre Olavo’s fear is that Zé will bring an end to religious institutions. This is not a real existential crisis for him, but a much more glib crisis of profession. 

The Church leaders that come down to quell the situation tell Padre Olavo that he will have to think of the religious elements as well as the political ones for any crisis. Though he initially rejects this, it’s clearly something he already practices. He compares Zé’s blasphemous act to that of the slaves in the colonial era who “tricked” their masters into thinking they were true believers when in reality they still held allegiance to their other gods. It’s an apt comparison but not for the reason he thinks. It’s yet another historic example of when a personal decision is politicized and used to incite violence and hatred.

O Pagador de Promessas

History repeats itself. The film ends with a police-provoked riot that culminates with Zé dying outside of the Church, next to his cross. He died without being able to enter the Church. Maybe Padre Olavo was right, or maybe the Church created a self-fulfilling prophecy that ultimately killed him. Though Padre Olavo’s anger with Zé grew from his “imitation” of Christ and his sacrifice for one animal rather than mankind, his death has created a movement. By standing by his unique and individual principles, he swiftly unites those who came to support him for his religion and his politics. The film ends with a procession of people carrying him into the Church and fulfilling his promise for him. In the film’s last image, we see Rosa standing alone on the steps, having finally understood her husband. He may not have been able to see all the ways that society was closing in on him, but he was pure of heart and more than willing to fight.

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