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Black God, White Devil (Glauber Rocha, 1964)


      With a reputation as great as that of any Brazilian film, it’s difficult to approach Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil as just another movie. Luckily, its idiosyncrasies and distinctive style help it resist easy comparisons to most other movies, including the extreme art films that it feels most closely associated with. Looking to modern eyes like a melding of neorealism, spaghetti Western, docudrama, and folk cinema, the movie exists in its own rarefied realm. Its sumptuous black and white cinematography and delirious narrative render it as a cinematic artifact without much that generates a worthy point of comparison beyond the more extreme works of Jodorowsky and Buñuel.


      Rocha’s movie has a story, but it’s perhaps not the prime attraction. The plot is a slim, anti-authoritarian political allegory that mostly functions to allow cowherd Manoel and his wife Rosa, the two main characters, to hit the road and find one situation after another in which they become dehumanized in the face of ideological movements. Near the start of the film, Manoel murders a land baron. This action is partially borne out of self-defense, partially out of sheer rage, but it leads him and his wife on a quest for forgiveness that will take up the rest of the film. Along the way, the two meet San Sebastian, a self-proclaimed saint, who operates outside of the influence of the Catholic church, yet inspires the masses, and Corsico, a delusional revolutionary fighter who rechristens Manoel “Satan” and sets him on a crusade to overthrow the government.


      This simple plot description belies the hallucinogenic quality of the movie, however. It almost immediately launches into a nightmarish journey of violence and hopelessness, confronting us with an abstract yet uncomfortable vision of human struggle. In its last act, as Manoel and his wife are pursued by Antonio Das Mortes, a bounty hunter who had previously spared them. Rocha cranks up the fatalism, as a final showdown grows inevitable. This sequence, like many before it, hinges on a deep religiosity, as its characters tremble at the prospect of a day of reckoning.


      Throughout Black God, White Devil, diametric, antagonistic relationships are set up, as in the film’s title. The shaman is faced off against the church. The revolutionary is put up against the law. Man is challenged by his wife. This simplicity lends the film a mythical quality that is further enhanced by the frequent nods toward Brazilian folk culture. Manoel and Rosa are sometimes accompanied by a troubadour who narrates their journey with guitar ballads. A major plot point hinges on the belief that the blood of an innocent baby could wash away an adult’s sins. Many early scenes feature scads of extras, engaged in song, trade, or prayer, although by the final act, Rocha has stripped his cast down to an emblematic few.


      As its reputation would suggest, Black God, White Devil is an example of bold filmmaking, made largely outside the realm of cinematic convention. Its images posses a stark beauty and it utilizes a varied soundtrack that does a great deal to define its shifting moods. Rocha ostentatiously blares this music, often treating it as an outright attack on our senses. Similarly, the sound design, which has been obviously post-synchronized because of its non-naturalistic quality, is deployed to exaggerated effect. It clashes harshly with the frequent scenes that have no sound at all.


      Although Black God, White Devil is technically a period piece, set in the 1940s, it feels as if it takes place out of time. Rocha’s sketchy treatment of his characters turns them into totems that clearly represent more than any mere individual could. When Manoel becomes Sisyphus, carrying a great stone on his head along a mountain path as a shaman stands impassively by, the image seems to speak to an entire people’s attitude toward faith and perseverance. Like so much of the haunting Black God, White Devil, this image achieves a potency that belies its simplicity.



Jeremy Heilman