Directed by Glauber Rocha
Above the sky of the sertão, a bleak, weary sun shines down and bleaches the soil to the color of bone. A few scant, leafless trees jet rebelliously from the ground only to be embalmed by the shimmering heat. In this place, located in the Northeastern reaches of Brazil, the black blood of African slaves and Mulattos is diluted by whites and the fossils of Amerindian society. Theirs is a desperate feudal society ruled by a tiny class of white land owners wielding dictatorial powers. On the sertão, cattle form the lifeblood of society and prove to be the only separation between sustenance and starvation. Is it any wonder, then, that a man is willing to die and kill for his cattle? That is how we find ranch hand Manuel at the beginning of Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil. When his boss tries to cheat him of his cattle after four of his herd die of snake bites, Manuel strikes back, killing him. And so, Manuel, his wife Rosa, and their newborn child must flee. Theirs will be a deadly and bizarre journey of mythic and mystical proportions in Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil.
The film supposedly takes place in the 1940s, but the story itself is timeless. As Manuel and his family drifts through the countryside, they associate and follow different leaders and movements. First, they encounter Sebastian, a black self-proclaimed saint with hundreds of followers. Preaching a doctrine that he will restore balance to the world, Sebastian captivates Manuel. It isn’t long before he takes part in the brutal “cleansing” of sinners in the countryside. In one scene, he is made to ascend a mountain on his knees with a gargantuan stone on his head. After this act of pious devotion, Sebastian convinces a now deluded Manuel to sacrifice his infant child in a blood ritual to cleanse him of his sins. It is only after this terrible deed that Rosa kills Sebastian in a scene reminiscent of the film’s opening murder.
Once again on the run, they fall in with a violent outlaw named Corisco who wages war against the landowning class. Their violent escapades are soon ended by a bounty hunter named Antonio Das Mortes, hired by the local Church and landowners. The feature leads to a tense standoff that in many ways resembles Italian spaghetti Westerns. But the tone is completely different. These aren’t weary, hardened outlaws…merely misguided peasants seeking a leader and a purpose.
Of course, it is this very search for purpose that inevitably dooms them. Rocha’s film is a kind of indictment against forces that try to control people, whether they are religious (Sebastian) or secular (Corisco). What Rocha seems to be desperately trying to express is that men should rely on themselves for their own destinies, not those prescribed by others. Manuel and Rosa find nothing but disappointment and tragedy in their search to associate with larger movements. Of course, the film does so by illustrating with extremes. Sebastian is hardly an accurate representation of the Church and it seems counterintuitive that Corisco is so willing to kill those whom he swears to fight for. But this is a film of stark allegories and powerful symbolism. It is not a subtle piece of cinema.
But then again, Rocha never sought to be very subtle. He was a member of Brazil’s radical left wing, going so far as to establish a political party in the late 1980s. The party called for an anti-capitalist revolution and the abolition of money. He used his art as an outlet for his rebellious and uncontrollable zeal. Quoted as saying, “The artist’s goal is to outrage,” Rocha creates a grim world of total absolutes for his characters in inhabit. There is the innocent (Manuel, Rosa, and the people who get killed throughout the film) and the guilty (Sebastian, Corisco, Das Mortes). From the very first sequence where Manuel fights with his old boss, a pattern of identifying characters as “us vs. them” is established. The people inhabiting this film are concentrated metaphors.
Black God, White Devil is a film of action and little exposition. It can be difficult to follow at certain times since it doesn’t establish its characters in a traditional way. We frequently see characters introduced in the midst of a greater action. When we first meet Sebastian he is at the center of an impromptu revival among the people of the sertão. For a while, we have a difficult time picking out who the leader is. Only gradually do we realize that Manuel has joined into the celebration.
Indeed, we find in Black God, White Devil a film that is greater than the sum of its parts. For all of its confusion concerning the caracters, it is a remarkable film. Its impossible scenarios of evil and morality create a kind of dream world where the characters seem to float by. Its black and white photograph crackles with heat and dry wind. The world is as stark as film negative.
But Black God, White Devil is an important film for other reasons. It was one of the founding films of the Cinema Novo movement, a film movement of Brazilian filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s. Inspired largely by Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave, the participants of the Cinema Novo sought to redefine and transform the landscape of Brazilian cinema. Many of the films revolved around social issues, particularly poverty in Brazil’s northeast and crowded, urban areas. It was the dawn of a new era of social consciousness among Brazilian filmmakers. So does it come as any surprise that a firebrand like Rocha would be one of its most famous and esteemed participants? Best known for a trilogy of films that brought him and Brazilian cinema international recognition, Rocha helped open doors for generations of Brazilian filmmakers.
So for its few flaws, Black God, White Devil is an essential film. Yet it goes largely unheard of and unwatched in the West. Perhaps it was too fiery and deemed too Leftist for average American audiences. Whatever the reason, it should be studied and valued as a pinnacle of expressive filmmaking as well as a potent polemic for all those who study the injustice that inhabits the world.