Outlaw barbecue

Gustatory metaphors abound in the writings of Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha (1938-81). Rocha coined the term "digestive cinema" for "films about rich people with pretty houses riding in luxury automobiles; cheerful, fast-paced, empty films with purely industrial objectives." Then there are the films which "grind everything down to its basic ingredients, blend in the ideology and give the whole thing to the public pre-digested."

Rocha was one of the foremost practitioners and theorists of Cinema Novo, a movement that set out to depict Third World social and political realities from a Third World perspective. In his influential 1965 essay, "An Esthetic of Hunger," he uses hunger as a metaphor par excellence for the fundamental essence of Brazil’s situation, and argues that violence is the authentic cultural expression of a hungry people. In contrast to the glut of cinematic pabulum, Rocha declared that "Cinema Novo should provoke fiery indigestion" and "be devoured by its own fire."

His 1964 film, Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil), is set in northeastern Brazil in the sertao, an arid interior region with a long history of messianic religious cults and reckless, daring bandit-outlaws known as cangaceiros. Rocha’s hungry Brazilian everyman, the rural peasant Manuel, struggles alongside his wife Rosa to scratch a meager living from the desiccated soil of the sertao. When the local landowner refuses Manuel his rightful allotment of cattle, Manuel strikes out and kills him. He and his wife are then forced to flee.

First they encounter Sebastiao, a beato, or leader of an ecstatic religious cult. Manuel surrenders completely to the influence of Sebastiao, placing his destiny in his hands, though Rosa remains skeptical. When Sebastiao sacrifices a child, Rosa in turn slays the beato and the couple are on the run again.

Next they encounter Corisco, a cangaceiro, and join up with his band. Once again Manuel places his own fate in the hands of another, until Antonio das Mortes, a lone enigmatic figure who is a killer of cangaceiros, dispatches Corisco. Released from the dead ends of ecstatic mysticism and the ineffective random violence of banditry, Rosa and Manuel are last seen running freely across the sertao, destination unknown. Though the film adopts a critical stance, it is also clear that Rocha admires the courage of the cangaceiros and sees mysticism as a potential source of unity, strength and joy.

Terra em Transe (Land in Anguish, 1967) is Rocha’s statement on the "carnival of eternal crisis and madness" that is politics in Brazil. Alternately detached and intensely emotional, dreamlike and analytical, this film follows the story of journalist and poet Paulo Martins, from protégé of the rightist conservative Diaz to the camp of the populist governor Vieira, from the bed of the beautiful but vacuous Sylvia to the embrace of the communist activist Sara. Dating from the period after the military coup in 1964, Land in Anguish is a meditation on the political bankruptcy of both the left and the right, while it exposes the illusions of an entire generation of leftist intellectuals.

Antonio das Mortes (1968) returns to the sertao and to the character of Antonio, who was first introduced in Black God, White Devil. As played by Mauricio do Valle, Antonio is a mythical, larger-than-life figure who would not seem out of place in a traditional western, bringing to mind legendary screen presences like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. As the film opens, Antonio finds himself without meaning or purpose, for it seems that all the cangaceiros are gone. When he is summoned to kill the cangaceiro Coirana, he waives his usual fee, wanting only to see if a cangaceiro still exists. As fated, Antonio kills Coirana, but this time it’s like killing a part of himself.

Other characters who occupy the desolate landscape along with Antonio are a beata who utters cryptic prophecies, the Afro-Brazilian Antao who follows in the beata’s entourage, the despotic blind landowner Horacio, Horacio’s administrative assistant Mattos, the Bahian prostitute Laura and the heavy-drinking village schoolteacher.

After killing Coirana, Antonio undergoes a transformation, calling for Horacio to allow the peasants to farm his land. Horacio’s response is to hire another killer, Mata Vaca, to kill Antonio. The film concludes with a Peckinpah-style gun battle, the teacher using Coirana’s gun to fight by Antonio’s side, and Antao rising up like the combined embodiment of the African war god Ogum and St. George the dragon slayer. The film implies there will be more dragons to slay, for the final shot shows Antonio walking down the highway, a sign for Shell Oil in the near distance.

The type of filmmaking Rocha pioneered manages to be many things at once – intensely political, rooted in a strong sense of history and place, formally experimental, symbolically complex and peopled with memorable characters whose stories achieve a mythic resonance.