Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol / Black God, White Devil (1964)

13 05 2015

Karl Marx’s most frequently recycled axiom is “Religion is the opium of the masses.” It’s unfortunate, of course, because it might be least insightful and most banal. More importantly, it doesn’t seem to hold much weight today. Sure, a majority of the world identifies as religious in some manner, and power structures are defended and held up in the name of religion. Yet, the drug of the choice might be pop culture. I won’t descend to the level of some trite condemnation of the multiplex showing endless superhero films. The superhero film, Marxism, and Christianity all splinter into a unifying vision for Glauber Rocha. Emancipation is his chief concern, but there is many ways in which it can be envisioned.


Receiving the ire of his wealthy boss one time too many, Manuel bursts out in a violent fit of rage. The ecstasy of breaking free from his oppressor is short-lived and he realizes that he and his wife, Rosa, must immediately go on the run. They seek the guidance of Saint Sebastian (the title’s Black God), who has provided the hope of salvation for the country’s poorest individuals. Meanwhile, Antonio das Mortes is sent, by a more respected and “conventional” priest to take care of Sebastian and his followers. Tragically, this pushes Rosa and Manuel into the arms of Corsico, the title’s White Devil.


While Glauber Rocha’s hallucinatory aesthetic is unique, there is a impulse to ground the experience of the film itself. We must, in order to feel, comfortable, find some sort of link between his images and that of other filmmakers. A common one seems to be Alejandro Jodorowsky. I’m no big fan of Jodorowsky, but I’ll ease up on him here. The Jodorowsky film is one that realizes that images, despite the power they hold, have no center. There is no connection between an icon’s power and the experience of real life, thus Jodorowsky himself sends forth countless images. One that provoke and even enrage, because they have to be unique. Realizing the lack of a center, Jodorowsky must demolish the old images and erect entirely new ones. Thus, shit and fire become key ingredients in his palette, the former so vile that it presences threatens to unseat the power structure of icons. Meanwhile, the fire becomes the thing that does destroy.


I think Rocha does have something in common with Jodorowsky. Both filmmakers come to the understanding that icons don’t have a center, but Rocha is not demolishing their power. Instead, he shows reverence for this. If images have no center then they, like language, are arbitrarily embedded with a meaning. This arbitrary assignment means they are powerless for Jodorowsky, but they are proof of their power to Rocha. He shows reverence for them not because they mean something to people, which is their greatest power. In one of the film’s most impressive sequences, Sebastian stands before the cross of his temple. Surrounded by the chaos of the world he finds solace in his worship, not by hiding from the suffering but confronting it head on in prayer. The scene ends with violence, which is all the more shocking because we’ve been guided by a filmmaker who has given these images the chance to breath and have power over the individuals who confront them. He is not positioning them around, emotionlessly, in order to provide the most striking visual moment.


Black God, White Devil is critical of images, symbols, and icons but it does not throw stones in their direction. Instead, it takes the time to critically acknowledge how and why they are important to us. Corisco, the White Devil, is comically inept, a crass parody of a revolutionary figure. He can’t see the need for images. Fittingly, he ignores the warning of a wandering blind man. He sees the people’s need to believe in him as a means to wield his power, a sign of their weakness. This give us the film’s most sensual moment: a protracted kiss that is heavy on beard, but it also ends his reign. There is no need to be cynical if one’s emancipation is at stake.




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