Some films with episodic constructions have better parts than others; each admirer of Le Plaisir (1952) may favour one story adaptation over the other two and present their supporting arguments. Narrative films divisible into several, self-contained episodes, but retaining the same main characters in each, are less common. By “main characters,” I mean fictional beings holding a pivotal position at most important narrative turns and appearing or referred to in many of the scenes. A character or two reappearing in a minor role across numerous episodes might not amount to anything more than a mark of cleverness, a directorial wag. But one or several major characters appearing in several free-standing episodes all in the same film demands an explanation for why the narrative is divided into numerous parts in the first place. Why fragment the story construction into two or more large sections? Why not make a single, unbroken narrative instead, if the same main characters reappear? I am excluding those multi-narrative films in which each plotline has a different set of characters. This kind of film brings together two or more discrete stories which may complement each other by theme, place, the characters’ emotional traits or pattern of relationships, or another resemblance; in a sense, a film of this type is an aptly paired double-feature boiled down to a single film, though segments from each of them may be interspersed together. This kind of narrative structure need not make any difficulties for the logical consistency of each story’s world or how they interrelate. (1) In contrast, when an identical character appears in two discrete stories, we are left wondering what discontinuity or ontological ambiguity inheres in the character or his/her world which has necessitated putting this narrative structure into place.
This essay examines aspects of the narrative construction and some formal attributes of an acknowledged masterpiece, Glauber Rocha’s Deus e o diablo na terra do sol (Black God, White Devil, 1964). Rocha’s film is an example of compartmentalized dramatic form, each of its two episodes proving to be self-sustaining even though they present the same main characters. The relationship of the characters’ movements to the camerawork will be analyzed in detail, and the film’s status as an important modern work challenging certain illusionist norms and taking cinematic means to explore historical changes in Brazil which were crucial for social improvement will be defended, but its two-part structure will be taken to task. Examining the differences between the two parts shows that much of the film’s rigor and purpose belong to one part only. We will see how the second half of Black God, White Devil separates itself from the first half’s lesser ambitions and renders them superfluous. While the film is a major work, nevertheless both parts do not appear to make necessary contributions to the whole.
Before coming closer to the film under discussion, it will be helpful to look at some films that resemble its structure, to get a better idea for the possibilities of pulling together multiple episodes whose narratives are nevertheless autonomous from one another, and in which at least one lead character recurs across the episodes. Both The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and Al di là delle nuvole (Beyond the Clouds, 1995) are divided into episodes, and for each film the episodes unfold and complete their separate plots without relying upon information drawn from the others. Each film features at least one lead character in each of its episodes.
Hoffmann justifies dividing the episodes into sharply separated narratives by establishing that each one possesses ontological distinctness; the stories do not cross because each story belongs to a self-contained world. (2) The prologue/epilogue and three acts of Hoffmann make up four seemingly discrete cinematic spaces, and starting from the first space, located at the prologue’s inn, Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) together with his page Nicklaus (Pamela Brown) visit each of the others. Hoffmann and Nicklaus are two persisting characters through the film. These realities are not threadbare, but opulent and vividly distinct from each other. It is conceivable that intense focus on character study within the film could reduce or eliminate the meaningfulness of the separations between realities so apparent to us on the film’s surface; the film would then become so preponderantly about a character that the compartmentalizing would tend to dissolve away, at least in its significance. While some psychological progress can be traced in Hoffmann as the film moves from one act to the next, in Acts Two and Three he and Nicklaus rarely remark on what they have learned and experienced from previous occurrences, and, whatever evidence might be brought forth to justify re-situating the pair in a larger, single world instead of the evident multiple worlds we are presented, personality growth is too little emphasized to count as a strong constant which could undercut the impression of each world’s separateness and fullness. The actor Robert Helpmann also appears in all four worlds, and I will provisionally call his trans-world presence a figure, that is, identifiably the same body, leaving the question of whether the figure is additionally a single character, that is to say the same fictional person, to be determined. Helpmann could be playing one role or several. I will refer to the figure of this actor as Helpmann (f). While the figure’s name, profession and costume differ in each one, the figure’s zeal to undermine Hoffmann’s pursuits of love persists again and again, and he may be but is not positively one and the same character, after all. Putting on different guises to trick Hoffmann would serve a single, conniving person’s end, and that suspected purpose lends further support to understanding him to be the same character but in different dress.
Hoffmann leaves open a possibility for reconsidering the separate spaces as a single overarching world, if we can say that at least one resident of each space is the same person. If there is a non-replicable being, such as a character, native to each space of the three acts, it would be difficult to account for how one such fixture could exist in three realities, and a simpler explanation would seem to be that the one unique fixture belongs to one reality. Helpmann (f) seems like a full-fledged character, Helpmann (c), because of his persisting personality traits. If that is true, the crucial question for settling whether there are multiple worlds or a single overriding one among the acts revolves over his mobility, that is, if he is implanted in each world, or crosses from one space to the next of a single world. Does he have the capability of movement of the two main characters? Helpmann (c), whatever kind of being he is, does not certifiably traverse worlds like Hoffmann and Nicklaus do. (3) Indeed, each manifestation of Helpmann (c) seems to be settled into an occupation or social role, never the same one, upon the pair’s arrival. The poet and his page participate in the circumstances of each act and, though their passages into each are omitted, nevertheless can only be understood to progress from one to the next―and in each case Helpmann (c) is already there when they arrive. (4) We do not have grounds for thinking he is voyaging, as Hoffmann, accompanied by Nicklaus, must be. He belongs to each act, and evidently lacks the power to move from one to the next as Hoffmann and Nicklaus do, which would seem to make him a different kind of being than they are (such as a vision or phantom). On this understanding, Helpmann (c) is an exceptional being at home in each of the acts. There is some good reason for describing him as a phantom: In Act Two, several times we see him, in dissolves, disappear from one place and reappear in another. A recourse, though, for holding out the worlds are not all one would be to maintain he is the same kind of being as they and can reach worlds, ahead of the two explorers, through pathways not accessed by them, and unknown to viewers. Such a talent agrees with Helpmann (c)’s mischievous ambitions. Alternately, the power he has to magically disappear from one position and reappear in another might not be restricted to the area of Act Two: arguably, further display of this special power of transportation he has would have been redundant for viewers, and what we see is enough to demonstrate he flits about not only from position to position within an act but also from one act to another. In sum, The Tales of Hoffmann presents four worlds ostensibly “walled off” from each other and, by introducing a travelling pair, an additional individual perhaps common to all spaces, and the recurrent theme of elusive love haunting Hoffmann from one realm to the next, goes on to make the inter-world relationships a tantalizing problem.
Beyond the Clouds plays a variant on the narrator-on-the-fringes device, in which a narrator only arguably or slightly protrudes on the world narrated but does not indisputably emerge as extra-diegetic, which would force an ontological contradiction. John Malkovich’s nameless stroller meets the second condition but widely oversteps the first, all the way into a beautiful woman’s bed in the second of four, mutually detached stories in which he appears. He calls himself a film director, but only in a voiceover passage, and not to any character, an act which would have submitted his claim to testing within the character-world. As we watch the film we may be witnessing extended segments from his actual film, his mental notes taken for it, or simply real life unfolding around him as he collects together and jots down his thoughts on his notepad, kept close at hand. Whether he is a writer rummaging around for story material inside the world of fellow characters or a creator from without remains ambiguous. Clouds keeps to a single world—its stories all take place among people in modern Europe—but one confronted by a metaphysically nebulous being, and it is important to emphasize the limited scale of the extraneous agent. Clouds reduces the visible space which could lie outside of the world taken up by its stories to a bare minimum, restricted to the very body of the narrator; and we hesitate, perhaps, to designate this intimate area a whole “world.” The only possibly philosophically distinguishable space he inhabits is his own bodily self, not his surroundings, such as a walled walkway he traverses, which are patently co-extensive with the reality of the characters. He foretells, in voiceover, the future of the couple we see in the film’s first story segment, and performs similarly narrator-like functions in other instances across the film. Perhaps he is so moved by the beauty of the woman from the second story that he crosses over from his ontologically superior position to make love with her; love on this reading conquers all boundaries. At the very least, the lovemaking destabilizes our grip on Malkovich’s true nature. It is just as possible, though, that the narrator is of the same flesh and blood as the other screen characters, and that the film contains a partially subjective POV which enables his thoughts alone to be heard outside of the film’s physical world.
If we allow that the narrator is removed from the characters’ reality, then Clouds demonstrates what would seem to be the smallest possible persisting remnant of non-diegetic space a narrative film could have: the physical outline of a human being. The Tales of Hoffmann, on the other hand, lies at the opposite end of a spectrum and presents a bountiful metaphysical system: on the face of it, the film has four primary worlds and possibly additional secondary ones; each of the primary ones is spatially expansive, self-sufficient, and ontologically demarcated from the rest. It is typical of such fine films to query boundaries, to leave room for doubt about their philosophical designs and not let the viewer rest on definite conclusions for understanding all of their ideas. Black God, White Devil is divided into two sections only, and both belong to the same world, Brazil of the 1930s; the placement in time is qualified, as we shall see, by a degree of mythmaking in the film. Unlike The Tales of Hoffmann and Beyond the Clouds, however, the film’s great separation is not across metaphysical compartments. Those two films arrange for one or several characters from another world to visit either a series of worlds, or a series of stories within a single world, that is foreign to them. The reason for their narratives containing multiple episodes is the premise of a visitation by a persisting ontological outsider: Hoffmann and Nicklaus are strangers wandering through realms which are fantastic to them, and likewise there are grounds for holding Malkovich’s filmmaker is a being on another plane of existence peeping at and dropping in on characters of his creation. Each of the worlds and stories in these two films, moreover, keep fixed opportunities for apprehension by the film viewer: for example, we do not have any different limits placed on our understanding between the first two acts of Hoffmann, or between the last two stories of Clouds. We come to each of the worlds and stories in the two films as well-equipped to understand them as their counterpart worlds and stories. This is true because we have no greater advantage for knowing the places in the films than the outsiders do; their powers for acquiring knowledge of their surroundings remain constant, and our epistemological capabilities are thrown in with theirs. The problem these two works make is not that what we can ascertain changes.
In the following part, we will see how the second half of Black God, White Devil leads the viewer to a surer grasp of the physical surroundings and a clearer understanding of the political options facing the characters than the first half does. However these results do not come about from the film “jumping” to a new reality. Nor does Rocha switch the camera’s point of view between objectivity and subjectivity. Rocha’s film makes a break, midway through, in what it permits us to know, but not by presenting us one reality followed by another or a shift in the film’s point of view, which remains outside of the characters and objective. Instead, the film is profoundly split between two emotional sensibilities of depicting onscreen action, expressed by two different cinematic styles. Black God, White Devil examines the socio-economic problems besetting the Brazilian outback of the time through two distinct manners of shot length and characterization which impact the extent of what we can find out about the places and people. Rather than coming to know different worlds the same way, we come to know a single world but in different ways. In other words, that one world remains constant, but its comprehensibility is in flux. Rocha’s is not an ontological shift but an epistemological one. The change in style from the first to second part widens what is knowable in the film, from the proximate and immediate in the first half to broader views of the characters’ environments in the second which can be apprehended in a less momentary fashion. It is my position that the two styles do not produce any dialectical tension between themselves; the film would have benefited by adopting the second half’s style throughout.
Black God, White Devil‘s story structure can be divided into two halves. Although no blatantly formal device marks off a division as such, a song functioning as a chorus recurs in the middle of the film, and speaks of picking up the story and further adventures for the two main characters, husband Manuel and wife Rosa, after a gap in plot has occurred. This moment slices the film into two sections, for four reasons. Firstly, we see Manuel (Geraldo Del Rey) and Rosa (Yoná Magalhães) winding through a dry, brush-strewn, deserted terrain, and we haven’t seen them placed in a setting quite so barren before, nor one so depopulated: their actions henceforth will now take place in a markedly different environment. Secondly, the song’s narration pauses to speak to us directly, which taken together with a sudden change in the tempo of the music, seems to signify the closure of one tale and the start of another. A verse summarizes the climax of the couple’s adventures up to now, then the accompaniment on guitar quickens, and at that moment the song switches from narrationally relating the characters’ events to addressing the audience: “Our story continues / Now, people, pay attention / Manuel and Rosa wandered through the backlands…” Slipping into direct address and thereby suspending the narration spotlights our attention on a momentous shift in their lives; this is an exceptional occasion in the lyric, and we do not otherwise experience a break in its storytelling. The following line situating the couple in the backlands re-immerses us in narrative and promises a new story with new characters is about to begin, for the song goes on in the next three lines to emphasize the importance of the couple encountering a new person. Thirdly, this scene depicting Manuel and Rosa traversing through desert brambles marks the first and only time in the film when a period of time between scenes is left profoundly undefined by information conveyed to us either by characters or other onscreen processes. Prior to this scene, the bandit killer Antonio das Mortes (Mauricio do Valle) had made a mass killing, and only the husband and wife were spared. That slaughter, following on the death of an individual hunted by Antonio, brings the plot developments of the film up to now to a conclusion. From these facts, we can determine only that an unspecified period of time passes afterward: days, weeks or possibly months go by, and the break in charting a solid timeline suggests that a whole new story will begin here. Fourthly, the chorus occurs at roughly the temporal midpoint of the film, which is about 54% into the running time, producing two halves more-or-less allotted equal time. We will see in this part of the essay that Rocha does not only carve out two tales, but different styles and different means of claiming the audience’s attention for each one. In Part V, we will come back to the idea that the two halves offer different epistemological limits.
The entire film takes place in Brazil in the 1930s (with the conditional noted above), in the sertao, the arid interior lands in the northeast of the country. The first half of the film follows the plight of Manuel and Rosa, a cow herder and his wife. Discontented by poverty and his cruel working conditions, Manuel in a desperate act kills his supervisor and takes to the road with Rosa. Manuel is not only fleeing the law but on a quest for an ideal of justice to live by. He meets Sebastião (Lidio Silva), a self-styled religious prophet, and quickly decides to become his disciple. Manuel follows Sebastião through the countryside on a preaching tour. Railing against poor living conditions and the tyranny of landowners, Sebastião draws the notice of authorities. Church leaders hire a bounty hunter, Antonio das Mortes, to track him down and kill him. Antonio is deeply ambivalent about the Catholic Church ordering the slaying of a beato (itinerant preacher worshipped by peasants), and pressures the clergy to pay an imposing sum for his services.
Sebastião reveals himself to be a harsh taskmaster. He requires Manuel perform outrageous feats to prove his faith and worth as a disciple, such as carrying a boulder up a mountain. Although not insisted upon in the film, it becomes increasingly clear that Sebastião is manipulating Manuel and breaking down his human dignity. At a stay over in a chapel, Rosa kills Sebastião, apparently to protect her husband. Her hand in this deed goes unnoticed by Manuel and others, except for one person.
The first half of the film varies greatly in shot lengths, and by computational analysis alone cannot be categorized into montage or mise-en-scene. There are 220 shots in 64 minutes and 14 seconds, yielding an average shot length of 17.5 seconds. With the exception of one sequence of shots, in which many are temporally extended to emphasize the grueling ordeal of Manuel’s toil under Sebastian’s command, shots are around 14 seconds on average. That adjusted rate is still on the slow side compared to post-war American films up to 1960, which average 11-12 seconds per shot. (5) However, the 14-second figure only begins to give a full impression of the half’s artistic strategy. We have to examine the visual contents of the shots and the sound contents which accompany them.
In the opening half of the film, Rocha keeps the camera in motion, which is often set in jerking motions that frustrate a viewer wishing for smoothness and legibility. The camera whips around, and the editing is often elliptical. The soundtrack is often cacophonous, riddled with agonized human outbursts, and our visual attention to content likewise is drawn to violent assaults, people in seizure or pain, and rioting. Adding to the disorder, off-screen shouts are often left unmatched by a visual identification of the speaker. By and large, shots do not elaborate upon the characters’ relationships to each other; most often, Rocha shows single faces or bodies in torment and in isolation from one another. An air of confused action reigns. Rocha plainly is aiming to create an impression of fervour and chaos. Possibly, Rocha wishes to detach from conventional narrative by presenting events in discontinuous patterns, and at the same time he mirrors the despair and incomprehension of the characters’ lives with this style. By frequently making close-ups in this half, and foregoing lasting connections between individuals and between groups, Rocha’s stylistic means strive for the viewer to live out the same misery and confusion that Manuel, Rosa and their fellow peasants do. We witness a lurching parade of disconnected bodies and fleeting crowds come and go.
During this first hour, then, Rocha emphatically impresses human agony and deprivation upon us, qualities which loom large in close-ups and often depicted in a scattershot pattern. The first half gives the appearance of hectoring the audience, by pushing haggard anonymous bodies up close to our eyes and delivering a din of misery-laden moans and pleas for extended sessions to our ears. Rocha is well-known for espousing a “politics of hunger,” asserting that a society-wide state of want requires forcibly calling notice to the problem as a first step toward correcting it. In a famous document, “The Aesthetics of Hunger,” he writes, “…violence is normal behavior for the starving… The moment of violence is the moment when the colonizer becomes aware of the existence of the colonized. Only when he is confronted with violence can the colonizer understand, through horror, the strength of the culture he exploits.” (6) Rocha’s strategy in this part of the film seems to reflect this urgency about getting word out about cruel social conditions, through the bluntest means. We can easily grant that Rocha earnestly sympathizes with the suffering of the peasants depicted in Black God, White Devil, while still wishing he had put some critical perspective in place which would honor outpourings of discontent but also allow us to attentively witness and listen instead of undergoing a steady and overpowering succession of shocks. Observing an onslaught of misery as though our faculties were locked upon it might diminish our thoughtful notice, instead of leading us to take productive action. Rocha concludes “The Aesthetics of Hunger” with the caveat that the artistic approach he endorses “suffers… weaknesses which are a product of its particular situation.” Thus, he acknowledges here that the path he champions nonetheless has some shortcomings.
In the second half, Manuel meets a new leader, the cangaciero Corisco (Othon Bastos). (Cangacieros were popular bandits in the region, taking part in peasant rebellions by robbing and attacking wealthy landowners. Banditry had been intense for decades, to the point of bringing about economic decline, and at the time the film is set the government was waging brutal campaigns to quell it.) By pledging fidelity to Corisco, Manuel once again swears his allegiance to a charismatic leader. We learn that Antonio das Mortes, on the trail of Manuel, is hunting down Corisco. (The title of Rocha’s follow-up film, made in 1969, is rendered in English-language markets as Antonio das Mortes. The same actor plays the role of Antonio, and the film includes the same folk song about his exploits on the soundtrack.) Like Manuel, Corisco once followed in the footsteps of a visionary anti-government crusader, the strange and disputed figure Lampaio, whom we never see. Periodically, Corisco breaks into a trance and addresses Lampaio as though he is present with him.
The second half of the film sharply contrasts with the first in style. Now, the characters engage in monologues more than action. The takes are long, sometimes lasting several minutes, and Rocha’s camera patiently scrutinizes the characters as they swear to seek justice, pronounce a moral stance to uphold, and shift alliances with each other, indicated by their moving to and fro among themselves. The camera selectively trails individuals, such as when a person’s words or physical or emotional detachment from the group holds some potential force for contributing to or changing the band’s rationales and its next course of action. Alternately, Rocha can emphasize the limiting and debilitating factor of the hostile, blazing wilderness surrounding them by keeping the camera anchored in place, panning to observe characters in long shot stroll by and fan out in patterns which betray their allegiances of the moment. His camera style does not assume any all-seeing power into his characters, but displays steadfast curiosity about them; the camera, always ready to pick up and move, may be likened to an investigator interested in pursuing leads, shadowing individuals on instinctive hunches.
The characters continually shuffle, changing their positions in relation to each other and to the frame. Watching over this flux is paramount for following the unfolding commitment of each person, that is, where each one’s sympathies lie and how each are evolving their convictions, arrived at by testing those of the others. It is tempting to say that all this straying across the sand is the action of the second half. In 54 minutes and 38 seconds, there are only 97 shots, yielding an average shot length of 33.8 seconds; but factoring out two brief montage episodes, the average shot length is almost 40 seconds, more than twice as long as the shots in the first half, and close to three times as long as shots from the first half outside of the “toil of Manuel” sequence. Importantly, shots noticeably exceeding conventional durations characterize the whole second half. For the sake of comparison, the slowest films from Hollywood’s “Golden Age” (1927-1960) seldom held shots more than 18 seconds on average (for today’s American films, the average shot is about 3 seconds). There are few preceding films from any nationality which consistently deployed takes nearly a minute or longer: the handful includes Zangiku Monogatari (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, 1939) directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949) by Alfred Hitchcock, Cronaca di un amore (Chronicle of a Love Affair, 1950) and La singora senza camelie (The Lady without Camellias, 1953) by Michelangelo Antonioni, and Ordet (1954) by Carl Dreyer. Genroku Chushinguro (The Loyal 47 Ronin of the Genroku Era, 1942) by Mizoguchi and Nihon no Yoru to Kirz (Night and Fog in Japan, 1960) and Amakusa Shiro Tokisada (The Rebel, 1962) by Nagisa Oshima were all but unknown outside of Japan at this time. Gertrud (1964) by Dreyer and Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba, 1964) by Mikael Kalatazov were contemporary with Black God, White Devil.
Most exchanges take place in a desert clearing, seemingly far away from the town life that was depicted before. Taking their measured paces across the desert floor, the characters are now more likely to speak in a conversational or reflective tone of voice, contrasting with the first half’s norms from the point Manuel joins up with Sebastião, which are declarative and strident speaking, painful uttering, and lurching body movements within an inchoate mass of sufferers. While speaking may still be impassioned and voluminous in the second half, it reaches that peak less often, and usually is tempered by self-doubt. Rocha brings down the uproar to the point that a passage from a string quartet occupies two uninterrupted minutes of the soundtrack, which would be an unimaginable slip into composure during the opening hour of the film. The noisiness of the first half gives way to a general quietude, albeit punctuated with scattered moments of physical violence. Yet, much of that violence is less visible and more abstract than earlier; often it is hidden or far away from our sight, and we cannot always vouchsafe it is really happening to the characters, only that we suspect as much. The violence is certain, but the degree is not: during a desert massacre commanded by Corisco, for instance, are characters being executed point blank, suffering non-mortal wounds, hurling themselves to the ground to fake death or falling down for unknown reasons? They are so far off in the distance that we cannot indisputably tell what is happening to them. The unrealistically loud sound level of the gunshots, as though “grafted on” to the imagery instead of naturalistically matching distance from the camera, further subtracts from realism; this technique along with its effect were duplicated by Sergio Leone in his Westerns. In the first half, we see Sebastião plunge down a knife toward a body, clearly killing; in the second half, we watch Corisco gut a man but see neither the knife nor the action of his arm, only the victim’s summary reaction on his face. The film is now slower, emptier, quieter, and the earlier sensationalism is both drained of some of its realism and toned down. Indeed, the mood of violence approaching but staved off is strikingly consistent. During both action and speech, Rocha removes to a critical distance from the characters. Viewers are accordingly allotted the time and attention to exercise their own judgment. The audience is free to reflect on and ask questions about the film—for instance, the integrity and arguments of the characters, the implications of their actions, their physical place in the landscape, and the compositions of the film’s images.
Consistent with how the second half accommodates more contemplation for the viewer, it is in this portion that a self-reflexive strategy, direct address to the camera, becomes a full-fledged mode of communication in the film. For example, Corisco stares right at the camera while he claims to have the sufficient political conviction to win his fight. This assertion straight to the audience, drawing tight attention to his cause, on one understanding of direct address has the additional paradoxical effect of putting him at a remove from us, for it imperils drama, since he no longer responds to the elements given in the fiction, and foregrounds the fact he is a character in a film, encouraging us to more closely scrutinize the properties about him than we would if we were provided with simple discretionary distance alone. We are invited to take note not only of his program, but also examine him as a fictional being, by his facing and confronting us openly. There are other times when we might suppose Corisco undergoes one of his trances, and his peering out straight ahead, on this type of reading, amounts to locking eyes with viewers, thereby working against the illusion of the film’s fiction; yet, it is also possible in these instances that the camera’s position coincides with Corisco’s vision of Lampaio before him. (True to Rocha’s distrust in granting neither audience nor characters any all-knowing privilege, the film never flags any of Corisco’s monologues as trance-induced, and his fellow rebels are as much at a loss to know for sure as we are.) We may note these two interpretations need not be mutually exclusive. Moreover, we could just as well understand direct address to expand rather than diminish the fictional reality and that Corisco, instead of undercutting his world by “meeting” our eyes, adjoins our world to his. The combination of the film breaking the fourth wall by means of Corisco’s frontality and Corisco having a visionary experience intriguingly could suggest that the unseen Lampaio actually exists, amongst us, the filmgoers: on this reading, Rocha situates this hero of the people with us, as one of our fellow beings, perhaps challenging his viewers to imagine the “presence” of Lampaio, a political rebel, residing not at a comfortable distance from us in or implied by a fictional world that is sealed from us, but rather insinuating this dangerous cangaciero into a space co-extensive with our very own. Notice, however, that on this reading, Corisco is addressing a compatriot and not an enemy. In these instances, his words do not carry threats, and while his gaze implies that Lampaio and us are side-by-side, no intimidation is directed at the audience. (7)
The opening half of Black God, White Devil suffers in comparison to the second half’s shrewdly parceled depictions of violence, Brechtian distantiation, style promoting viewers’ critical judgment, and conspicuous technical feats of the camera. It seems to me that Rocha could have benefited the film by putting the cinematic strategies which emerge later at the beginning of the film as well. It makes little sense that activities requiring multiple shots in the earlier half are later depicted in only one. For example, for the evening conversation between Manuel and Rosa near the beginning of the film, Rocha employs three close-ups, yet there are plenty of examples in the second half of much longer conversations contained in a single take. In light of the many virtuoso traveling shots in the later section, the cuts in this earlier conversation are hard to justify. The content of their exchange does not call for a difference in form. Manuel and Rosa disagree with each other in their evening talk; characters verbally duel with each other later in the film, as well, either held in the same two-shot or with one character out of frame, but either way without making an edit. After watching the film from beginning to end and returning to this early dialogue, it is difficult to see what motivates breaking up the scene into separate shots. The second half does not introduce its new characters by means of close-ups, a conventional formal device for the audience “getting to know” someone onscreen who is unfamiliar. This familiar kind of shot cluster is meant to push us “closer” to a new character. Yet that tactic precisely describes close-ups on Rosa in the evening conversation.
What is there to gain from watching the second half of this film? Whatever one thinks of the film artistically, Black God, White Devil is a landmark in Latin American film history. I will briefly note here two of the reasons it holds an important historic position. First, it was Brazil out of all the Latin American countries in which a “new wave” of film, called Cinema Novo, overlapped with the new waves in France, Italy, Eastern Europe, and Japan. Rocha through his critical writings and films helped found the Cinema Novo and became by many accounts its principal figure. Rocha’s films won major awards at the Cannes Film Festival in 1967 and 1969, as well as in other international film festivals. Black God, White Devil was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1964 and launched his reputation internationally. Second, Black God, White Devil brought attention to a remote area, the sertao, virtually unknown to the world and little known even to Brazilians. The northeast interior up to the 1960s was extremely backward economically. A few years after Rocha’s filming and three decades past the film’s setting, American anthropologist Allen W. Johnson described the sertao as a peasant economy. (8) French anthropologist Roger Bastide in The African Religions of Brazil, first published in 1960, noted that Brazil’s historical social progress is proportional to its coastal proximity:
“It has been said that Brazil is composed of historical layers rather than social strata and that to travel from the coast to the interior is to pass back successively from contemporary civilization to that of the empire, then to colonial times, and finally to the Neolithic Indian period of the bush or the great Amazon forest.” (9)
The sertao was hard to access at the time of production, and no feature-length film had been photographed there before. Perhaps implicit in this acknowledgement lays an assumption that the film’s depiction of its settings and events faithfully adheres to realistic detail. Yet we have already seen that Black God, White Devil is not to be taken as a film strictly adhering to principles of reportage, if for no other reason that the style of each half differs so widely. Moreover, we saw that the world created for the film’s story is periodically challenged by devices such as direct address; thus, transgressions are launched at times against an overall fiction. It is fair to say that Black God, White Devil forms an imaginative relationship to physical-historical reality. While acknowledging the film makes a breakthrough by shooting in an overlooked part of the world, we still need to clarify just what its commitments are to realism. The film invites us to meditate upon and resolve if we can the dilemmas enacted by the characters; but to deliver this opportunity, the film need not be tethered too strongly to a specific place, and the moral nature of the conflicts might be better thrown into relief by not overburdening attention on physical-historical particulars.
At root, the characters are idealists trapped in extreme conditions. The film, like most works of fiction, implicitly invites us to identify with the characters. What would we do in the same dire circumstances, faced with their tough choices and daunting surroundings? The appeal of the film may be similar to trying to solve a difficult problem. Manuel, Rosa, Corisco, Sebastião from earlier in the film, and even the bandit-killer Antonio das Mortes, are each trying to find methods which will lead out of poverty and oppression, or at least benefit the society as a whole. To the viewer, the injustice of the social system depicted on screen is evident. To continue on and accept one’s lot can only mean falling back into deprivation. No “middle road” is available. The economic structure is top heavy to the degree that a few live comfortably and many live in misery, and class fluidity in this particular setting is unheard of. Church and state maintain this order. Even Antonio shows grave misgivings about the extents to which the Church will license murder.
While watching the film, it is helpful to know that this region of Brazil was suffering from labour exploitation by the landowners on the one hand, and incessant peasant rebellions on the other; forces supporting and opposing the social order were exacerbating the economy and driving an impoverished land even further downward. Yet, the very fact that so little of the film on view is historically specific, at least to non-specialists, prompts the question if the film has a timeless appeal. The buildings and most of the peasant clothes we see could have come from the 19th century as well as the 20th. We see no cars, paved roads, railways or electrical equipment. Cultural inroads we can pinpoint from the past hundred years are scarce. Corisco carries an ancient gun that looks like it might have been manufactured anytime from the mid-19th century onward. Interestingly, Antonio embodies fashions which better fix the period’s time in the 20th century: his rifle is more advanced than Corisco’s, and the cut and fabric of his coat are consistent with Western clothing from the 1920s and 1930s. As an agent of historical change, this specificity may be significant. Antonio might be experienced not only as a hired gun, but perhaps also as a symbol of the modern world destroying an ancient way of life. The film does not insist upon this symbolism, however. For example, the satin dress of the wife who is caught in one of Corisco’s raids looks modern, also, yet her and her attire appear too briefly in the film for either to count as more than an incidentally placed time marker. Júlio, a blind messenger drawn from many Western myths and ostensibly the film’s most ahistorical character, ironically wears a plaid patterned field shirt easily linked to the Great Depression era.
Nonetheless, the items which place the film in any definite time period are few; mostly, Black God, White Devil feels like it exists in a time vacuum. The events in the film might be seen in one aspect as historical interpretation. But the out-of-time quality, bizarre landscape and idealized action also lend Black God, White Devil comparison to a fable. The dialogue, spoken in an exalted, poetic style and often referencing Christian mythology, supports this reading, since it is far removed from realistic speech and resembles instead what we find in classical literature. “This pain grows like the sun,” Corisco laments in one memorable moment, and this poetic musing without specific context typifies the way characters talk in the film, particularly in the second half. Corisco’s status as a legend also re-defines his relationship to the film audience: the direct address by him, inviting us to join him, is not from an ostensibly real, flesh-and-blood character, but instead from a being who more closely resembles a mythological figure. Just as Corisco is insinuated into our world when he speaks to the camera, we are insinuated into his—but just what is his? (10) Corisco does not beckon us to fight alongside him in our own “real time,” nor to plunge back into our own history, but rather to enter a world of a fable. This world is made complicated by markers from actual history, populated with many recognizable though obscure traces of our own past, but it is also suffused with a grandiose aspect, as though the larger-than-life speech-making and heroic endeavors fit right at home in this broad, strange and dramatic land. Corisco’s plea to us demands a startling and deep transfiguration, asking us to abandon not only our walk in life but also to exchange the physical-historical world we know for a new one of myth (which nonetheless re-introduces scattered pieces of our familiar world). Rocha is asking us to take an interest in an invented world, nonetheless based upon a historical period. Considering how spare the historical artifacts are, and how simple and polarized the divisions of power, it cannot be said that Black God, White Devil makes casting the trappings in some specific time in the past its priority. (11)
In a fable, we are asked to imagine ourselves within circumstances that may have little to do with historical or present-day reality. It is the opportunities and obstacles of the made-up world itself that count instead. Probably the most accurate reading of Black God, White Devil is that the world which the film evokes, particularly in its second portion, is a fable, but one informed by broad historical factors. What, then, are the advantages to a fable? Why not make something that is strictly realistic instead? Perhaps the answer is that a fable, with fewer specific historical considerations, by that very fact can be more inclusively appealing. Yet Rocha’s film by no means plays out in a land removed from the map of the world, either, and it surely exposes some sociological light on the life of a little-known region.
It might be proposed that the second half is set in mythology and the first half in historical reality, and that Black God, White Devil ontologically distinguishes worlds, after all, just as The Tales of Hoffmann and Beyond the Clouds do. Yet, Sebastião is no less mythological than Corisco, and Manuel and Rosa exist just as substantially in the second half as in the first; moreover, they are not visitors like Hoffmann and Nicklaus and Malkovich’s film director are. On the other hand, myth has a stronger presence, a stronger foothold, in the second half of Rocha’s film than in the first half. In no small measure, the added emphasis is a byproduct of the poetic speeches which are afforded much greater import and length in the second part. It is undeniable that the alien, almost imponderable landscape is an appropriate backdrop to the high-flown and desperate rhetoric in which the characters engage. The second half is deeply inflected with myth but its material reality is no less consequential. (12)
The two varying styles discussed in Part III show us that the second half of Black God, White Devil widens what is knowable from what the first half permits. By and large, the first hour restrains what we can become acquainted with to what is visually and aurally near the camera, and it further narrows much of what we may come to know to temporal immediacy, by choppy editing which interferes with building up lasting supporting characters and relations between them. To a large extent, we are presented surging crowds which are ever changing in participants and number circulating among the couple and Sebastião. The second half, in contrast, completely eliminates large gatherings, going so far as to stylize action in order to maintain the film’s focus on a small group. The quality of myth, more strongly emphasized in the second half, helps explain why a handful of people may stand in for a cohort of bandits and phalanxes of lawmen. For example, this portion’s climactic shootout is played out among a handful of characters, but in a real setting, many more participants would have to take part than what we see. The broader views and longer takes from beginning to end of the second portion gain us access to an unbroken and persisting picture of reality, instead of a disjointed and transient one from the first. In the later period, we are presented new people we can get to know in some depth. While Rocha resists many of the familiar strategies for drawing conclusions about characters, nonetheless he puts before us three-dimensional persons with individual emotional make-ups and vested, evolving interests.
To his credit, Rocha adventurously departs from the type of justification for multiple, self-contained stories that relies on keeping the constant of a visitor who may never belong, a representative or incarnation of a steadfast reality travelling through unreal or questionable ones. For a downside to this type of solution might be thought to be it necessitates inelegance, positing tiers of reality and making most of the settings we see not quite and thus less than real. Rocha’s single world is concrete from start to finish, even if we experience it in bits and pieces at the beginning. His ambition seems to be to include a radical shift in the capability of acquiring knowledge within the same, practical world: this is why he needs to depict two disparate stories, each with different epistemological opportunities. But the hitch to Rocha’s monism appears to be that with the powers of knowledge expanded, the earlier limitations then become expendable. Even more problematic, installing those limitations might be regarded as a suspect device that keeps us “out of the know,” that is, at an unnecessary disadvantage. If the second half’s expansion of what is knowable is liberating, arguably, that benefit arises only from keeping the range of what may be latched onto in the first half artificially small. Circumscribing access to continuity and breadth in the first half of the film looks contrived to heighten the second half’s offering a wider reality. Wouldn’t the true liberation for the viewer be to provide optimal access to knowledge from the very beginning?
During the first half, we may feel manipulated like Manuel does, but if so the reason we have that experience is that the style of the film overpowers the viewer just as society overpowers Manuel. That equivalence, while ostensibly bringing us to live out Manuel’s misfortune vicariously, looks like too high of an artistic price to pay. We are still left victims of oppression, as Manuel is. The first half of the film has bursts of brilliance but is very problematic. It establishes a society rampant with injustice and poverty, which the second half relies upon us to remember. The second half, while technically raw and not completely free of the first half’s excesses, still delivers a very powerful critique of the first half’s strong-arming tactics (e.g., witness the distancing devices during the band’s estate raid). The last half of the film stands out as a rough jewel and an astute study of political violence. As long as one understands the plot summary from above, a viewer can watch the second half as a self-contained work, but without the exasperating over-emoting and needlessly constricted awareness of the earlier part.
It remains to be asked if there nevertheless might be a successful relationship between the two halves of Black God, White Devil. Could the divergence in style between the two, while not implying a division into two fictional worlds or a change in POV, produce a useful dynamic for the film or facilitate a needed progression? The shift in style brings about a change not only in mood but in wider contexts available to us and in our outlook on what the characters can accomplish by acting together. We have seen that the first half’s stylistic strategies curtail what people may purposefully do. It can be argued that the first half’s content, introducing us to a forsaken populace, may demand a different style than the second half uses. For instance, is a long-shot strategy an effective means for portraying the first half’s subject matter? (Did Rocha fear that lingering on destitution would be misconstrued as mockery of the subject or indeed validating hardship?) Possibly, the purpose of the second half’s “detachment” is incomprehensible without first experiencing “immersion” in the public’s want and distress: for otherwise, how do we know what the revolutionaries are fighting for? Would a camera lying far away from the stage of action be too emotionally remote at the start of the film, where it is crucial to keep the audience interested in what is portrayed? Furthermore, since the first half is delivering a society-wide and at times sprawling picture of human life, it might be contested that the second half, focusing on a small group, has the leisure to frequently step back in the process of allowing us to get to know the characters, while the first half must give us close-up “snap shots” of the people, by necessity abbreviated, if we are to become familiar, no matter how small the degree, with the many people depicted. Some might say that the quest for religious inspiration Manuel undertakes in the first half calls for stylistic fervour, while the political solution he strives for in the second favours cooler calculation. Perhaps Rocha believed that he must first “dissolve” narrative in an overwhelming swirl of disconnected violence before reconstituting a new means of presentation that foregoes assaulting the audience with ploys. Finally, it is possible that Rocha wished to push his film to two opposite extremes of montage-like jolting and long take/long shot analysis for a synthesis between the two to emerge.
Even if “immersion,” “social sprawl,” “fervour” or “dissolution” are needed to prop up the first part, each of them still, in this film, comes at the price of harassing the viewer, or requiring the viewer to undergo a long period of confusion, or both. I think that The Tales of Hoffmann provides an object lesson for how the last defense about first positing and then reconciling extremes succeeds. I have put forth the contention that Black God, White Devil‘s two halves clash with each other with the result that the first section’s choices look dubious. While defenders may insist that the first half’s chaos must sweep away a familiar but repressive and undesirable order for the second half’s concepts to emerge, the fact remains that the first half is not aesthetically satisfactory from the point of view of clarity and encouraging or even allowing for the audience’s critical inspection. Fidelity to a model of history might not be very well suited to a work of art, if too much attention to “process” needlessly detracts from parts cohering and leaving room for critical evaluation. Even so, to accept the analogy for the sake of argument, it may be observed that The Tales of Hoffmann possesses a thesis and antithesis (Acts One and Two) producing a constructive synthesis (Act Three). Act One is the streamlined opposite to Act Two’s rousing frenzy. Each act revolves around Hoffmann pursuing a desired and desirable woman, Olympia (Moira Shearer) and Giulietta (Ludmilla Tchérina) respectively. In Act One, Olympia is conceived as an enticing mechanical toy, and in Act Two Giulietta is envisaged as an extravagantly gesticulating and conniving seductress. Olympia’s coy movements are molded by puppet masters working outside of her physical control, whereas Giulietta’s swirling motions are an effusion of erotic energy coming forth from within her body. The idea of sex in Act One is that it is automated, and the idea of sex in Act Two is that it is riotous. The sets for Act One are spare and clear, led by a brilliant yellow, and the sets for Act Two are voluptuous and dense, cast over by a smoky red. If the imagined habitats of Act One are too vacant to be reasonably lived in, the locales of Act Two are too cluttered to serve the same purpose. Olympia’s appeal is lean, luminous and classical; Giulietta’s is curvy, dusky and romantic. Act Three, featuring another sought after and attractive woman, Antonia (Ann Ayars), combines many traits from Acts One and Two, finding and staking a reasonable middle ground between a strict call to order and heated sensation. The lighting for the act is not dominated by any one colour. The set, depicting Greek colonnades in a fallen state, connotes both rationality and ruin. Antonia expresses passion but through disciplined means, music. Her physical build is fulsome, and her bodily manner is composed. Although this ideal of a happy compromise, along with the other two ideals for women, may be rightly seen as critiqued in a following segment that seems to “feed” each woman’s image into a vortex of reflections (and this obliteration is foreshadowed by Antonia’s fatal illness), it nevertheless may be experienced as a dialectically advanced stage from the polarizing options found between the previous two acts. However, the zest and eroticism of Acts One and Two are not cancelled out, either. The Tales of Hoffmann succeeds both as a rewarding artwork on balance and in its loyalty to an idea of concepts progressing by means of pitting them in conflict.
Black God, White Devil does not appear to offer a synthesis. Its final, beautiful and stirring shot of the sea might imply the beginning of one, or a hope for one, but the film does not develop a further narrative line. Manuel’s most earnest wish, articulated in both parts, has been to make his way to the sea and find freedom there. Perhaps Rocha leaves viewers to imagine for themselves what that outcome could be, turning over the project of making a further story as participatory work for the audience, just as Manuel must make his own destiny. The rolling and powerful sea, at any rate, strongly suggests pulling together the leading contrary characteristics of the two halves because it succinctly and mightily contains both prosaic fact and poetic myth in one travelling aerial shot. If Black God, White Devil‘s whole first half remains unconvincing as a needed venting of discordance, or irksomely noncompliant with that expectation, it cannot be denied its final image wildly, joyously inspires liberty.
- Depicting “before” and “after” periods pivoting on a character’s life-changing event (for instance, preceding and following time served in prison), may be only one, crudely edifying justification for segmenting the narrative, and, if enough causal insinuations from the “before” period for the “after” one are introduced, might end up retaining continuity that we can perceive in the character, anyway.
- Although Hoffmann in the prologue remarks he will recall three tales from his life, these three sections do not function as his flashbacks in the film, but rather display the characteristics of individuated, complete and self-regulating worlds. There is no insinuation that Hoffmann and his page double back to the inn, or that Hoffmann mentally returns to his senses, after each act is completed. Moreover, none of the three episodes are introduced by a flashback device, but by title cards, each set flipped by a hand which, in the absence of an identifiable owner, would seem to be Fate’s. Furthermore, the historic décor and costuming in the acts range across eras from Ancient Greek in the third tale to French Rococo in the first, implying a vast stretch of time that is uncontainable within one person’s lifetime and memory.
- Complicating matters further, the actor Leonide Massine also appears in the three acts, though not identifiably as the same person. Like Helpmann (f), Massine (f) numbers among the pre-existing populations of each space. The fact that two figures recur thus in each successive act, but only one of the them, by our good guess, is the same person―making one of them, then, likely to be a character, and the other no more than a figure―is characteristic of this modern film’s blurring the distinction between fiction and factuality and calling attention to that erasure. Perceiving that one of the two inhabits multiple roles, granting the other has the same single role throughout, and comparing this disparity, brings us to notice the actors, Massine and Helpmann, behind the playing. Furthermore, questioning whether Helpmann is making one representation or several also draws us to pay attention to his status as a film performer. The actress Moira Shearer appears in the prologue/epilogue as Stella and in the first act as Olympia, in a nod to an understanding of Offenbach’s opera that the four women featured in the work represent aspects of the same personality.
- Hoffmann and Helpmann (c) exchange adversarial glances in the shot/reverse shot set-up which ends the prologue, with the latter seeming to gain the emotional upper hand and perhaps acquiring persuasion. Does his aggressive glaring at Hoffmann at this opportune moment, just before the tales begin to be recounted, deposit an unforgettable memory of him in Hoffmann and assure that his presence will be dragged into each of the three stages which Hoffmann recalls? Possibly, the stare-down Hoffmann receives imparts some kind of subjective layer of meaning to the three tales; but see note (2) above.
- Bordwell, David; Staiger, Janet; Thompson, Kristin; The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960; Columbia University Press; 1985; p. 61.
- Corisco’s direct gaze at the camera establishes a familiarity with viewers that allows him to also address us in moments when his eyes near but do not precisely meet the direction of our own. Moreover, he slips easily, and sometimes imperceptibly, between speaking for himself and on behalf of Lampaio in periods of direct address. Rocha challenges the viewer to carefully examine and to accept a degree of doubt for knowing who is speaking to whom, Corisco or Lampaio to the viewer or to fellow characters.
- Johnson, Allen W.; Sharecroppers of the Sertao: Economics and Dependence on a Brazilian Plantation; Stanford University Press; 1971; pp. 4-5.
- Bastide, Roger; Sebba, Helen, translator; The African Religions of Brazil; Johns Hopkins University Press; 1978; p. 18.
- For discussion of this double effect of the fictional and actual worlds encroaching upon each other when direct-address devices occur, see Martin, John Rupert; Baroque; Harper & Row; 1977; pp. 155-174.
- For a compatible reading of the film’s de-emphasis on historical rigour, see Xavier, Ismail, “Black God, White Devil: The Representation of History,” in Brazilian Cinema; Randal Johnson and Robert Stam, (Ed.); Columbia University Press; 1995; pp. 138-139. Xavier detects in the film a “cavalier attitude toward historical data” mounted to sidestep dominant cinema’s seeking “‘legitimacy’ in the illusory transfer of the ‘real’ life of another epoch to the imaginary world of the screen.”
- Interestingly, in the first scene of Antonio das Mortes following its credit sequence, a character recapitulates a momentous event from Black God, White Devil, placing it in a context of preceding political developments; he also stipulates the year, 1938, in which the actions in the film take place, as though to test the holding power of the previous film’s mythology by subjecting it to historical specificity. Antonio das Mortes proceeds to construct and explore the efficacy of its own myth under the burden of, but also co-existing with, more frank historical disclosures, perhaps creating a more stringent examination for myth’s endurance as well as proposing a more uneasy relationship between myth and history.