Assalto ao trem pagador (Assault on the Pay Train, 1962) was directed by Roberto Farias, produced by Herbert Richers and is a dramatisation of the Central do Brasil pay train robbery that occurred just outside of the Japeri train station in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro in 1960. Sebastião de Souza, also known as Tião Medonho, and his crew robbed approximately 27 million cruzeiros in the heist. These historical dimensions figured prominently in the film’s publicity and critical reception, both at the time of release and in the contemporary scholarship.1 When Assalto ao trem pagador was originally screened, it was on the cusp of two dominant film movements in Brazil: the Chanchadas and Cinema Novo. Chanchadas were musical comedies that began as readymade Hollywood templates transposed to the Brazilian context. The Chanchada dominated Brazil’s silver screens from the 1930s through to the end of the 1950s, honing a more parodic edge in the genre’s later years.2 Assalto ao trem pagador reproduces many of the basic Chanchada conventions through its linear narrative, use of static or mounted rather than handheld cameras, and its traditional editing techniques.

At the same time, Assalto ao trem pagador also contains some of the hallmarks that have come to be associated with Cinema Novo. The early 1960s saw the release of the inaugural works of Cinema Novo, a movement that has overwhelmingly come to define Brazilian cinema. Carlos Diegues has called 1962 “the year of Cinema Novo”.3 It was also the year that Farias released Assalto ao trem pagador. The films of Cinema Novo were preoccupied with Brazil’s social and economic disparities. The directors of the movement, such as Glauber Rocha, Carlos (Cacá) Diegues, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, sought to convey the violence and brutality brought on by hunger and poverty. In 1965, Glauber Rocha called this an estética da fome (aesthetics of hunger). Farias’ film, however, foregoes many of the neorealist, bare-bones filming and experimental editing techniques associated with Cinema Novo. Rather, in Assalto ao trem pagador, we find a crime narrative with elements of social and political criticism that looks towards Cinema Novo but retains much of the linear narrative and film form of the Chanchada. 

In many Cinema Novo films male protagonists fight for social justice. These films present masculine power as foundational to their protagonists’ struggles.4 Nonetheless, despite Cinema Novo’s attempts to denounce social and political violence, many of its films ultimately reiterate Brazil’s “authoritarian character” through their construction of masculinity.5 This is also the case in Assalto ao trem pagador. Although the film tells the story of a bandit with a social conscience, it assumes a much more conservative tone when read through the lens of gender and racial archetypes within Brazilian narrative cinema. 

Film critic João Carlos Rodrigues has argued that Assalto ao trem pagador offers a “realist” representation of the “Favelados na mais completa marginalidade e revolta – assaltantes, assassinos, alcóolatras e delatores” (“Favela dwellers in the most complete marginality and revolt – robbers, murderers, alcoholics, and snitches”).6 Rodrigues’ evaluation of the representation of the favelados as realist is problematic because it pigeonholes the Afro-Brazilian male into a number of archetypes. As such, the film silences any representation of Afro-Brazilian male characters that move beyond these archetypes.

In Assalto ao trem pagador, there are three main protagonists: Tião Medonho (Eliezer Gomes) who, with Grillo (Reginaldo Faria) heads a criminal crew; and a white police commissioner (Jorge Dória) who is hot on the gang’s trail. Tião is a towering Afro-Brazilian man who enforces the rules with an iron fist within both the crew and the wider favela community. In the process, Tião assumes a Robin Hood-like presence, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, and distributing food and goods to the community. At the same time, he is represented as a flawed human being who cheats on his wife with another woman and employs violence to guarantee his stature and control in the favela. The second in command, Grillo, has, in his own words, “the face of a rich man, blond with blue eyes”. He is a playboy, given to vice and propelled by a desire to become part of Rio de Janeiro’s white, elite Zona Sul. He spends his cut of the stolen money lavishly, buying a convertible automobile and frequenting the Zona Sul neighbourhood. Grillo’s consumption habits betray the crew’s agreement to not spend more than ten percent of their stolen money annually, since they do not want to raise the suspicions of the authorities. At the outset, the police believe an international gang is responsible for the train heist. However, as the crew members spend their money, snitch and betray one another, the commissioner stitches together the truth that local outlaws from the favela were responsible.  

The triangulation of tensions between the three male protagonists is a central driving force of the film. Initially, Tião’s use of violence to redistribute wealth conveys the idea that the authoritarian male is capable of effecting social change in the favela. Nonetheless, Tião’s ultimate capture and death suggest the denial of the Afro-Brazilian male’s agency to change Brazilian society. On the other hand, Grillo has no interest in social change. He expects that his whiteness, extreme individualism (think Émile Durkheim), and the untethered consumption that the robbery affords should give him access to the privilege of the Zona Sul. The privileged class in the film do indeed accept him. Ultimately, it is Tião who kills Grillo for betraying the crew’s pact and the homosocial order. While Assalto ao trem pagador initially offers a criticism of Brazil’s social and economic disparities, it inevitably reasserts the dominant society’s social and political mores by killing off the bandits and imposing the law of state embodied in figure of the police commissioner.

 Assalto ao trem pagador is a work that sets the stage for a long list of contemporary films and television programs that typecast the favela and the Afro-Brazilian male. A film such as Cidade de Deus (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002) relies upon the narrative foundations of Assalto ao trem pagador. Cidade de Deus’ teleological narrative deploys an archetype similar to Tião – the bandit with a social conscience – to naturalise the transformation of such a character along with the entire space of the favela into a terrain of savage masculinity, lawlessness, and indiscriminate violence.

Assalto ao trem pagador/Assault on the Pay Train (1962 Brazil 102 mins)

Prod Co: Produções Cinematográficas Herbert Richers Prod: Herbert Richers, Roberto Farias Dir: Roberto Farias Scr: Roberto Farias, based on the story by Alinor Azevedo and Luiz Carlos Barreto Phot: Amleto Daissé Ed: Rafael Justo Valverde Mus: Remo Usai

Cast: Eliezer Gomes, Reginaldo Faria, Jorge Dória, Átila Iório, Ruth de Souza, Helena Ignez


  1. See, for example, Jairo Carvalho do Nascimento and Genilson Ferreira da Silva, “Cinema, história e educação: racismo e ensino de História em O Assalto ao Trem Pagador”, Em Tempo de Histórias, 37 (July-December 2020): 97-122.
  2. See Lisa Shaw, “The Brazilian Chanchada and Hollywood Paradigms (1930-1959)”, Framework 44.1 (Spring 2003): 70-83.
  3. See Carlos Diegues, “Cinema Novo”, Brazilian Cinema, ed. Randall Johnson and Robert Stam, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 66.
  4. See Jeremy Lehnen, Neo-Authoritarian Masculinity in Brazilian Crime Film (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2022).
  5. See Roberto Da Matta, Carnavais, malandros e heróis: para uma sociologia do dilema brasileiro (Zahar, 1979); Marilena de Souza Chauí, Brasil: Mito fundador e sociedade autoritária (Fundação Perseu Abramo, 2000).
  6. João Carlos Rodrigues, “Arquetipos e caricaturas do negro no cinema brasilero”, Cinémas d’Amérique latine, 15 (2007): 13.

About The Author

Jeremy Lehnen is the associate director of Center for Language Studies and director of the the Watson Institute’s Brazil Initiative at Brown U. He is the executive editor of the Journal of Lusphone Studies and the president of the American Portuguese Studies Association. His book Neo-Authoritarian Masculinity in Brazilian Crime Film (2022) was published with University Press of Florida. His primary research interests broach questions of gender and sexuality in contemporary Latin American cinema.

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