Some films outlive time. Although their year of production is located in the past, their energy spreads over decades, influencing filmmakers, resurfacing in new artworks, not once abandoning the viewer who had the opportunity to see them. O Bandido da Luz Vermelha (The Red Light Bandit, 1968) is one of those films that, to put it best, never dies. Rogério Sganzerla’s debut feature film, it was impressively made when he was only 21 years old. His pulsating creativity in a context of repression made the film a unique output derived from the counterculture produced amid the authoritarianism of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985). The film seems to propose a diagnosis for a nation in search of itself. Its fragmentary, self-ironic, and mocking structure sheds light on the turmoil of the ‘60s and the congenital issues attached to the formation of modern Brazilian society.

If Cinema Novo emerged with an openly political discourse anchored in social critique and the belief that Third Cinema would be capable of igniting a true social revolution in the country, Cinema Marginal, in turn, adopted another line of argument. In contrast to the baroque and sometimes operatic style of Glauber Rocha in classics such as Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil, 1964), the cinema created by Sganzerla resorts to parody and collage to question the status quo and Brazil’s peripheral position in modern capitalism. This system imposed the mark of underdevelopment on every segment of society, including the audiovisual sector, as Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes brilliantly highlighted in his writings.1 In any case, more important than comparing the strategies of these cinematic movements, at the same time so disparate but so intrinsically related, is realising that they both were part of the same artistic eruption.

Within this context, The Red Light Bandit has commonly been seen as a cinematic translation of the Tropicália movement. Widely known for the musical contribution from Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, Tropicália, which also encompassed performing and visual arts, was a powerful third axis in that specific period of cultural production. In mixing the so-called high and low cultures, pop and erudite elements, the electric guitar and the acoustic guitar, it did not want to waste time with divisions that could hinder achieving the desired modern Brazil. Ironically, theorist Stefan Solomon reminds one that Sganzerla did not see his film as tropicalist, though it is hard to deny that the director was attuned to those aesthetics. He created a film noir, which was also a Third-World western, informed by the cinema of Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard and Glauber Rocha himself, with the music of Luiz Gonzaga and Jimi Hendrix being incorporated in the soundtrack.2 Noteworthy, while it seems to have influenced Sganzerla’s film aesthetics, Caetano has stated that what triggered Tropicália was having watched Terra em Transe (Entranced Earth, 1967), Glauber’s apotheotic film made just after the Armed Forces had taken power.3 

In The Red Light Bandit, Jorge (Paulo Villaça) is a house burglar who wanders around Boca do Lixo, a marginalised region full of drunks and sex workers in the city of São Paulo. “Who am I?” is the first sentence pronounced by Jorge in voice-over. Nevertheless, the film is far from being a psychoanalytic investigation of the character. The question is less of a guiding thread than a starting point for Sganzerla, supported by Sylvio Renoldi’s frenetic editing style, to shatter any possibility of giving contours to the protagonist’s identity. Although not a teleological narrative, the plot advances with the appearance of politician J. B. da Silva (Pagano Sobrinho) and escort Janete Jane (Helena Ignez), but it is really the urban, uncompromising atmosphere that makes the story what it is. If there is a crisis in the off-screen world, the film seeks to mirror that crisis in its own cinematic language. According to Ismail Xavier, the Boca do Lixo scenario is then “structured as an allegorical place of underdevelopment,”4 one that aesthetically encapsulates that mood. 

For Xavier, the protagonist has a voice, he reflects on and challenges reality. Yet, the film is not heading towards redemption; on the contrary, it is embedded into chaos. Inspired by true events, Jorge alludes to João Acácio, a criminal who was indeed around Boca do Lixo at that time. The construction of the main character, however, is not necessarily cohesive – it blends fragments that refer to other sociocultural elements. As one might suppose, it is not the intention of the film to bring these fragments together, but rather render them visible on screen. These fragments can be understood as pieces coming from varied origins prompting the type of intertextual dialogue that interests Sganzerla, as Xavier points out. On the other hand, the idea of a fragment can also refer to waste, rubble, debris, things that broke apart due to the precarious dynamics of the Third World. In this sense, scholar Rodrigo Lopes de Barros relates that sense of catastrophe in the film to a sense of ruination within the Latin American context.5 Alongside Entranced Earth, he examines The Red Light Bandit as an attempt to convey via moving images the imaginary of a convulsive country in the wake of the 1964 coup d’état. Following on from that, I was able to invest in an in-depth theoretical elaboration on Brazilian cinema and the aesthetics of ruins, not coincidentally taking the artistic production of the ‘60s as foundation stone.6 

Fifty-five years after being born, The Red Light Bandit remains alive. Contemporary film production attests to that in different ways. In a more literal fashion, one could consider the release of Luz nas Trevas – A Volta do Bandido da Luz Vermelha (Light in Darkness – The Return of the Red Light Bandit, 2010), a sequel co-directed by Ícaro Martins and Helena Ignez, the actress who played Janete Jane and widow of Sganzerla; but also the radical cinema of filmmakers such as Adirley Queirós, who has already expressed the impact of Cinema Marginal on films like Branco Sai, Preto Fica (White Out, Black In, 2014). The flying saucers that fly over Boca do Lixo at the end of The Red Light Bandit, for instance, seem to reverberate in Queirós’ cinema, one rooted in the science-fiction domain in a very specific manner. “My film is a western about the Third World. That is to say, a fusion and a blending of various genres. I made a somatic film; a western, but also a musical, a documentary, a cop film, a comedy (or is that slap-stick?), and science fiction,” Sganzerla once stated.7 His undefined definition of his own work is actually a never-ending invitation: it keeps welcoming filmmakers, spectators, and researchers to try to capture what apparently cannot be captured.

The Red Light Bandit (1968 Brazil 92 minutes)

Prod: José da Costa Cordeiro, José Alberto Reis and Rogério Sganzerla Dir: Rogério Sganzerla Scr: Rogério Sganzerla Phot: Peter Overback Ed: Sylvio Renoldi

Cast: Paulo Villaça, Helena Ignez, Sérgio Hingst, Pagano Sobrinho, Sergio Mamberti, Luiz Linhares, Sonia Braga, Ítala Nandi, Renato Consorte, Antonio Lima, Maurice Copovilla, Ozualdo Candeias, Roberto Luna, José Marinho, Carlos Reichenbach, Marie Caroline Whitaker, Renata Souza Dantas, Ezequiel Neves, Lola Brah


  1. Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes, Cinema: Trajetória no Subdesenvolvimento (São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1996).
  2. Stefan Solomon, ed, Tropicália and Beyond: Dialogues in Brazilian Film History (Berlin: Archive Books, 2017).
  3. Caetano Veloso, Verdade Tropical (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2017).
  4. Ismail Xavier, Alegorias do Subdesenvolvimento: Cinema Novo, Tropicalismo, Cinema Marginal (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2012), p. 186.
  5. Rodrigo Lopes de Barros, The Artist Among Ruins: Connecting Catastrophes in Brazilian and Cuban Cinema, Painting, Sculpture and Literature (Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas, 2013).
  6. Guilherme Carréra, Brazilian Cinema and the Aesthetics of Ruins (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).
  7. Rogério Sganzerla, “Outlaw Cinema” in Tropicália and Beyond: Dialogues in Brazilian Film History, Stefan Solomon, ed. (Berlin: Archive Books, 2017), p. 81.

About The Author

Guilherme Carréra is a film researcher and curator. He holds a PhD in Film awarded by the University of Westminster (CAPES Foundation). Carréra is the author of Brazilian Cinema and the Aesthetics of Ruins (Bloomsbury Academic), winner of the Association of Moving Image Researchers Prize (AIM, Portugal) and the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies Prize (BAFTSS, United Kingdom).

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