Cinema Novo, Brazil’s politically minded 1960s New Wave, is often discussed as a Rio de Janeiro movement, but there was also a rich scene in the early ’60s in Glauber Rocha’s home state of Bahia. Rocha himself as a critic, filmmaker and general cultural agitator was at the centre of the Bahia scene, with the help of producers Braga Netto and Rex Schindler, who allowed many talented filmmakers and actors early breaks. Beyond Rocha, no one was more central than Roberto Pires, a true pioneer who directed four features between 1959 and 1963: Redenção (Redemption, 1959), A Grande Feira (1961), Tocaia no Asfalto (1962) and the unfortunately lost Crime no Socopã (1963) before moving to Rio late in the decade.

 Rocha himself recognized Pires’s centrality in his book Revisão Critica do Cinema Brasileiro: “Roberto Pires invented cinema in Bahia. I believe he would have invented movie cameras if, by chance, at the age of eleven, he hadn’t been handed a deficient 16mm machine”.1 He did not invent a movie camera, but this self-taught filmmaker did invent his own Cinemascope lens when American producers refused to rent him one for his first feature, Redenção. This episode reveals a lot about Pires’s artistic inclinations: he loved American movies and the idea of spectacle; his work was intended less as an opposition to popular foreign cinema than an attempt to find ways to make it Brazilian. He was especially partial towards crime movies, and his early Bahia work always returns to the theme in one form or another: Redenção is a crime and punishment film noir, A Grande Feira shows a cross-section of society around Salvador’s central market with an inevitable violent payoff, Tocaia no Asfalto is a hitman movie, and Crime no Socopã a true-crime tale.

 Among those movies, Tocaia no Asfalto is certainly the richest and shows Pires most in control of his formal strengths. It is a bifurcated tale about two young men who represent different answers to the limitations of Brazil’s populist politics at the time. Rufino (Agildo Ribeiro) comes from the northeast backwoods and, out of a western vendetta, has taken the law into his own hands and now makes his living as a gun for hire. Ciro (Geraldo Del Rey) is a son of the local upper-middle class, out of law school and now a state congressman attacking the old local leaders. He is a typical reformist who talks big, but is still part of the same establishment. Ciro’s favourite target is also Rufino’s new contract, and the movie makes clear how the cyclical nature of local politics makes any renewal impossible.

 Rocha was very critical of Pires for failing to imagine a more radical answer. Pires would be too defeatist, as a good devotee of film noir’s fatalism, and Ciro’s politics were too bland and close to the typical centre-right reformism of the period. There’s some truth to seeing the movie purely as a political instrument for change, but as a tougher look at the texture of the time, it is another matter. Ciro is certainly a very frustrating character, but a believable one, and the movie fruitfully contrasts his talky, very rhetorical scenes – he is a man who loves his own voice and performing politics – with the harsher scenes featuring Rufino, who has a more defined appointment with death. Jean-Claude Bernardet’s Brasil em Tempo de Cinema (1967), the first critical study of Cinema Novo, identifies a tendency in movies by young filmmakers of the time where characters who are structurally middle class seem to internalise the country’s social abyss, but remain split on themselves and so unable to act.2 Ciro seems like a model of such figures and, curiously, a forerunner to Paulo Martins, the journalist in what is arguably Cinema Novo’s masterpiece, Rocha’s Terra em Transe (Entranced Earth, 1967).

 There’s a nightmarish, oppressive quality to Tocaia no Asfalto. The writing suggests a western, while the images are pure film noir. It is very atmospheric, a combination of stylish black and white cinematography and a grounded feel for the place. Religion hangs over the action: Rufino’s hit is set to happen on sacred ground, and while he has no problem breaking men’s laws, God’s is another matter. The movie offers its credentials in its wonderful opening scene: Rufino arrives at a bar at night to confront the man he has long been after. He starts small talk, manages to convince the man to allow him to test his gun, does target practice in a bottle at another table, and then identifies himself before putting a bullet right between the guy’s eyes. Credits roll, and Rufino is now set on a life of crime. As the movie develops, we understand this scene is not just a great calling card, but introduces how Rufino is trapped in a cycle of violent retribution so common in Brazil; the official politics in which he gets involved are just a more “respectable” version of this same violence.

 Tocaia no Asfalto belongs to a cycle of crime movies from the early 1960s: Ruy Guerra’s hustler drama Os Cafajestes (The Unscrupulous Ones, 1962), Alberto Pieralisi’s Mabusian science-fiction thriller O Quinto Poder (The Fifth Power, 1962), Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Rashomon-like gangster film Boca de Ouro (Golden Mouth, 1963), Paulo Cezar Saraceni’s marital assassination drama Porto das Caixas (1963), and, a little more straightforward in their political intents, Roberto Farias’s – Pires’s Rio de Janeiro counterpart in many ways – two true-crime movies, the gangster film Cidade Ameaçada (1960) and the heist movie Assalto ao Trem Pagador (Assault on the Pay Train, 1962). These works are paranoid and dispiriting, their malaise often gives way to hopeless violence. There’s a strong conspiratorial atmosphere, even if the characters seem barely aware of it; everyone seems perpetually ready to get crushed. They represent an imagination of disaster at the verge of the 1964 military coup,3 a preoccupation with describing the psychological mood of local society. This existed beyond the interests of an engaged critic and filmmaker like Rocha (or, for that matter, the well-meaning paternalism that most of these filmmakers, including Pires, often suggested), who instead focused on the roots of the wealth distribution problems of the time.

 Tocaia no Asfalto is animated by the push and pull between its waiting game, Ciro’s political performance, and Rufino’s momentum towards violence. When things slow down, there’s the late arrival of Antonio Pitanga as another far more professional hitman, an actor with a charismatic smile and very active body language. Pitanga was the most dynamic performer involved with Cinema Novo, always ready to add unpredictability to the procedural. In Tocaia no Asfalto, he offers a sudden jolt of pulp energy that plays against the disarming simplicity of Ribeiro’s portrayal and the more self-aware turn by Del Rey. The movie takes on extra immediacy as the religious and political struggles of the characters are put into action. Pires’s earlier A Grande Feira climaxed with a failed act of political terrorism, while Tocaia no Asfalto does so with a meaningless one. What makes Tocaia no Asfalto stand out in the end is how Pires and his collaborators use the efficient engines of the thriller along with the political machinery that sustains itself at the periphery of the characters. They are both merciless and, as the opening suggested, offer nobody an escape.

Tocaia no Asfalto (1962 Roberto Pires 101 mins)

Prod: Glauber Rocha, Rex Schindler, David Singer Dir: Roberto Pires Scr: Roberto Pires Phot: Hélio Silva Ed: Roberto Pires Prod Des: Jose Teixeira De Araujo Mus: Remo Usai

Cast: Agildo Ribeiro, Arassary de Oliveira, Adriano Lisboa, Geraldo Del Rey, Angela Bonatti


  1. Glauber Rocha, Revisão Crítica do Cinema Novo (São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2003), p. 155.
  2. Jean-Claude Bernardet, Brasil em Tempo de Cinema (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1967), p. 7-10.
  3. The 1964 coup was a very slow gestating process. Left-leaning President João Goulart faced increasingly loud opposition from media, businessmen, law enforcement and the Catholic middle class before being deposed. Crime became a major point of dispute through which the social convulsion was often filtered.

About The Author

Filipe Furtado is currently one of the editors of Abismu and has previously edited Cinética and Paisa. His writing has appeared in places like Contracampo, Filme Cultura, Folha de São Paulo, La Furia Umana, Outskirts and Rouge. He also keeps the blog Anotações de um Cinéfilo.

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