Issue 3/2005 - Hoffnung Südamerika?

Avenida Glauber Rocha

New discoveries and rediscoveries in the work of the Brazilian filmmaker

Peter Friedl

It does actually exist, the Avenida Glauber Rocha, but even the taxi drivers in Salvador da Bahia don’t know it. Up until a few years ago, there were only cocoa trees there. It doesn’t look like a main road: you can see straightaway where it starts and where it ends. There is now a monument on a small traffic island, and a bronze plaque commemorates the filmmaker from Bahia (1939-1981), the »legitimate representative of Cinema Novo in the world.» Glauber Rocha had started, as a young cineaste, to write about films and make some of his own here in the fifties. He and Gustavo Dahl, Carlos Diegues, Ruy Guerra, Leon Hirszman, Nelson Pereira dos Santos and Paulo César Saraceni began a critical revision of Brazilian cinema. »Barravento« (1961) was a manifesto even in its casting: it was something new for Afro-Brazilians to dominate in a film that was not set during Carnival.

Even parts of his last big film, for which he was unable to find money anywhere for years, were made in Salvador. The first screening of »A Idade da Terra« (The Age of the Earth) in 1980 at the Venice film festival ended in a real scandal. The film and its maker came under violent attack from the critics, especially Italian ones. Glauber Rocha defended himself in his way. He polemicised against Hollywood and US imperialism, insulted the jury and prize winners, particularly Louis Malle, who had received the Golden Lion for »Atlantic City«, and organised a protest action at the Lido. His film, a 160-minute-long vision of cinema as an audiovisual art as metatheatre of discontinuities did not seem to fit any era. Even Pasolini was already dead. His Christ is the addressee of the long meditative sequence in which »A Idade da Terra« almost stands still and Glauba Rocha speaks from off-screen, somewhere between the Third World and the desert, about the real crucifixion of the developing world.

In Serge Daney’s obituary in the »Libération« of 24 August 1981, we can read that »the best-known – and, doubtless, greatest – filmmaker of Brazil« had vanished somewhat into oblivion. In the cineastic debate of the seventies, Rocha’s revolts were no longer a utopian goal of desire, which meant his working conditions were made more difficult in many ways. This was counterbalanced by his manic and continual media presence in Brazil, to which he had returned in 1976 after several years travelling over half the globe. For four years he wrote and published incessantly in various daily newspapers and magazines, gave countless interviews, poked his nose into everything, invented a peculiar orthography to attract attention, and republished his old articles in book form. 1 In addition, in 1979 he hosted »Abertura« for the television service TV Tupi, where he translated experiences from his projects done in exile – for example, for RAI in Italy – into the newer format. 2 It was the time when the opening up of the military regime, which he had prophesied in a provocative and ambiguous manner as far back as 1974, was finally to occur along with a large-scale political amnesty. Large numbers of exiles returned to Brazil, including Hélio Oiticica. The state film company, Embrafilme, founded in 1969, secured the financing of »A Idade da Terra«, in Cinemascope. The short film »Di« was also made, an act of anthropophagy towards Brazil’s own modernism and its social rituals. One morning, Rocha heard of the death of the painter Emiliano Di Cavalcanti in Rio de Janeiro, and reacted with the methods of Cinéma direct. Even today, the film cannot be shown publicly in Brazil owing to court injunctions instigated by Di Calvacanti’s family.

So what does marginalisation mean in the case of Glauber Rocha? He never stopped asking the question that - as Daney correctly feared at the time – had already become obsolete: what should cinema look like that owed nothing to the USA? Looking back, it seems as if, around 1980, this interested no one any more as an aesthetic AND political question, as it had done only a decade earlier. »Apocalypse Now«, Hollywood’s neo-colonial avant-garde project, was being shown in the cinemas, a film that heralded a new era of the exploitation of history through images. Nothing would have changed in this regard if Coppola, as originally planned, had filmed in Cuba instead of the Philippines. The parallel world of art looked forward to a decade of the dealers and became identical with the art market. Hélio Oiticica, the other charismatic figure in the Brazilian cultural sphere, returned from New York to Rio, where he was to die two years later. If one ignores the structural differences between the worlds of film and art at the time, the artistic development of Rocha and Oiticica displays some obvious parallels. However, the differences are perhaps more interesting because of their consequences. As far as coincidences are concerned, it is impossible to disregard the »Tropicalismo« of 1967 – Brazil’s second modernism against a background of military dictatorship and an incipient economic miracle. At the exhibition »Nova objetividade brasileira« in the Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, Oiticica showed his environment »Tropicália« for the first time. In José Celso’s Teatro Oficina in São Paulo, the premiere of the rediscovered drama »O Rei da Vela« by Oswald de Andrade was celebrated. Caetano Veloso wrote »Alegria, alegria«. And Glauber Rocha became internationally known with his brilliant and masochistic film »Terra em Transe« (Land in Trance). In an article for the »Cahiers du cinema«, he outlined a programme for a guerrilla cinema of the developing world, claiming Godard for the cause as well. 3 Oiticica described his project, in the form of »organic« favela architecture that has made its way from the »morro« into the museum, as »super-antropofagia« 4 – an operation that was extreme in the context of Brazilian modernism, but firmly anchored in the tradition of avant-garde movements and their contradictions. It was about friendship in Mangueira, anti-art (»Parangolé«), aesthetic transfer, participation, but had less to do with the deconstruction of institutional frameworks or practices in the artistic world and cultural industry, where the social mythos of the »mutirão« (collective construction of favela shanties) quickly suffers an identity crisis and becomes an icon. After all, the favela diary by Carolina Maria de Jesus, published in 1960, turned into a real best-seller. When Oiticica was living in New York from 1970 on his Guggenheim grant, the dialectics of pop and avant-garde became important. There, too, the cannibals lie in wait: one day, the King of Pop in the form of Michael Jackson will come to the favela Santa Marta to make the music video »They Don’t Care About Us«. Three decades after their conception, the clandestine New York »quasi-cinemas« are cleansed trophies of the art industry. Oiticica’s works have arrived in the circular normality of the spectacle. 5 In Glabuer Rocha’s 16-mm film »Câncer«, we see a slightly different side to Oiticica as in the photos where he is rehearsing samba. The shooting in Rio in the Brazilian winter of 1968 took only four days. It involved the actors and non-actors improvising in front of the running camera on topics like unemployment, violence, drugs, relationship crises and police. One of them is Oiticica, who prefers to remain as uninvolved and awkward as possible. It looks like a typical performance born of embarrassment, in complicity with the camera; if you like: a small introduction to the artist’s added value. (I could however just as well write about the »more professional« performance of Rocha actors and actresses like Odete Lara or Antônio Pitanga.) From the point of view of film aesthetics, it was also a reaction to what the next generation, critical of Cinema Novo, was interested in: directors like Rogério Sganzerla, who had just brought out »O Bandido da Luz Vermelha« (The Red-Light Bandit), or Júlio Bressane. It not until four years later, in Rome, that »Câncer« could be given final editing and broadcast on Italian television.
The short film »1968«, which was never used, was made around the same time. It is a completely silent rendezvous with contemporary history. Rocha and his cameraman Afonso Beato film a large demonstration in the centre of Rio: the people on the streets and public squares. The hard phase of the military dictatorship is imminent. With the 5th Institutional Act (AI-5) of December 13, a coup within a coup, civil rights are abolished. The leaden years of the Medici regime begin.
With the success of his first colour film, »O Dragão da Maldade Contra o Santo Guerreiro« (Antonônio das Mortes), in Cannes in 1969, Glauber Rocha became, in the eyes of cinephiles, a revolutionary filmmaker responsible for Third-World matters. Rocha’s guest appearance in »Le Vent d’Est«, the Italo-Western by the group Dziga Vertov, which included Godard and Gorin plus Cohn-Bendit, can be interpreted as staged subversive marginality. But who is being staged here by whom? The scene is as ambivalent as it is revealing. Partly a moody sphinx, partly Cristo from Corcovado, Rocha stands at a crossroads, sings »Divino, Marvilhoso« by Gaetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil (and Gal Costa) and grumbles, in Portuguese, about political cinema. The episode has left its traces in some of his texts aiming at differentiation and dissociation. For Godard, Rocha laconically notes, cinema is finished; for filmmakers in the Third World it is just beginning. »Godard & Co. are above zero. We are below zero.« 6

In the case of Glauber Rocha, canonisation would have meant continuing to make films like »Antonio das Mortes«, becoming a specialist for bloody, allegorical political Westerns from the sertão region. Instead, he became a nomad. For example, in the then Congo-Brazzaville, he made »Der Leone have Sept Cabeças«, a film theory about colonialism – the multi-lingual, eccentric title names the European colonial powers in Africa – and at the same time a review of political cinema of the sixties, in Rocha’s metaphorical universe a dialogue with the master colonisers Eisenstein, Brecht and Godard. In a lecture at Columbia University in January 1971, he supplements his manifesto »Aesthetic of Hunger« (1965), an aesthetic of revolutionary force redolent of Frantz Fanon, with an »Aesthetic of the Dream«, in which the sentence occurs: »The people is the mythos of the bourgeoisie.« 7

»Câncer« or »Claro« (1975) function like underground films the way Rocha saw them in contrast with the »formalistic« US underground. He filmed on Super 8 in Morocco, and started the project of a history of Brazil as a visual essay in Cuba, together with Marco Medeiros. »História do Brasil« (1972-74) is a narrative marathon: four hundred years of history, beginning with the Portuguese »discoverer« Pedro Alvares Cabral and going up to the military dictatorship, are related from a more or less Marxist point of view. The visual material in it comes almost completely from the history of Brazilian cinema, from films that were available at the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). The images transport their stories at different levels of time and identity. Rocha called his procedure »nuclear montage«.
For Italian television he organised a mysterious joint project called »Tatu Bol«. During the Carnation Revolution in April 1974, Rocha was taking part in the production of »As Armas e o Povo« (Arms and the People) in Lisbon, a project run by a Portuguese film collective. He went directly to people on the streets and asked them about their opinion of the revolution.
As in the case of Godard, Pasolini, Rossellini and Straub/Huillet, there is, in Daney’s sense, a »Glauber Rocha pedagogy«. Seen from today’s point of view, its syntheticised ideograms lend themselves to answering many questions (when was the »post-colonial era?« and cinematic fantasies. In the somewhat half-hearted correction of the philosophical cinema paradigm of the First World that Gilles Deleuze undertakes in »The Time-Image«, one finds the information that, in Rocha’s films, there is »a destruction of myths from the inside«. 8 One only needs to recall the landing of Dom Porfiro Diaz, the reactionary politician, in Eldorado in »Terra em Transe – the »unofficial« representation and destruction of a national founding myth. 9 The cinematic objective was however not just the Third-World »invention of a people«, but the invention of a new aesthetic, whose location became increasingly difficult in the seventies. But Rocha takes recourse to already existent media images much less than other filmmakers: When, in »Claro«, he inserts a newspaper article about an attack by the Red Brigades or a »Time« title page with the posthumous victor Ho Chi Minh, it is an exception. He operates with and in front of the camera. As it were the most natural thing in the world, he shows, accompanied by Juliet Berto, Pasolini’s sub-proletariat on the fringes of Rome in the long closing sequence of this film, using as a soundtrack the musical timeline of the Afro-Brazilian samba de roda.
They occur frequently, these provocatively long, unedited sequence shot and slow pan shots. The camera is mobile, but never hysterical; it observes, studies, seeks. It trusts to a historically connected, epic dramaturgy. »A Idade da Terra«, a film with breathtaking takes – that is, well thought-out takes from the pre-digital era -, is, among other things, an endeavour to address the problem of verticality in cinema.
Keeping films alive is an undertaking that is as laborious as it is expensive. Martin Scorcese, the lord of the films, tried it by having »Terra em Transe« newly subtitled and shown in Los Angeles, Washington and Berkely for the tenth anniversary of Rocha’s death. In the Scorsese fanzine issue of »Cahiers du cinema« in March 1996, one finds his homage, with »Antônio das Mortes« as his therapeutic favourite film. Not really a substitue for the »America Nuestra« project that Glauber Rocha worked on from the sixties. When the actor Patrick Bauchau was in Portugal to shoot Wenders’ »The State of Things« in the spring of 1981, he filmed the sick, philosophising film director on video. The film is called »Sintra is a beautiful place to die«. In it, Rocha says: »Che Guevara died at 38 … I am 42. On average, a man in Latin America reaches the age of 27.«


Translated by Timothy Jones


1 Glauber Rocha, Revolução do Cinema Novo, Rio de Janeiro 1981; O século do cinema, Rio de Janeiro 1985. Both these books, and Revisão critica do cinema brasileiro (1963), have recently been reissued.
2 See Regina Mota, A épica eletrônica de Glauber: Um estudo sobre cinema e TV, Belo Horizonte 2001.
3 Glauber Rocha, »Tricontinental«. In Glauber Rocha, Revolução do Cinema Novo, São Paulo 2004, p. 104-109.
4 See Paola Berenstein Jacques, Estética da ginga: A arquitetura das favelas através da obra de Hélio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro 2001.
5 For example, in the exhibition »Hélio Oiticica: Quasi-cinemas (including works in collaboration with Neville D’Almeida)«, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (26 July to 13 October 2002); or »Organized Delirium: New York 1970-1978«, Galerie Lelong, New York (10 December 2004 to 22 Januar 2005).
6 Quoted from the French version, »Le dernier scandale de Godard«, in Sylvie Pierre, Glauber Rocha, Paris 1987, p. 174.
7 Glauber Rocha, »Eztetyka do sonho«, in Revolução do Cinema Novo, p. 250.
8 Gilles Deleuze, Das Zeit-Bild. Kino 2, Frankfurt am Main 1997, p. 285.
9 See Robert Stam, Tropical Multiculturalism: A Comparative History of Race in Brazilian Cinema and Culture, Durham/London 1997, p. 7-10.