Black God, White Devil (Deus e o diabo na terra do sol)

Black God, White Devil

…It was the hand of God that led me to the Devil.

Glauber Rocha has two films on the list, which to me is quite an achievement from a director I’d never heard of before. After seeing his later film Earth Entranced, I wasn’t fully convinced that he was a director I had needed to know about, though I recognized his importance for his native country of Brazil. now, having seen his earlier work, Black God, White Devil, I’m still not convinced, but I can understand why he made it; this was definitely an experience that I likely have never had before, at least in the way it was presented to me. It was just making out what was happening at any given moment that was the problem for me.

I’ll try and start with the plot. From what I was able to gather, it starts with ranch-hand Manuel, who lives with his wife Rosa, and works for a rather surly and abrupt boss tending to cattle. After an argument with his boss, Manuel ends up killing the man, and he and Rosa decide to flee, during which Manuel gets caught up as a follower of a messianic preacher named Sebastian… and that’s where the film lost me. It began to jump between various scenes, with no connectivity between them, and then acting like the story had naturally progressed to each point. Within 10 to 15 minutes of where I was able to follow, we were now with two other characters, whom I had no idea who they were, discussing the prophet Sebastian and how he needed to be stopped, and I had no idea how we got there. Also, Manuel was now a devoted follower of Sebastian, and I had no idea why; there was no development of their relationship, just… BAM: devoted follower. It was like the film’s plot, where contact with the ground is what we see on the screen, was walking along normally, until it fell off a cliff, and only intermittently when the plot would bounce off the cliff face as it plummeted would we get a scene here and there. It was an incredibly disjointed and frustrating way to watch a film, and right when I thought I had found my footing again, we would end up switching to something else, apparently just to keep me hovering on the line of confusion. Now, for all I’ve said decrying how the film tells its plot, there was actually quite a bit I found to like about this one. First off, the cinematography. Man, is this one chiaroscuro. The film looks deliberately oversaturated, so the blacks are rather black, but the whites are absolutely piercing, scarring the image with their brightness. It gives the feeling of the sun at high noon, searing and baking everything beneath it into a barren wasteland, through which these people desperately try to survive, and cling to whatever comes along that promises an easier way of life, and that is what I believe the film is really about. Also, and I can’t believe I’m about to say the following words, but I actually liked the overdubbing done in this film; there were a few spots where it wasn’t perfect, but on the whole it was well done.

I made no mention of a few other aspects of the film, like the acting (which, while it worked some of the time, was oddly overblown at other moments, to the point that I wanted to chuckle, even though I could tell the actors were trying their best) or the score (which was often as variable as the film’s plot seemed to be), partly because that last paragraph ended up being a little long, but mostly because as the film went on, I cared less and less about it. If the film was going to be so aimless in its selection of scenes and story, then why should I give a damn about any of the characters or what happens to them, especially since I rarely knew where they were at any given time? Now, that being said, even with the plot being as disjointed as it was, I was surprisingly able to pick up on what the film ultimately wanted to say (or at least I think): that Manuel, and by extension Rosa, needed to follow their own path instead of hopping as followers from one messianic figure to another. As for what this has to do with Brazilian history, which the Book made a big deal about Rocha’s films being largely influenced by, I unfortunately was in the dark about, and the film didn’t really do all that good a job of conveying that to me, but to be honest, from past experiences, I wasn’t all that concerned with trying to pick up on the metaphors and subtext of foreign histories that I know nothing about. This will likely do a good deal toward Brazilians (and perhaps other South Americans) who have yet to see it, but anyone from English-speaking countries will probably only end up getting half an experience with this one. Still, though, I liked the cinematography more than anything, so I gave it an extra point or so for that at least.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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