16 January 2006 | dan-1583
The John Ford of Brazil? Perhaps...
This is a very good film that tries to do something deceptively difficult. As a result, it may tend to be judged wanting by those looking for an historical recreation of a period not much known outside Brazil.
Carlos Diegues tries to convey something of the roots of the cultural collision that is Brazil. Think of it: you are a slave that has freed themselves from your bondage, but home is thousands of miles away, and no serious possibility of return exists. The choice is to make a new life out of what is before you, in the context of your belief systems, music and language that belong to the inaccessible mother country. What do you do? In the backwoods, the slave colony or Quilombo called Palmares is something between myth and promise.
Rather than focus on the practical struggles and a realist approach, Diegues takes a theatrical, even operatic approach. One reviewer dismissed the music, which is by Gilberto Gil, one of Brazil's greatest pop musicians, and a major force in the defining of afrobrazilian identity in Brazil since the sixties, not to mention Brazil's Minister of Culture as of this writing, calling it cheesy disco. It's true that to anyone who comes to this movie without any awareness of Brazilian attitudes to culture, and particularly the eclecticism of the tropicalia movement that Gil helped form, the anachronism of the terrific samba might seem mystifying. But it is worth saying that the rock and disco soundtrack of A Knight's Tale, led no-one to assume that the director was naive. Here, Brazil anticipates that cleverness by a decade, and uses it to make a point about the continuity and importance of African rhythm in Brazilian culture.
The film has also to be seen in the context of the brutal dictatorship that ruled Brazil until 1985, just one year after the film was made: the obvious commentary on the regime, and the danger of open criticism necessitated the theatricality and probably discouraged realism as a narrative approach in a film that tells the story of violent and brutal masters, and people who want only to be free.
Many cultures find it hard to accept that other cultures share sophistication with them, and in part this movie as about creating a history of the transfer of black African culture from Africa to the Americas. This in not presented as a primitive or 'atavistic' enterprise, but as an enormously inventive and creative period. The institution of slavery, which lasted longer in Brazil than most colonies, created myths of inferiority that are too familiar, and still lead too often to assumptions about black culture. This movie is about stating the opposite. Of course, life in the wild west wasn't really the way John Ford depicted it, and this is in the same spirit of mythologizing and celebrating, of inventing a past to replace the other fictions that also pass for history.
The depictions of the interaction of the Orixas with the protagonists is startling, as is the appearance of the dead. Watch for the great sequence when Xango first is seen to enter Ganga Zumbi, a sequence with overtones of the modern practice of Candomblé, Brazil's second religion, and the syncretic creation of the freed afrobrazilians. The use of colour, both in the body painting and sets, and the lighting is clever, beautiful and disciplined, and conveys something important about the difference in consciousness of the Portuguese masters and their oppressed slaves. Diegues manages to move smoothly from near-realism to utter artifice throughout, but most wonderfully in these sequences.
That said, and without softening the recommendation, this film is a product of its time and place. It just happens to be a time and place not tied to the banal conventions that mainstream film often imposes.