By the 1960s Brazilian cinema was in a crisis. For almost a decade Brazil had suffered under the tyranny of foreign (read: American) distributors and narrow-minded exhibitors that flooded the market with Hollywood epics and puerile chanchadas—low-budget musicals frequently featuring extended sequences of Brazilian performers queasily impersonating Western superstars like Elvis Presley. In 1954 Vera Cruz, a São Paulo-based movie studio modeled after Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer which sought to create Brazilian films that matched the extravagance and technical mastery of Hollywood, went bankrupt. Left with the options of foreign domination and localized artistic atrophy, a new generation of filmmakers arose seeking to create a Brazilian cinema both politically progressive and impervious to Western influences.
Imitating the production methods of Italian Neorealism and inspired by the French politique des auteurs, these filmmakers labeled their movement the “Cinema Novo,” which literally translates in Portuguese as “New Cinema.” “Cinema Novo is, above all, freedom,” director Carlos Diegues wrote in 1962, “Freedom of invention, freedom of expression…without slothful theorizing, but rather technically rationalizing the practical questions of cinema, [Brazilian filmmakers] have taken their cameras and gone out into the streets, the country, and the beaches in search of the Brazilian people, the peasant, the worker, the fisherman, the slum dweller.”
And find the Brazilian people they did. The early years of Cinema Novo sought out the darker, more impoverished sectors of Brazilian society such as the favelas, inner-city slums, and the sertão, the drought-stricken wastes of Northeastern Brazil. Few films from this era captured the brutality of working class life like Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil (1964). Utilizing a philosophy he named the “Esthetic of Hunger,” the film was unapologetic in both its depiction of desperate poverty and its use of unpolished, “starving” production techniques. Hand-held cameras and stark black-and-white cinematography created a veneer of almost deliberate amateurism which rejected Western filmmaking norms. Almost every shot seems intentionally overexposed; both the cloudless sky and the barren sertão soil sizzle in opaque, clipped sheets of white. Sequences of action and chaos dissolve into frenetic montages of split-second close-ups apparently designed to disorient and emotionally unsettle the viewer rather than keeping them informed of the progression of the narrative.
The narrative itself operates on the level of parable, thereby juxtaposing the documentary quality of the film’s production. After accidentally killing his ranch boss after being cheated, Manuel (Geraldo Del Rey) and Rosa (Yoná Magalhães) flee their home and alternatively fall in with two charismatic leaders: a self-proclaimed saint named Sebastião (Lídio Silva) whose apocalyptic visions inspire horrific acts of violence and Corisco (Othon Bastos), a bandit who seeks to avenge the death of anti-government leader Lampaio whom he communicates with via trance. They are, respectively, the Black God and the White Devil.
Both Sebastião and Corisco summon blind loyalty from Manuel whose acts of devotion range on religious ecstasy. Both force Manuel to “prove” himself via extreme violence: the former makes him participate in an infant sacrifice, the latter to slice the genitals off a man whose wife he had raped. And finally, both meet premature ends. The long-suffering Rosa kills Sebastião and Antonio das Mortes (Maurício do Valle), a mysterious gunslinger hired by the Church to exterminate the bandits plaguing the sertão, kills Corisco. The film ends just as it begins: with Manuel and Rosa fleeing into the unknown. In keeping with the numerological aspect of many parables, myths, and fables, Black God, White Devil could be summarized as featuring three tyrants (the ranch boss, Sebastião, and Corisco), two peasants, and one gunslinger. Furthermore, Manuel commits three acts of violence and flees with Rosa three time.
But unlike parables or fairy tales, the ending is cyclical and inconclusive: there is no evidence that they will ever find peace or purpose in modern day Brazil. There nothing but violence and flight, violence and flight. The ending is fittingly Cinema Novo. After all, it was a movement dedicated to social transformation and the galvanization of Brazilian cinematic artistry. If the Brazilian cinema of the 50s was the sertão, then Cinema Novo was the flight of Manuel and Rosa towards an undetermined future.