Black God, White Devil is a film as harsh and pitiless as the sertão (desert), thoroughly bleached of color and beset with woe. The camera hangs its head to echo the desperation, refusing to advocate or glamorize hard labor and poverty, only rising above the action as an ironic statement on the artificiality of the cinematic gaze. It even keeps a sardonic inventory of its characters’ motivations through song, wryly imitating the theme music and mythology of the idealized Western, varying only in the depravity of its characters and hopelessness of its message.
The stifling heat of the barren Brazilian outback is the setting and source of anguish, embodied in every drop of sweat on Rosa’s (Yoná Magalhães) brow, her visage personifying destitution as her weary arms crank the handle of a crumbling grain mill. The torment of hunger has nurtured a practical pessimism, leaving her to balk at the aspirations of an optimistic husband, Manuel (Geraldo Del Rey), and the empty promises of a seditious cleric (Lidio Silva).
A slow, pensive tone permeates these opening forlorn passages, allowing the pace to reflect the all-encompassing vacuity of the arid landscape and stand in contrast to the forthcoming violent retribution. Pandemonium sets in as Manuel becomes untethered, each severe and hasty edit keeping time with the slice of his machete and the scamper of feet. The initial homicide, brought forth by a combination of starvation and humiliation, precipitates an erratic and disorienting horse chase and cluster of murders. As the narrative intensifies, so does the soundtrack, abandoning its humble ballads for operatic crescendo, elevating an unexceptional fall from grace to the heights of religious allegory. The emotional heft of the strings even impacts the characters, each orchestral upsurge tempting passion to the surface and momentarily humanizing the sadistic and cruel.
Glauber Rocha utilizes sound as a vehicle for satire, jumbling the singing voices of the Black God’s congregation into a grating sonic puddle, paralleling the indoctrination of prayer to the systematic subjugation of the poor. Suffering for the absolution of his sins, Manuel acts as the symbolic representation of religion’s duplicity, lugging a hefty stone to the peak of a steep mount, embarking on an interminable and Sisyphean spiritual quest. The grand irony is that, with each act of selfless devotion, Manuel steps further away from family and redemption, acting only to promote the agenda of an opportunist in hope of a divine reward.
His concluding acts of desecration spawn an unbound delirium, at once impenetrable and enchanting, marrying abstruse, Godardian political rhetoric to paradoxically epiphanic and macabre visual imagery. The close-ups are radiant, capturing human faces atop beaming sunlight, sun-burnt skin and silver facial hair hanging like constellations against the achromatic terrain. Occupying this gray area, balancing between the aesthetics of cinema and tenets of an ideology, Glauber Rocha hits his directorial stride, fashioning a film that functions as political dissent and bold artistic provocation.
Black God, White Devil (Copacabana Filmes, 1964)
Written and Directed by Glauber Rocha
Photographed by Waldemar Lima