BRAZILIAN MARGINAL CINEMA (1967-1971)
“Our films are the most interesting films on this planet. And if you don’t comprehend them, it’s too bad for you, idiots!” (Júlio Bressane)
“If the reader-spectator doesn’t agree with what we are saying and doing, we recommend a strong dose of insecticide.” (Luiz Rosemberg Filho)
“Within the garbage can, one must be radical. No one can think purely and esthetically on an empty stomach.” (Rogério Sganzerla)
This is the little told and wonderful story of a handful of brilliant Brazilian film rebels operating in the stormy local waters of São Paolo in 1967–1970. The movement they founded has come to be known as Brazilian Cinema Marginal, although some of their opponents labelled them Udigrudi, in a snide warping of the English word ‘underground’. In keeping with their rebel spirit, the protagonists accepted neither of the tags allotted. The story is all the more interesting because its protagonists have practically vanished off the map of world cinema, their groundbreaking films now damaged, unavailable and in some cases irretrievably lost. Their provocation earned the wrath of the leftist film establishment and the rightwing military regime alike. According to a leading member of the movement, the level of stigmatisation earned “went away beyond anything the films could have provoked on the basis of their strangeness. This mistake, this crime, is an untold story in the history of cinema.” Before recounting what can be retrieved of the story, we need to understand what it is the Marginal filmmakers were rebelling against: we need some background for the underground.
An earlier and more earnest filmmaking rebellion had occurred in the Brazil of the early 1960s with the birth of Cinema Nôvo. That movement was an intentional breakaway from the commercially-minded, Hollywood-oriented Brazilian productions of the times. Its auteurs took their cue from Italian neo-realism and portrayed a side of Brazilian life that export-oriented exoticism ignored: endemic poverty and racism, and the misery of the favelas or the feudal countryside. Initially the movement adopted an austere style of filming in keeping with socially committed endeavour, a style which was dubbed the “aesthetics of hunger”. When the French New Wave came along, the Cinema Nôvo movement scorned its lack of political content but was interested in its production and distribution models, to a lesser degree in its aesthetics.
This interest in the business side of French filmmaking stemmed from the fact that Cinema Nôvo was becoming increasingly aware of its own central contradiction. Although it was politically for the people and against the moneyed elites, the masses showed no interest in and had no access to its productions. These were of interest mainly to a left-leaning elite of cinema specialists from well-off families. Director Glauber Rocha and other Cinema Nôvo luminaries began to look around for ways to reach out to a wider audience. On one occasion they even contacted the legendary José Mojica Morins, creator of the Coffin Joe franchise (and the subject the 2001 documentary Coffin Joe: The Strange World of José Mojica Marins). Based in São Paolo, far from the high-cultured salons of Rio, Mojica Marins was a commercially successful low-budget director of surreal genre films, a completely original autodidact fascinated with religion, blasphemy, evil and gore. Glauber Rocha asked Marins for advice on how to access the public and was curtly told to iron out his intellectual kinks and improve production values. Marins advised the Rio auteurs that if they made films just for themselves, they would end up watching them alone. The thirst for popular approval duly led to a certain mainstreaming and upgrading of aesthetic ‘poverty’. Cinema Nôvo scored its first commercial hit with MacunaÍma, a novel adaptation directed by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade in 1969.
The Margin (Ozualdo Ribeiro Candeias)
But there was another reason for cinema by this time to be a little less radical in every sense. 1964 had seen Brazil victim of the ‘first coup’ which put paid to democratic rule in the country. The military and its conservative backers tightened their grip on Brazilian society with another ‘coup within a coup’ in 1968. In the 1969-1970 period the clampdown became well-nigh total. It was difficult and dangerous to express non-conforming opinions, and Cinema Nôvo’s criticism of society was forced to go from overt to allegorical.
The main strand to our story could start in a number of places. Insofar as it needs a beginning it might as well be the image of 21 year old critic-writer-director Rogério Sganzerla returning by ship to São Paolo in 1967 from a prize trip to Cannes he’d won with his first short film, Documentário. Putting down time usefully on the passage, the young filmmaker was developing the outlines of an outlandish scenario about a masked criminal’s reign of terror over a city. While aboard he got his hands on a recent newspaper and was astonished to discover that a masked criminal was indeed terrorising São Paolo by breaking into the houses of the rich, chatting with their horrified inhabitants in the loom of a trademark red flash light, before raping and butchering them. Sganzerla was to turn the story into his landmark film O bandido da luz vermelha/The Red Light Bandit (1968).
The Red Light Bandid (Rogério Sganzerla)
Curiously unsigned programme notes for a 2004 UK screening of Sganzerla’s breakthrough work sum up much what makes O bandido da luz vermelha/The Red Light Bandit so interesting.
The film sets new ground for blending aesthetics that one would never think of mixing together: Orson Welles, Pierrot le Fou and the structure of sensationalist radio broadcastings of crime journalism. It’s the first true example in Brazilian cinema of an art-pop film. The Red Light Bandit is to some extent the cinematic equivalent of the tropicalist movement in Brazilian pop music (Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Ze): a logic of mixing high culture with scum, mass culture with more elitist art, tradition with avant-garde, in a cannibalistic strategy that seeks to devour everything that is other or foreign in order to make it its own.
Sganzerla’s film is generally seen to be the beginning of Marginal Cinema. Film theorist Peter Rist has described the members of this tendency as “a group of young, breakaway directors who made ultra-low budget, deliberately “bad,” nihilistic, virtually “anti-cinema” [films]” Their provocative attitude was upfront and angry. They dubbed Cinama Nôvo “Cinema Nôvo Richo” in a beautifully calibrated putdown which completely underlined the above-stated contradiction in the Rocha-led movement, and then waved their own “aesthetics of garbage” in the face of the established filmmakers and their neo-realist aesthetics of hunger. It is also telling that whereas in 1969 Macunaima’s criticism of the regime involved cunning and tasteful symbolism, Sagnzerla’s close collaborator and fellow filmmaker Júlio Bressane opted simply to have a man tortured to death by police in scenes of almost indescribable violence in his début feature Killed the Family and Went to the Movies/Matou a família e foi al cinema, made in the same year.
It’s tempting to draw a parallel with the early French New Wave. Like Godard and Truffaut, Sganzerla and Bressane, both born in 1946, were film critics (for the local O Estado paper). And like their French counterparts they committed a sort of patricide, attacking the film establishment of the time. If this challenge was seen as a betrayal, it was perhaps partly because the upstarts had been given their first breaks by prominent Cinema Nôvo figures. The betrayal was all the more hurtful because, though established, Cinema Nôvo was far from staid or classicist. As seen, it was socially and politically engaged and had involved years of serious creative discussion and effort, not to mention a level of risk that sometimes compromised personal safety. Resentment against these apparently willful upstarts barely out of their teens, who chose to deride rather than capitalize on the achievement of their predecessors, was in many ways understandable.
The Monsters of Babaloo (Elyseu Visconti)
The Udigrudi filmmakers certainly liked to rub salt into the wounds they opened. They first chastised Cinema ‘Nôvo Richo’ for abandoning its early and grungy purity, creating a sort of brilliantly primitive and elemental cinema of their own to back up their criticism. Then they derided the qualms of conscience and populist aspirations of Rocha and company by declaring that they, from their Marginal position, basically didn’t care if nobody saw or understood their films. Júlio Bressane brashly described the Marginal Cinema output as “the most interesting films on this planet”. And if people didn’t comprehend them, his answer was “too bad for you, idiots!”
This is for me where the story becomes fascinating. Because bad or nihilistic as they were, it would be hard in the history of cinema to match the talent, achievements and sheer enterprise of these young filmmakers. The facts speak for themselves (or can be made to under duress). Established critics in their teens, both Sganzerla and Bressane made their début features in their early twenties. With O bandido da luz vermelha/The Red Light Bandit Sganzerla achieved what had evaded Rocha and his cohorts for so long – a popular hit. And he followed it up with the commercially successful A mulher de todos/The Woman of Everyone (1969), the story of a young nymphomaniac (played by Helena Ignez, who would marry Sganzerla) who uses her allure to control the low-lifers surrounding her. Júlio Bressane saw each of his first three full-length films, Cara a Cara/Face to Face (1967), Killed the Family and Went to the Movies/Matou a família e foi al cinema (1969) and O Anjo Nacseu/The Angel is Born (1969) selected for the Cannes Quinzaine des Réalisatuers in successive years! Helena Ignez singlehandedly invented a new style of female lead acting – provocative, erotic and powerful – and made about a dozen films in two years, in addition to her activities as a producer. In other words, this young trio of filmmakers could underwrite their brashness and provocation with quite remarkable achievements.
Together with Ignez the two directors founded the iconic production company Belair. The date given for the foundation was 1970, although the first Belair production was supposedly Killed the Family and Went to the Movies/Matou a família e foi al cinema (1969). Bressane and Sganzerla immediately went into overdrive, churning out three features each in a matter of months (not surprising given that Killed the family… and The Angel is Born were famously made in twelve and seven days respectively).
Rebellion came at huge personal cost, however. The Belair films were shocking, radical, often harrowing and breathtakingly new. But there were dire consequences in a country run by rightist catholic oligarchs and their military bootboys for Bressane’s Killed the Family and Went to the Movies/Matou a família e foi al cinema, an experimental lesbian drama which graphically portrayed police torture, or Sgaznerla’s Copocabana mon amour (1970) featuring characters such as prostitute Sonia Silk (Ignez again) and Peroxide Beast, her panty-sniffing gay brother. Despite the initial success of some Sganzerla titles, Belair soon found itself boycotted by exhibitors and attacked by the censors. In an overtly suicidal move, Sganzerla followed the huge audience success of A mulher de todos/The Woman of Everyone with Sem Essa, Aranha (1970), shot in seven unbroken takes, which was never released but has become en emblem of experimental cinema. Bressane was hauled in by the military for interrogation and O Anjo Nacseu/The Angel is Born was suppressed for years.
The Angel Was Born (Júlio Bressane)
As if this weren’t bad enough, the Belair gang was despised by the leftist cinephiles close to Cinema Nôvo and even disowned initially by oddball Mojica Morins. According to Bressane, who remains bitter to this day, his persecution by the film establishment would continue for decades in a largely successful effort to erase the young challengers from the face of Brazilian and world cinema. It is significant that four films made by Bressane between 1966 and 1972 are officially listed as missing, and have disappeared completely, whereas others have only been reassembled with great difficulty.
As said, it’s tempting (and mentally energy saving) to draw a parallel between the Belair filmmakers and the early New Wave directors. But there is a significant difference: whereas the French auteurs went to on to garner international recognition and consolidate long careers, Sganzerla, Ignez and Bressane saw themselves attacked from all sides, suppressed, exiled and consigned to decades of near oblivion.
Fearing for their lives, the young filmmakers fled for Europe with the negative of the last Belair production, Bressane’s riveting Cuidado, Madame (1970), shot in heavily saturated 16 mm colour. The film was given state of the art post-production which lent the film what its director described as a “Super-8 Polaroid look”, for an intimate home movie feel. This is fitting since the film is indeed about homes: those of the rich, transformed into abattoirs for the bloody killing spree of an unhinged black maid (Maria Gladys). Bressane himself described the film years later in terms that strangely echoed the experience of the Udigudi filmmakers themselves: “The theme is the revolt of the slaves, the repressed who because they have no way out decide to turn ten or twenty days into an eternity. So they kill their masters. They will certainly die, but that space of freedom, even if it only lasts a week, for them is an eternity.”
Bressane would travel back to Brazil in 1973 after sojourns in London and New York. Sganzerla and Ignez remained abroad, mainly in Paris and London, for seven years. On their return all three struggled to rebuild their careers. Sganzerla made only a handful of features scattered over three decades, as well as some shorts and documentaries (including a celebrated piece on Orson Welles) before his death died in 2004. Helena Ignez made sporadic film and TV appearances and worked more frequently in the theatre. Bressane overcame considerable difficulties to string out a career into the present day, when his films are once again regularly selected for the Cannes and Venice film festivals.
Killed the Family and Went to the Movies (Júlio Bressane)
But although political censorship ebbed in the 1970s, opposition from a ‘controlling group’ of Brazilian filmmakers led by Glauber Rocha remained fierce. Speaking in an interview in 2001, and looking much older than his 55 years, Bressane claimed that Rocha saw to it personally that the latter’s cinema would be forgotten for all of the 70s and 80s (here one has to assume that Rocha’s power extended beyond the grave, since he died in 1981), in a reaction “that went beyond the films themselves, a reaction that was personal, political and cultural, a reaction of censorship.” Not only were Bressane’s films buried, but the act of cultural censorship itself was covered up: “very little is known about it internationally. Even in Brazil it’s an untold story.” For thirty years Bressane feels he was marginalised, left out of the national cinema scene because of his provocation. This was an unjust punishment for films that were simply “against the conventionalism of the times, that tried to be innovative and fresh… Cinema Nôvo was headed for commercialism and vagueness while the Belair films were expressive and experimental.”
The Belair films are difficult to place historically and artistically. Despite the bitter rift with Cinema Nôvo, in some ways Sganzerla’s ‘appropriation’ and ‘carnivalisation’ of culture was a more aggressive version of a tendency emerging in de Adrade’s Macunaima. And despite differences in approach, poverty and favelas loomed as large in the works of Sganzerla and Bressane as they had in the earlier movement. For me certainly Glauber Rocha’s 1972 Film Cȃncer seems to echo Bressane’s El Anjou Nasceu, even using one of its remarkable lead actors, Hugo Cravana (appearing in the Rocha film next to Antonio Pitanga, who featured in Sganzerla’s A mulher de todos/The Woman of Everyone).
An element that might set the Belair artists apart is their openness to the US and European radical undergrounds and their willingness to embrace less elitist forms of culture such as comics. Seen in photos of the times, Bressane and Sgaznera are recognizably long-haired freaks who would not have looked out of place at an MC5 concert. This lack of ’seriousness’ and acceptance of Anglophone pop culture, anathema for the anti-American left, probably lay behind the Rocha-coined Udigrudi sneer. The older filmmaker might have seen the Belair directors as aspiring to and aping the US Empire in its decadence. Whereas in fact if anything they fed off US and other radicalisms of the times in an unbiased spirit of true internationalism and used the influence to create something singular and autonomous.
Bang Bang (Andrea Tonacci)
It’s significant that Bressane pairs experimental with expressive, set against the commercial and the vague. The Belair films come at the spectator with an unexpected violence and speed, a rush of energy that leads to the shock of collision, but also to exhilaration. It’s interesting to speculate how far this type of cinema might have gone with a popular audience in a different social and political context. The only possible parallel I can think of is with the late 60s art-explo provocations of Koji Wakamatsu (who Bressane only missed at Cannes by a year: Wakamatsu’s Okasareta hakui/Violated Angels (1967) and Seijoku/Sex Jack (1970) were both selected for the Directors’ Fortnight in 1971).
There has been a tendency to absorb Bressane and Sganzerla into an ill-defined ‘garbage mouth cinema’ taking its name from the seamy Boca do Lixo (Mouth of Garbage) area of São Paolo where some of their films were set. The work of José Mojica Morins is also often notionally absorbed into this pseudo-movement. This is mainly due to the fact that subsequent to the exile of the Belair filmmakers a local exploitation industry grew up in the district, which soon specialized in cheaply exotic eroticism. There is even speculation that Sgaznerla was a forerunner of this later commercial underground, a completely wrong-headed assumption given the conventionality and political conservatism of the so-called Pornochanchadas.
It would be equally wrong in my view to see the Belair filmmakers as underground in anything like the genre-trash ‘psychotronic’ sense of many 60s and 70s US and European directors. Despite their mocking iconoclasm, they were deadly serious, and their films allow the viewer no easy exit via irony or complicity. Bressane says, “When I made of O Anjo Nacseu I realised I had made my most difficult film, a completely unconscious film, that space, that emptiness, that nothingness… It was also a devastating experience for me, a shock… I think O Anjo Nasceu is still a terra incognita even for me.” The film was indeed unknown territory, opening up a new world full of hidden dangers, on and off screen. It stands to the credit of Bressane, Sganzerla and Ignez that they didn’t draw back from their pioneering adventure, even if it has cost them their happiness, their careers, and their deserved place in cinema history. (from: Tony Kaily, Killing the Family: Brazilian Marginal Cinema)
02André Luiz Oliveira