Rogério Sganzerla's Gangster Modernity

In his cult feature, The Red Light Bandit (1968), Brazilian director Rogério Sganzerla creates an enduring portrait of a doomed criminal.
Ela Bittencourt

"Signs of Chaos: The Films of Rogerio Sganzerla" plays November 1–30, 2019 at Spectacle Theater in New York.

The Red Light Bandit

“The experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans,” the film critic Robert Warshow wrote in 1948, in his remarkable essay, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” Warshow considered gangsterism to be not just one more expression of chaotic urban life; rather, gangsterism represented modernity itself. “For the gangster there is only the city; he must inhabit it in order to personify it: not the real city, but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world.”

In many ways, the Brazilian avant-garde filmmaker Rogério Sganzerla gives us the gangster that epitomizes Warshow’s thesis. Sganzerla’s brisk, jazzy, Nouvelle Vague-inspired black-and-white gangster movie, The Red Light Bandit (1968), which is often discussed as one of the central features in the Brazilian Marginal Cinema aesthetic, and which currently plays in a comprehensive retrospective dedicated to Sganzerla, at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn, is a perfect entry point into his filmography. The movie centers on the cynical and merciless bandit, Jorge (Paulo Villaça). Jorge’s days are both busy and desultory, as he drifts from one criminal enterprise to another. His specialty is breaking into the homes of the rich, robbing and terrorizing the men and brutalizing the women. The rape scenes are staged with more than an inkling that the bandit is sadistic yet somehow unnervingly, coolly charmant. This is partly thanks to Villaça himself—his slick, darkly brooding persona.

Is the chilling attraction also because Jorge calls a bluff on his victims’ blasé consumerist bliss? Brazil of the late 1960s was entering its “economic miracle,” a period of quick growth, whose underside was centralized authoritarian power, censorship, and political violence. 1968, that particularly politicized year, marked four years since the coup that had ended the country’s democratic rule.

Similarly to Ozualdo Candeias’s seminal Marginal Cinema film, The Margin (1967), Sganzerla commences his not in the bustling city center, but on the outskirts, at the river’s edge, or “margem” (margin). The bandit’s place is therefore geographically and existentially peripheral. In the shanties littered with garbage, small boys mimic violent shoot-outs. “I had to make a mess of it,” Jorge sums up his life against this desolate background, a statement that can be read as expressing his iron will, or his resignation.  

Sganzerla’s bandit, then, is not just any illusive criminal—he is the ultimate outsider. He transits in dark places, beyond the law, outside the constraints of morality, in the vacuum left by the dismantling of democratic institutions. The country itself is cast as “everyone for himself.” When might turns authoritarian, the bandit gains a dual, paradoxical status—an anti-hero, he is nevertheless someone we may root for—as having emerged from oppression and rebelled against its vicious cycle—but also love to hate.

The bandit’s brutality is sexually predetermined by macho dreams of conquest. His female victims resist, and there’s occasional dread in the rape scenes, but the film’s editing, by Silvio Renoldi, doesn't quite dwell on the terror. Instead, the bandit’s magnetic fury is partly disarming, if anything because its embodies the tragedy of masculinity gone sour— unchecked, yet also demeaned, misdirected. Thus begins the dual drama of spectatorship that Sganzerla sets up: Listening in to the voiceover, in which the bandit expounds on always having felt expandable, a loser, on having suffered, been humiliated, endured, we are privy to his bitter manifest destiny. In this context, it’s hard to resist a pang of empathy, even if he’ll have none.

Warshow envisioned gangster narratives in a Scorsesian vein: as a steep progression up, and only then, a precipitous fall. Part of Sganzerla’s ingenious design lies in the fact that his bandit has really no direction. He has set on the criminal path since the start—as if the decision had been made for him—and fully sees himself as someone fated to die. His violence is then the last paroxysm—a hungry, desperate, necessarily possessive grab at what’s left of life. Sganzerla includes scenes with the cops, always on the trail and bound to catch up. Fittingly for a dark metropolis, the cops are no shining heroes—we need not root for them, only await the end of their grim pursuit.

What’s left then, in terms of pleasure, for the spectators? As it turns out, a lot. Sganzerla’s film is so thoroughly energized with the relentless pulse of São Paulo it proves a lush, breathless poem of the city, as much as of a single man. Sganzerla depicts it as a rat-race metropolis, impregnated with crummy populist politicians, and saturated with scandal and sensationalist news, whose bits play throughout, on the radio. A city designed for the car, and to be enjoyed while seated in one, either driving, or chatting with drivers from the passenger seat, taking in the carousel of its opulent mansions and bustling commercial districts, as Jorge does occasionally.

As in Godard’s Breathless (1960), Sganzerla’s bandit eventually meets his blond muse—the beloved Brazilian cult actress, Helena Ignez, who was also Sganzerla’s partner, in the role of the fickle sex worker, Janete Jane—who betrays him to the police. And somewhat similarly to Godard’s Pierrot, in Pierrot le fou (1965)—or rather, as a satire of Pierrot’s death sequence—Sganzerla’s bandit dies even more grotesquely, electrocuted by wires, back in the favela. Instead of a cataclysm of martyred flesh, an apotheosis of violence, we get a quick, uneventful death, after which the policemen declare they’re not even sure they have the right guy—the villain doesn’t seem glamorous enough. This is Sganzerla’s bitterest grand gesture: Not even the bandit’s marginality secures his place of interest. Once dead, he is yesterday’s news. The city masquerade, modern life, go on.

After this acclaimed feature debut, Sganzerla went on to cofound a production studio, Belair Films, in Rio de Janeiro, and direct such celebrated cult films as The Woman of Everyone (1969) and the originally censored Copacabana My Love (1970), both starring the electric Helena Ignez, and which established him as one of the most uncompromising Latin American filmmakers. Where The Red Light Bandit was Sganzerla’s nod to the noir genre, some of his later films hint playfully at cheaply made pornochanchadas, or porn-comedies, with more deliberate eroticism. They retain a fluid, episodic structure, and dialogues imbued with angst and distinctly modern ennui, while also exploring the themes of mass culture, consumerism and sexual liberation. That “ludic arbitrariness of collage,” as the Brazilian film scholar Ismail Xavier characterized Sganzerla’s style, is what makes his oeuvre such an adventure to discover, or to reclaim, today. At the same time, Sganzerla’s films are also explorations of identities in friction or shock, be it national, cultural, sexual or gender, and in this sense, are still due their full contemporary political reassessment.

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Rogério Sganzerla
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