Não sei por onde vou (I don’t know which way I’m going)
Não sei para onde vou (I don’t know where I’m going)
Sei que não vou por aí! (I am not going this way!)
- José Régio, “Poems of God and the Devil,” quoted by Glauber Rocha via Nelson Pereira dos Santos
One of many sad questions following the implosion of New Yorker Films was that of their impressive (and consistently cultivated) catalog of works from Brazil, including masterpieces by Cinema Novo auteurs such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Carlos Diegues and, most famous of all, Glauber Rocha. While Kino Lorber released a long-overdue box set of works by the great Joaquim Pedro de Andrade on Blu-ray last year, Rocha’s reputation as a Saint John the Baptist-grade raving holy man of arthouse cinema is beginning to precede his actual work, as his ’60s masterpieces (including Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol [Black God White Devil] (1964), Antonio das Mortes (1969) and Terra em Transe [Entranced Earth] (1967)) remain out of regular circulation. It's depressingly likely that Rocha’s films are better-known to Baby Boomer cineastes than the permanently online millennials trailing behind them; I was surprised at the muted (which is to say, nonexistent) response in the cinephile world to the publication of On Cinema (2019), the first-ever compendium of Rocha’s film writing published in English. Collected, contextualized and heroically annotated by Brazilian film scholar Ismail Xavier, these texts are of a piece with the filmmaker’s notorious public persona: swarthy, hectoring, shattering taboos and making violent juxtapositions—beleaguered, always, by dialectics.
On Cinema compiles less than two decades of writing, but its contents span a transformative era in both Rocha’s career and Latin American cinema at large, opening with his 1963 broadside Revisaõ Crítica do Cinema Brasileiro [Critical Review of Brazilian Cinema], begun when he was a 22-year-old law student and Brazil had just two cinema clubs to its name. (Rocha adopts auteur theory full-stop and, perhaps in a bit of youthful folly, draws a line separating his “personal opinion” from the “impartial criticism” to come later.) The book also includes Rocha’s O Século do Cinema [Century of Cinema], a book project that continued until his untimely death at the age of 42, with individual chapters on subjects ranging from Chaplin to Ford to Welles to Rossellini to, ultimately, Godard. As a writer, Rocha indulges his gift for neologic malapropisms early and often; one is tempted to conjecture that On Cinema is haunted by the ghost of Eisenstein, who doesn’t get his own chapter but is mentioned dozens of times, and the very real person of Godard. In this version of Revolução do Cinema Novo [The Cinema Novo Revolution], rewritten and republished many times between 1961 and 1971) Rocha calls Godard “a timid moralist who self-detonates to stop himself from dying of fear,” but continues: “I understand Godard. He is a European filmmaker, French; it’s logical that he would propose to destroy cinema. But we, here, cannot destroy that which doesn’t exist.”
This is the tension animating Rocha's theoretical practice: between a Third Worldist cine-image unshackled from the tropes and dogmas of Hollywood, versus an endless flow of motion pictures made under the “aesthetic and economic dictatorship” of the United States. Rocha cites the poet Oswald de Andrade, progenitor of Tropicalism (also known as “anthropophagy,” or cannibalism), who taught him to see Brazil's cultural products as precisely that. “There's no historical depth in Brazil,” Rocha writes in Revolução, “There's a process of anti-historical dilution, carried out by military coups and counter-coups, directly and indirectly linked to imperialist interests and carrying with it the national bourgeoisie.” Rocha cites the cangaceiro, a Robin Hood-esque figure made famous for robbing powerful landowners in the northeastern sertão of Brazil in the mid-to-late 19th century, as a symbol that is equally as organic to his home country as it is vulnerable to semiological influence:
If I film a cangaceiro in the desert, what is implicit is a specific découpage/montage founded in the Western tradition, a foundation that is more closely linked with the Western than with Ford or Howard Hawks. On the contrary, imitation is born of a passive attitude of the filmmaker in relation to cinema, of a suicidal need to stick to established language, in the belief that, by sticking to imitation, the film will be saved.
Rocha wasn’t gimlet-eyed about film production in the Soviet Union either, bemoaning “demagogical socialist cinema,” writing in 1965 that, “The problems of Eisenstein with Stalinism are not different from Orson Welles’s experience with RKO or John Huston’s with Metro: the auteur is a fierce and aggressive individualist, but his survival depends on integration in a collective practice.” Film to film, festival to festival, Rocha wore his incendiary persona to the hilt while voluntarily accepting the position of the colonized, and inviting near-everyone he met to rethink their aesthetics strictly in terms of politicizing import.
Tricontinentalism was cost-free but for a few; Rocha’s profound disappointment with Fidel Castro is well-documented in other books, and it’s worth remembering that even Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas ended up cutting an alternate state-approved ending of Hour of the Furnaces (1968), which replaced the three-minute shot of Che Guevara’s corpse with a montage aligning the return of Juan Perón to Argentina with the Cuban Revolution and the election of Salvador Allende. It’s eerie reading On Cinema with the vague awareness that Rocha would return to Brazil in the mid-1970s to publicly praise the military junta of Ernesto Beckmann Geisel: a stunning about-face, perhaps currying favor with a local dictatorship to resume the project of dismantling the cultural hegemony represented by Hollywood. Gustavo Dahl, one of Rocha’s compatriots who became the head of the state agency Embrafilme, saw this as symptomatic of a period in which Cinema Novo filmmakers had “more freedom to make than to judge.” (Carlos Diegues would also take on a role as sub-director of Embrafilme, claiming the movement had always called for such an organization to foster Brazilian cinema.)
Facing his own resignation, Dahl told the newsweekly Veja that “Few moments in the history of cinematic production have had the freedom to produce as did Brazilian cinema during the Geisel government.” Rocha described his notorious final film The Age of the Earth (1980) as “an epic didactic poem on the social-mystical contradictions of the contemporary world.” Dahl said Rocha “proposed it in Los Angeles, Paris, Rome, Mexico, and Venezuela. Only in Brazil did he find the possibility of making it.” In a bitter irony, George Stevens Jr., son of the director of Shane (1953), described the film’s 1981 Cannes Film Festival premiere as “2 hours and 45 minutes of ranting chaos… The Italian daily press devastated the film and Glauber Rocha convened a press conference to denounce the critics and the jury as ‘pawns in the employ of the CIA.’”
In his Cahiers du Cinéma obituary of Rocha, Serge Daney mentioned that Rocha had been invited to contribute a piece on the late Pier Paolo Pasolini, only to lock himself in the magazine office and “having no need of an interviewer, talked alone for two hours in front of a small tape recorder.” Like Pasolini, Rocha obviously viewed filmmaking, criticism and public speaking all as means to the same ideological ends. This essential volume happily doubles as a delirious memoir of the golden era of arthouse film distribution (with Rocha simultaneously praising and disputing the work of his contemporaries), but it also bombards the reader with breathtaking manifestos from one page to the next. From Revolução, again: “The technical myths of zoom, direct cinema, handheld camera, colour, etc. are merely instruments. The Word is ideological and there are no more geographical frontiers.” Daney again, always: Rocha “Talked a lot, he was probably raving: nothing of what he said was without significance…”