Brazilian cinema – three questions

Joan Miró, Women and Birds at Dawn, 1946.


Commentary on the allegory, the relationship between fiction and documentary, and the colonial encounter in the country's cinema

First question: the allegory

The issue of the necessarily allegorical nature of every “third worldist” text has a special resonance in the development of Brazilian Cinema over the course of this century. It seems to me to be a question of modernization: the realization that markedly national texts, even when they feature a completely internalized narrative, are capable of reflecting the global positioning of notions of what, wrongly, is called the “third world”.

This idea has immediate applications in the literature, but its use in the area of ​​moving images is another story. The development of cinema as an art and a commodity parallels the modernization process in Latin America, and consequently reflects how a nation like Brazil has reacted to the modernization and rise of technology. Cinema occupies a prominent place in Jameson's thought for this reason. In Brazilian Cinema, national texts are now mediated by technology; they are shaped by their means of production and defined through mechanized routes. The objective then is to investigate how Brazilian films provided allegories for the complicated situation in Brazil.

In the following analyses, our aim is to explore the ways in which the belief in modernization in this century, with all the implications inherent in distorted global markets and apparatuses of cultural hegemony, has transformed and mystified dynamics in private and particular narratives. Cinema provides a framework for these new mythologies, and that is what is essential here.

In the movie garbage mouth by Eduardo Coutinho (1994), viewers are introduced to a wide range of individual and private destinations. Such destinies are revealed in the form of what might be called portrait sequences: Fragmented from titled segments, each block creates a space in which the lives of many different people are explored. In short, such portraits form the substance of Coutinho's film. In essence, they are inseparable from what constitutes the rest of the video, which seeks more than a simple record of the phenomenon of the impoverishment of Brazilians who struggle to survive in a huge garbage dump on the outskirts of Rio. In varying ways, this documentary shines a light on Jameson's speech.

Throughout the film, a certain kind of tension is always present, which is not surprising given the rather ambiguous nature of the community that populates the dump. We almost feel this ambiguity on the part of the director, as he is also struggling with a cultural phenomenon whose meaning is not ostensibly evident nor is it immediately apprehensible. Coutinho starts his film, then, from the dump itself. However, what becomes evident to the viewer is the impossibility of isolating the dump from the people who pick up there. The community and the dump exist in tandem, in cooperation, despite each other. These initial images are sometimes a little inappropriate for the process: the very revulsion of the dump is parallel with the patient techniques of catharing performed by the inhabitants. Our immediate reaction to such controversial images is to try to dissociate garbage from inhabitants.

Coutinho resists this dissociation. On the contrary, he dwells on these images, and then begins his interviews in the space of the dump itself. Its inhabitants are the first to eventually spread the ambiguity that surrounds the dump: for them there is no ambiguity. The garbage dump supports the community, provides food and earnings, gives them the opportunity to earn money working with garbage. It is the foundation of an informal economy, which brings all those people together. Thinking of Jameson, we learn that the fates of those people, the narratives of their lives, are completely dependent on the dump. When Coutinho shifts the focus from the dump environment to the individual portrait sequences, we begin to see how the stories of the garbage collectors move from personal narratives to collective narratives. This is where the video begins to reveal its own allegorical nature.

In the titled blocks, Coutinho provokes many intimate and frank conversations with the collectors. There are fascinating moments in these sequences: a woman warns the director to leave her alone, a young woman sings motivated by a popular song played on a cassette recorder, an unbelievably older man recounts his journey across almost the entire country. Seeing this gentleman, one cannot help noticing elements of allegory at play on the canvas. He himself is a living allegory of the country's entire socio-economic situation.

What we see in the old character is, in fact, history. As viewers, we know that he has spent his entire life working in different regions of the country. We even assume that a good part of his work may have been carried out in other garbage dumps. In fact, we have a man here who raised his family and lived a lifetime as an itinerant laborer. As his own beard indicates, he is a wise and well-traveled man. Extending his story, we come to an idea of ​​Jameson: the role played by the old scavenger in that community has rich implications as a national allegory.

Such a national allegory, not surprisingly, is about dependency. In the community of garbage collectors, we have a group of people who have built a virtual society around the waste of modern Brazilian society. They became dependent on garbage, with potential implications for a national allegory. Brazil is a country with a long tradition focused on exports, a country with enormous natural and extractive resources. A country where these same raw materials travel through two different economies: after the vegetables are removed from the garbage, they gain a new value, coinciding with what the informal market of collectors will attribute to them. The story of this old character bears witness to the durability of the waste picker community; it remains, it survives, like Brazil, dependent on the extraction of resources, whether resources are reorganized or not.

The film promise payer revolves around the private destiny of a man who is simply trying to fulfill a promise he had made. The obstacles that man encounters can be related to the implicit, but not yet evident, boundaries between culture and society in modern Brazil. In this film, some of Jameson's ideas strike me as quite appropriate. As we will see, what happens when a peasant decides to fulfill his promise to Santa Bárbara has far greater implications than the enormous staircase that frames the conflict.

The journey undertaken by the peasant and his wife immediately brings up two conflicts. First of all, he knows that he owes the greatest respect to Iansã, the saint who cured his sick donkey, the main motivation for him to fulfill a divine contract until the end. Thus, carrying the weight of a cross, he leaves for the city where the church that is the object of his devotion is located. As the narrative progresses, we realize that the penitent, despite the conflicts that arise, strongly defends the terms of his divine contract. The central conflict is established here: how will the peasant sustain his promise in the face of official resistance?

The other central conflict is related to its own trajectory, which departs from the countryside to the capital. It is a passage that goes from a rural environment to a large urban center. Not only does this passage carry a transition between different lifestyles, but it also jumps from a predominantly agrarian landscape to another environment that represents a more modernized Brazil. It is a passage from one time to another; the pilgrimage carries the man and his wife from traditional Brazil to modern Brazil.

That is the weight the man carries to the church steps, hoping to keep his promise, until the priest discovers the syncretic nature of the promise. The first resistance to the peasant's efforts constitutes the tension between syncretic Catholic practices and the dominant ideology. While a rural Brazil seems to accept syncretism more easily, the urban church identifies more deeply with the European tradition of Catholicism.

Once confronted with the priest's resistance to his beliefs, a kind of martyrdom begins to dominate the peasant. He begins to look like a Christ, even far from the ubiquitous crucifix. Once the initial dust settles, he truly becomes a martyr and the allegorical construction of this private destiny becomes clearer. The political dimension projected by this narrative is strongly tied to national issues involving religion, class and modernization.

The huge portion of the Brazilian population that practices this syncretic form of Catholicism finds a voice in this protagonist. He represents the constitution of a syncretic belief, the main reason for blocking his access to the church. Bringing history into the realm of national allegories, the film shows what happens when someone decides to publicly challenge the dominant and orderly practices of Catholics. As the church's official reaction informs us, the synthesis of European and African trends will not be tolerated by the Church. It may even be practiced outside the support of the Church, but it will not be recognized as a legitimate Catholic practice. The Church becomes the potent symbol in absolute control of individual matters in religious practices This man personifies a huge population of believers in Brazil: Oppressed mainly by the legacy of slavery and the hierarchical rigidity of social distinctions in Brazil, Afro-Brazilian religions are excluded from the dominant discourse of the modern church. And, as the film's final image attests, when syncretic practices force entry into the interior of the church, that interior is not a place of light. The interior of the church is an inexorably dark space, an abyss.

Flores Island, by Jorge Furtado, presents a narrative informed by the allegorical dynamics of Brazilian daily life. Ostensibly the short narrates the trajectory of a tomato as it traverses the domestic and global market, from fields and plantations to the supermarket, eventually ending up in the waste economy, the ironic edge of Ilha das Flores. Along the way, Furtado shows some personal narratives of Brazilians who come into contact with tomatoes. In each of these narratives, we can perceive a coincident national allegory. What makes this short an exceptionally reflective film is the fact that the viewer is forced to weave together the meaning of all these narratives from a tightly-knit web of meaning. Furtado built an entropic system of meanings: expansion of energy, growing disorganization and dissociation, an increasingly multiplier tangle.

The tomato follows a well-defined trajectory in the film. It is harvested, crated on a Japanese farm, taken to market, sold to a housewife, rejected and thrown in the trash. Upon landing on Flores Island, he will be consumed either by a pig or by a miserable Brazilian. The tomato takes on an abstract quality towards the end of the film, an abstraction perhaps engendered by the divergent paths and trade routes it must travel. And Furtado's narrative structure allows him to juxtapose a variety of personal narratives, all related to the tomato itinerary. In this sense, the tomato seems to approach something like a displaced center. In the narrative, he is the organizing agent, the thing that provides coherence to the diverse personal destinies of the housewives, collectors and farmers. At the same time, the tomato is constantly in flow, changing from economy to economy, value to value. The tomato is the inaugural link between these rivaling destinies, yet unanchored, subject to fluctuations like any individual. Furtado places the tomato in the narrative as a sort of ordering resource in the chaotic web of destinies.

The character of these different private destinations is marked by a political and economic dimension. They are all obedient partners in a social contract that not only unites and positions them nationally, but also links them to the global culture and economy. At the beginning of the narrative there is a Japanese farmer. Concretely, this man's own story epitomizes the threatened situation of Brazil's dependence on agricultural resources. Even as an immigrant, he can be a beacon of foreign investment, of foreign integration into the Brazilian economy, of Brazil's growing integration into the global economy of industrialized nations. When the tomato reaches the housewife's hands and is rejected, part of its journey ends there and it embarks on another route. Now the tomato doesn't take the conventional route it used to. He is thrown into another type of economy based on collecting goods from landfills.

In the waste picker economy, private destinations help illuminate the meaning of this troubled economy. As we have already discussed, the community of collectors seems to function in an inverse economic structure, a perverse system in which animals raised for consumption have privileges over collectors in the trajectory of the tomato. At the same time, these scavengers seem to have no alternative other than the garbage itself. If it is true that there is no other possible option, the fact is that the collectors ended up creating an economy and a community in the trash. For this reason, they definitely occupy the periphery of the global economy. As a national allegory, what we see in the struggle of waste pickers to adapt and survive in an increasingly expanding global market is a shared national struggle. The global economy, like the tomato, creates an order that stems from a displaced center. Interestingly, it seems to work well as a cautionary tale for Brazil: the misguided and perverse priorities of the global market require an ability to adapt and survive the unbalanced vagaries of the economy. This ability requires survival and the creation of economies that serve to fill the voids left by the global economy. Ultimately, it demands more innovation from the collector.

Second issue: fiction and documentary

Em Pixote and Bananas is my Business, we witness a set of hybrid styles that, in one way or another, revolve around the conflicts of representation. In some films, we see a system that relies primarily on archival material. In others, fictional representation is used to mystify a volatile social conflict. Each film presents a different synthesis of these modes of representation, some even internalizing these different modes in a concise language. To represent reality, these films suggest, is to allow the simultaneous expression of the voices of fiction and non-fiction.

Em pixote, Hector Babenco employs a fictional narrative mode in order to represent the life of street children in Brazil. Despite the style and narrative being structured from fictional expository lines, the film manages to maintain a look and an approach that seem to be closer to documentary than fiction. the theme of pixote seems more appropriate for the documentary format than for fiction, as the essence of the film is the exposition of the dramatic conditions of life of young inhabitants abandoned in the Brazilian metropolises.

One might be led to think that through documentary a certain and necessary sense of immediacy would be achieved more directly than through fiction. The situation, which is unfortunately always current, is the tension between these victims and the murderous brutality of the so-called “death squads” and penal institutions and even supposedly helping street youths. Such conflicts endlessly produce stories and more stories that fill Brazilian society with shame, shock and indignation. It seems that any fiction would have very little to add to this unhappy panorama.

But, as it happened, Babenco ended up employing a fictional mode of representation here. It is not, on the other hand, a conventional form of fiction, nor is it a radical style of filming. It is rather a synthesis of the two projects, where the director made use of real street children, giving the film a tone of legitimacy of undeniable impact. At the same time, Babenco makes use of fiction to portray the inner conflicts of these miserable characters, constructing sequences and scenes that follow the conventional style of narration of classic cinema, supported by psychological development and action. He does not necessarily fictionalize these stories, but there is, naturally, a high degree of narrative manipulation that rules out any attempt to approach the documentary. In fact, this hybrid narrative, synthesis of fiction and documentary, shows the extent to which Babenco manipulated the stories of real characters.

In the actual development of the narrative, there is nothing very special about this hybrid Babenco style. The power of this style lies primarily in the way in which Babenco balances the private fate of the Pixote boy with the tense social context of Brazil. There is a basic premise here: the decision to portray Pixote through the use of fiction suggests that Babenco is implicitly commenting on the nature of the problem of street children. And such a problem does not need documentary as much as it needs fiction. According to Jameson, the problem needs allegorizing. And that's what Babenco seems to do, ultimately. By using the children themselves in a self-representation, the director forces reflexivity within the film, an effect that helps viewers to perceive the very reality being told. The film, in this way, becomes a vehicle for the conflict itself.

pixote forces viewers to raise questions about what is real and what is fiction. By combining these two modes, the director blurs the lines between them. The product of this synthesis is a film that not only draws attention to the conflicts of street children in Brazil, but which instinctively draws attention to the film itself, to the delicate problem of representing the unhappy lives of this marginal population. The use of the children themselves, as the real Pixote, creates a unique aura to the film. Aura that depends, for its own legitimacy, on the sincerity of these beginning “actors”. The conflicts represented in the film exist outside of it, with the same force, equally tense and dramatic. And the hybridization strategy employed by Babenco ends up universalizing the problem of street children, breaking with the limits of conventional representation and bringing something new, original, perhaps a more effective way of exposing and denouncing this sad Brazilian reality.

Bananas is my Business presents a narrative that also contains traces of fiction and documentary, characteristics filtered through the emphasis given by director Helena Solberg to her own identification with the work of Carmen Miranda. Similar to documentary Gringo in Mananaland, by De De Halleck, Solberg uses fragments of films and videos to construct a kind of radical confession. As she herself speaks in her voice off, his own memories are deeply connected to his idol's history. Thus, the narrative form she employs carries a distinctly postmodern flavor. The film is ostensibly about Carmen and the complex nature of her rise to popularity, through conventional documentary techniques. But, also in a more personal and original way, the director incorporates her own experience in the discussion and celebration of her idol. At the heart of these intentions is an effort to resolve some of the most delicate issues that frame the relationship between star and fan.

The bulk of the images is made up of a vast repertoire of images and sounds that record Carmen Miranda's experience. Solberg is able to solve an almost always difficult problem, which is to create a narrative that, selectively, can build Carmen's cinematographic biography. All of this archival material is preceded, interestingly enough, by fictionalized sequences that enact Carmen Miranda dying in her Beverly Hills bedroom. Solberg informs us of his strong identification with Carmen – strong enough to induce him to re-enact a fictionalized death for the actress. The sequence points to thematic issues in the film: a work aware of its own function in the representation of Carmen Miranda's life, which draws our attention to the actress's private and intimate aspects and also to the different meanings of her person.

In between, the narrative keeps the focus on Carmem's rise to stardom. For the viewer unfamiliar with Carmen as an icon of fruit lady latina, such material is quite revealing. Solberg deserves praise both for his research and revelation of unpublished or little-seen material and for the elegant way in which he shows us Carmen's position in the changing economic and political environment in the Americas at mid-century. What we see is an emblematic trajectory: it ascends over all of Brazil and carries with it a whole construction of Brazil. In his travels and success in the United States, his role is becoming increasingly ambiguous. There's a kind of entropy that Carmen begins to embody as her popularity grows and she becomes an icon, shrouding exactly who she is and what she means.

Solberg does not investigate the new meanings inadvertently engendered by the figure of Carmen for Latin America. Rather, it focuses on Carmen herself. Ironically, this issue of narrative coincides with Carmen's own life. While the hegemonic apparatus is defining an idea of ​​Latin America as a space dominated by agriculture and passion, Carmen exhausts herself in the very industry that, so recently, had celebrated and promoted the strength of her charm. Her partially "televised" death scenes mark this climax. As we see before our eyes, Carmen has a meltdown in the middle of a live television performance. She recovers, and the show goes on, sustained by her indefatigable steadfastness.

What this scene reveals, quite succinctly, it seems to me, is exactly the consequences of that firmness. It's no surprise that Carmen has internalized her problems, and Solberg showcases many of the difficult situations the actress has faced very well. While she was in a position of authority, she was vulnerable. A citizen of Brazilian pride, a beacon of the vitality of her people, Carmen was also a kind of hostage of the film industry, forced to play the role of “Brazilian” or “Latin” in Hollywood films, whose understanding of Latin America would only be laughable. , was not so treacherous and double. In that sense, and certainly in the context of the narrative, her television meltdown seems to encapsulate all of that at once.

Solberg tells us that the collapse was the leading factor in Carmen's death and that all that time spent on television only made her physical condition worse. What we actually see, then, is the televised death of Carmen Miranda. It is ironic, but not surprising, that her death is closely tied to her strength of talent. She dies and the show continues. More profoundly, she dies in the service of the entertainment industry, literally and figuratively caged in paper bound by a contract.

Naturally these ideas come after the Show be televised and after news of his death spread. However, in that short period of time when the program was being televised live across the country, the viewer had no idea that he was watching the death of a woman. It's an incredible, cutting-edge moment in the narrative. Solberg does not highlight the scene itself, but it is the sequence that closes the film, where the director capitalizes on the implications of Carmen Miranda's televised death.

As witnesses of the scene, we are the spectators of the actress's death, a death that Solberg deliberately staged. With that, the director shows us how complicated Carmen was and continues to be. Solberg is, in a sense, fetishizing Carmen's death. She wants a death that neither dishonors nor discredits Carmen. Implicit is the fan's desire to ensure some element of control in the idol-fan relationship. But it is not a question of getting closer or not to movie stars, but a problem of individual and national identity. The director's and her subject's history testifies to the absolute necessity and absolute impossibility of securing this element of control. This is a film that speaks both of hegemony and the complex primacy of Carmen Miranda's appeal to the director and the Brazilian public in general.

Third issue: the colonial encounter

How delicious was my French e Aguirre, the wrath of the gods (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, 1972) released in the early 70s, were directed, the first by one of the leaders of Cinema Novo and the other by an exponent of New German Cinema. Freely inspired by diaries of New World explorers, these films share a common axis: they represent the explosive and dynamic contact that took place when Europe penetrated the space of the indigenous peoples of America. In essence, the two films radiate the conflict of contact between these two cultures. As expected, there are notable differences in the staging of the colonial encounter between these films. But there is also common ground, a boundary that comprises issues that exist outside the films' own narratives. At work here are powerful currents of history revision, as well as large temporal holes. Imitating the old school montage, I will try to juxtapose these two representations.

How delicious was my French is a landmark of the tropicalist phase of Brazilian cinema, a period in which radical styles and forms of direction emerged. Like its predecessor, Macunaima, by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Nélson Pereira dos Santos' film addresses cannibalism as an integral component of contact between Europeans and Native Americans. In these films, we see a deliberate attempt to review the complexity of this contact, from the perspective of indigenous peoples. There is a radical method of working: the films are informed by the power of historical revisionism, by the simple and elegant method of redefining contact history from the perspective of an indigenous point of view. The conventional story, of course, is known as story and so, in trying to redefine history, Nélson Pereira dos Santos ends up providing a commentary for the present. This trend is in tune with the potential for social criticism existing in the artistic text, in this case, even more radical in view of the highly repressive political climate in Brazil in the early 70s.

Even before the first images of the film hit the screen, How delicious was my French overflows with radical gestures. Its narrative is based on the diaries of a German explorer who escaped death, narrowly missing becoming the main course of an anthropophagic feast. Nélson appropriates these texts. Similar at times to Kurosawa's style in Rashomon, this film favors different perspectives, co-opting the explorer's original texts by integrating them into a new narrative. As Richard Peña rightly pointed out, the use of a “prisoner witness” has the potential to reveal knowledge of the culture of the captors. "The account offered by the hostage witness is immune to extraneous defenses." Such cultural revelations, as shown by prisoner witnesses, are appropriated by the director. For this reason, at the very origin of the film, Nélson achieved an admirable feat: the use of conventional history at the service of a narrative that, eventually, will question that very history.

The story is more or less simple. A Frenchman is forced to abandon his culture, chained to a cannonball. He is about to die by drowning when he is captured by the Tupinambá Indians, a tribe that, in turn, finds itself in the midst of spurious alliances between the Portuguese, the French and the Tupiniquins. The Frenchman is sentenced to death, but not immediately. He will only be devoured after having experienced and assimilated the tribe's daily life, which he ends up doing. He gets a wife, Seboipep and, after frustrated attempts to negotiate his freedom, he goes to the pot and is consumed by the tribe. Nélson Pereira interposes titles throughout the narrative, effectively using these historical fragments as a disguise for what happens on screen. While, for example, a sign states textually that it is all part of the “official history”, the images completely refute such information. The effect is startling and places the imprisoned witness narrative in a framework that constantly shifts between European and Native American perspectives, past and present, written history and visualized history. At the center, or outside the narrative dynamic, is the equally dynamic idea of ​​contact.

At first, the contact is represented as a moment of ferocity. The Frenchman is captured by the Tupinambás in a sequence that emphasizes the strength and surprise of this tribe's attack. There is a natural sense of savagery guiding the staging, but which then becomes comical as the warriors force him to speak, comparing him to the Portuguese and further revealing his identity. While such a sequence helps to illuminate the shifting political allegiances in the narrative, it also works as a revelation in the depiction of French.

From the first moment we see the Frenchman, he appears imprisoned. He is thrown off a cliff, chained to a cannonball, made an outcast of his culture and society. It is a kind of brief exile, as he will then be transformed into another outcast defined by survival in the New World as a prisoner with a well-defined cultural and social role. When he changes from tupiniquin hands to tupinambá hands, it becomes clearer that he has become a commodity. It is not so important here whether or not the French can convince you that they are Portuguese. What matters is that he is a European, definition easily produced by fair skin. European that he is, he is invested with a certain power, which characterizes him as a commodity.

For the tupinambás, it has a power that can only be absorbed through its own ingestion, according to traditional customs. Interestingly enough, French as a commodity can be seen as a raw material, a resource not as different as minerals, oil or silver. And as such, it must be processed in the same way. Its value as a raw material depends on how it will be processed. This is a potential reversal of the traditional role Europeans played in the development of Brazil and Latin America. The manufacturer, the merchant and the consumer are emblematized in French. He is the agent of Europe colonizing the Americas. In this narrative he becomes part of the economic and political milieu that has inverted notions of raw materials and manufactured sectors. As the film progresses, we learn how French is being manufactured.

The Tupinambá practice of integrating the prisoner into the everyday life of the tribe defines the core of this refinement process. It's a fascinating practice that the director deftly explores. It is in this assimilation that we can understand how the dynamics of contact is revealed. In its initial phase of integration, French is clearly identified by its natural European character. He stands out among the Indians, and, in a sense, will always occupy that position in relation to the tribe. He has to maintain his role as the Other, almost solely because of the color of their skin. But the dynamics of tribal customs soon flourished and French gradually integrated. The driver of this assimilation is his temporary wife, Seboipep.

At first the Frenchman is not immediately attracted to her, given the decidedly carnivorous nature of the Indian woman's affectionate gestures towards him. But he helps her with her daily chores and begins to play her intended role. The two bond affectionately and, like any good husband, he cuts her hair. His appearance takes on the shape of a tupinambá, but he is still one step behind, still identified by his role and function. He begins to participate in the tribe's economy, which only reinforces his representation as a commodity. To all the world he proves his worth. Despite all the will and plans to escape, its continuous assimilation into tribal culture only serves to measure its refinement process and energize the power that its roasted body will be able to release. French is part of the tribal economy, in turn part of the real colonial economy of the Americas. Viewers here are compelled to investigate how the director configures this colonial economy and positions the French within it.

Critic Richard Peña illuminates the special role occupied by the French in the colonial economy: "The Frenchman, physically and economically, is projected into a state of suspension, between being a real American and a European." He could have been considered a pariah in official history, just as official history is unhappy when it informs us of the informal economy that exists in the Americas. In fact, the way Nélson Pereira represents the traditional colonial economy, based on mercantilism, he operated in official and marginal commercial spaces. This informal economy is embodied in the character of the old French merchant, himself a participant in the broader mercantilist economy. He negotiates like any European would. In exchange for raw materials such as wood and spices, the old European brings manufactured goods of questionable value to the tribe. The French are able to enter this economy by trading a commodity unique in the Americas, gunpowder.

This is an important moment of narrative tension and conflict. The Frenchman does not abandon his role in the tribe, but at the same time he continues to exhibit characteristically European traits. He envisions his escape based on the influence he can gain as an intermediary between the old merchant and the tribe. While postponing its inevitable outcome, the French prepare for a possible escape through the informal routes of the colonial economy. Which ends up in a confrontation between the two over buried treasure.

The two foreigners fight over the gold, but it is the older one who ends up replacing the buried treasure with his body. The resolution closes the Frenchman's connection to the exchange economy, at a decisive moment in the film. From here on, the Frenchman heads to his death. Peña underscores the irony in the fact that true assimilation into the tribe happens just before his death. There may be irony here, but the way in which Nélson Pereira represents French as a commodity and derived from contact is a central idea.

At the end, when the moving images turn into colonial engravings of cannibalism, the film takes stock of the gaps in the official history of European-American contact. By using official texts, the director undermined the real authority of these texts and revealed undefined spaces of official history. Instead of the rigid certainties of the many existing European accounts, Nélson Pereira confronted us with a much more complicated story. All these revelations can be traced in the way in which the film constructs the French as a commodity, its role in the dynamic web of official and informal economies providing the inversion and maintenance of the traditional economies of colonized lands.

Werner Herzog's film, Aguirre, the wrath of the gods, brings a more different agenda, although its narrative also has the diary of a European traveler as its starting point. In this case, the diary of a religious traveling on the expedition commanded by Francisco Pizarro. Herzog's basic narrative is as complex as that of Nélson Pereira dos Santos. It tells the story of an expedition doomed to failure, mutinous by Aguirre, an ambitious soldier of the Spanish crown thirsty for glory and gold. Aguirre leads the mutiny into virgin territory in search of the Eldorado, violently forcing the expedition through the rivers of the Amazon until the fleet is reduced to just him. And a vessel, full of monkeys, floating slowly on the water, with the figure of Aguirre, head down and maddened by dreams of wealth.

Aguirre it is not a radical work, nor meticulous as the Brazilian film, but it provides a representation of the European-American contact that contrasts, in an interesting way, with Nélson Pereira's film, mainly because Aguirre it is the work of a European director.

Werner Herzog was part of the New German Cinema that developed as a reaction to the hyper-saturation of American films on German screens. Therefore, he is a filmmaker sensitive to the power of hegemonic institutions over other cinemas. In his own cinematic practice, however, Herzog has been criticized for the exasperating and sometimes destructive slowness with which he realizes his projects. Apart from that, he developed a fascinating style that depends, almost always, on a tension between past and present, the real and its representation.

From the beginning, the perspective of the European colonizer is privileged, as the expedition descends an Andean peak and, little by little, penetrates into the dense forest. The group is mostly made up of enslaved and chained Indians, some carrying belongings of Aguirre's daughter and D. Úrsula, the wife of the expedition commander. Amerindians are the object of European control from the very first image of the film.

This story must be understood from a unique perspective, radically different from the emphasis employed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. Despite this, we can still see some traces of the influence of a native perspective. Indeed, Herzog's narrative is considerably informed by the extreme differences between colonizer and colonized. As in Nelson Pereira's film, the dynamics of contact are embodied in the central character, Aguirre. Throughout the film he is a wrathful figure, but at the beginning, he is represented as a marginal and sinister figure, related to shadows and whispers.

By occupying the center of the scene, he assumes a defective posture, moving in a twisted and curved way, as if he were an abstract force right in the middle of the expedition. This oblique posture suggests a kind of physical deformity, but on closer inspection, it seems that this contorted gait is the result of his bodily inability to properly channel the enormous ambition for treasure that motivates him. Aguirre is driven by greed, and the myth of Eldorado is his food.

This myth plays a subtle and important narrative role. In a sense, it guides our discussion of contact representation, precisely because it serves to define both Europeans and Americans.

The myth of Eldorado had a strong appeal to the Spaniards and it is easy to understand the fascination that huge deposits of gold on the surface of the earth promised to this imaginary. While this same myth was useful to some tribes in that it diverted Spaniards' attention to other lands outside the tribal territories, this is not the case in the film. We see that the myth simply recruited the Indians for the expedition, fueled by the seduction that the grandeur and majesty of the Spaniards exerted on the Indians. In this sense, the Eldorado myth was not a weapon for enslaved Indians. Amerindians are represented here as powerless agents, prisoners of myth and the frenzied conquest of the Spaniards.

As the expedition's madness spreads, Aguirre forges a new route downriver. Little by little, however, the small expedition penetrates into tribal territory. There is a key moment in contact when two members of the tribe paddle across the river to meet the group. As expected, the scene ends with Aguirre using violence, who, in this way, tries to calm the expedition's spirits. But the decline is inexorable until the dramatic finale. In the ambush, Aguirre is the only survivor. Henceforth he is a man and condemned. His mad desire has seen him relegated to a tattered vessel, fought over by monkeys.

It's a powerful image, with Aguirre trying to keep his head up as the vessel whirls down the river. The scene ends up being Herzog's most scathing commentary on the outcome of Euro-American contact. Contact that created a mad desire that, to be satisfied, either consumes or destroys. Contact that built the madness. In this way, if Herzog does not privilege the American perspective, he develops a narrative that denounces the desire that motivated European interests in Latin America, like a punch in the stomach.

*Benjamin Mitchell is a graduate student in “Media Arts” at the University of New Mexico.

Translation: Joao Luiz Vieira.


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