Cinema in quarantine: Iracema – an Amazonian fuck

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Roberto Noritomi*

Commentary on the film by Jorge Bodanszky and Orlando Senna.

The film Iracema: an Amazonian fuck still has a lot to say for today. More than its acidic irony, so convenient for cutting through the prevailing shallow cynicism, the film that Jorge Bodanszky and Orlando Senna made in 1974 retains an aesthetic-political radicalism that maintains its freshness. Produced within the context of the “Brazilian miracle” and the implementation of the Medici government’s National Integration Plan, Iracema emerged as a gesture of unveiling what was happening “behind the scenes” of the construction of the Transamazon Highway.

With a simple and fluid plot, woven around the misadventures of the prostituted Indian woman Iracema (Edna de Cássia) with the rogue truck driver Tião Brasil Grande (Paulo César Pereio), the film critically restores, to the margins of the regime's symbol highway, the myth alencariano of the encounter between American nature and European civilization. Unlike the romantic epic, what we have is the narration of a fall: that of Iracema and all her people.

The thread of fiction was just the pretext for unraveling, through Bodanzky's documentary lens, the scenario of environmental and social devastation that the Amazon was suffering and of which there was no witness. The denouncement was fundamental in itself and was in the immediate concerns of the directors and producers. But in making it, Bodanzky and Senna, filmmakers of sophisticated extraction and magnetized by engagement, brought much more to the fore. Under its apparent simplicity and precariousness, Iracema offers a bundle of complex issues, aesthetically and politically, that are not limited to that moment.

First of all, Iracema it is an indomitable work, which does not fit into a comfortable invoice with clear identification. Documentary with a fable axis, or the opposite, the issue is not easy to untie. What is central is the fact that the driving line is sustained solely by an elliptical and crisp montage of adversarial sound and visual elements. There are no externalities. no voice over, unique and sovereign, narrates and organizes meaning. Statistical, historical data or precise spatial indications are not cited.

Everything is built exclusively around the photographic heterogeneity of the images captured by Bodanzky's manual camera. What you have for narrative security are just the characters. It is these visual registers, discrepant and discontinuous, that follow one another: slow tracking shots along a bucolic igarapé; erratic camera movements amidst the market and the Círio de Nazaré procession; flagrant prostitution nightclubs; questions and improvised mockery by Tião/Pereio with the local population; dramatic scenes; isolated planes of fires, etc.

The soundtrack is equally prolix and discrepant: radio voiceovers parade; institutional speeches; corny, vainglorious musical hits; spontaneous and casual dialogues etc. There are two instances, sound and imagery, of similar heterogeneity that are juxtaposed. And it is in the way in which the montage articulates the mismatch and the tension between one and the other that the fundamental aspect of the work rests. It is in the mismatch that the network of meanings of Iracema. The grandiloquent official rhetoric, reverberated in the songs and in the mocking speech of Tião Brasil Grande, inevitably becomes demoralized when it is refuted by the images that escape its order. The established tension leads to attention.

This tension is underlined in the way the film (filmmaker and crew) establishes its relationship with the staging, the raw reality of the locations and, mainly, the participants in the scene (professional and amateur actors, residents, etc.). The calm delimitation between what is filmed and who films it, between who acts and who does not, is diluted. The camera moves so freely between the staging and the documentary that it merges them. The staging itself is converted into a raw data of reality and vice versa.

This was only possible because of the unique collaboration between Bodanzky and Pereio. The two, one behind and the other in front of the camera, weave together this unprecedented intersection. the result is Iracema, that is, the filmic record of the effective and real “encounter” between filmmaker, actors (recognized or not as such) and local residents, in 1974, in Belém and in the vicinity of the Transamazon Highway. The film and its makers are in this border region, conflicted and violent, and document two interventions: the military and economic one of the dictatorship and the one of artists in an act of aesthetic and political resistance.

the feat of Iracema, however, goes on. It allows building very fruitful interlocutions with its broader cinematographic and cultural environment. This is an important feature of several films created in that context in which political and cultural clashes permeated artistic productions. In the case of cinema, cleavages and appropriations were particularly intense.

Right from the start, there is an important ambiguous clue. The subtitle with an erotic double meaning (“an Amazonian fuck”) printed on its promotional poster refers the film to typical pornochanchada productions, which it effectively is not. But by ironically flirting with this downgraded genre that was very fashionable at the time, Bodanzky opened fire on two fronts.

On the one hand, this would allow Iracema reached the larger public in large urban centers (it was common for distributors to add some sexual appeal to the title to attract attention) and the denouncement could gain popularity (which censorship prevented). On the other hand, the chanchadesque parodic option with the literary character placed the film in explicit opposition to the cultural policy perpetrated by the dictatorship, that is, the idealization of indigenous people and the exaltation of historical or literary figures in the country. This strategy, followed by other filmmakers, somehow carried out the cinemanovista effort in the 1970s, which was to make a political film based on popular taste.

In another line of dialogue, by bringing to the screen the deplorable situation of the indigenous populations, Bodanzky not only questioned the model of development of the dictatorial State, but opened the door to rethink the allegorical constructions about the so-called national identity, which had in the Indian and in nature its icons.

The tropicalist vision, with all its carnivalization of the indigenous, transposed in films such as Macunaima (Joaquim Pedro de Andrade/69) and How delicious was my French (Nelson Pereira dos Santos/71) undergoes an update. The unprecedented documentary realism of Bodanzky/Senna's images confronted the idyllic indigenist fantasies and records, hitherto propagated by literature and cinema. This real Indian is not located in the depths of the forest, virginal and haughty.

It is now located on the urban periphery, subjected to exploitation and poverty, as represented in the figure of the prostituted Indian woman, wearing shorts with Coca Cola advertising and yearning to arrive in São Paulo. Iracema and the Guarani turn out to be a farce. No source of Brazilianness is more possible in those terms. It is a symbolic horizon that dissolves in the light of crude reality.

In the same vein, another phenomenon that is critically replaced by the film is that of popular religiosity. This was always a social aspect dear to Cinema Novo in its origins. It invariably appeared as a spontaneous and rooted manifestation in which a weak archaic resistance was anchored and, above all, a state of alienation that held back the revolutionary leap. the rifles (Ruy Guerra, 1963) and God and the Devil (Glauber Rocha, 1964) among others, were notable in this characterization and gave a special, diegetic and formal place to the lament and prayers of immense retinues of devotees and blesseds.

Em Iracema, religiosity remains an intense popular expression, drawing large crowds, however, it no longer appears as a manifestation in its full primal spontaneity. The sequence of the Círio de Nazaré procession clearly indicates this point. She does not fail to visually recognize people's rapture, as in a collective trance, but the emphasis is on the protagonism of the police ordering apparatus, which even ensures the chronometric control of the route.

Here, the sound-image montage is exquisite: while the camera moves close to the faces of devotees in full surrender, what is heard, in voice over, is the speech of the commander of the police and, above all, of an ecclesiastical authority, associating the extraordinary feats of the saint with the “effort of national integration” and the “use of natural resources”. The popular is supplanted by the institutional.

The “reckoning” would not be enough if it did not include the Cinema Marginal São Paulo, in which Bodanzky, after passing through the German school of Alexander Kluge, calibrated his look and his restless and unfiltered camera. Maybe that's where his greatest debt lies. Iracema indeed it is marked by a sense of urgency; for a free and elliptical narrative; for the debauchery and for the debauchery; by discontinuous cuts and sudden movements; by improvisation. In addition, there is the boçality and frivolity that bring Tião Brasil Grande closer to Bandido da Luz Vermelha (R. Sganzerla) and distance him from Gaucho de the rifles (R. War). Coincidence or not, Pereio had acted in the War movie, in which Átila Iório played the character of the Gaucho driver.

Finally, it is worth paying attention to the note of desolation that punctuates the film. As is well known, a certain hope or social utopia incensed Cinema Novo and many other filmmakers for a long time, even under the post-64 revision. Iracema walks in another direction, because Bodanzky's camera seems to have no other option in the face of prevailing barbarism. The fire, the felled forest, the dirty and dark nightclubs, the rudimentary camps, the garbage and the grotesque are there filling the scenes. There is no exasperation, but there is no hope either.

That lack of utopian consolation, which permeated most of the marginal films, at the turn of the 1960s, is present. The road, which the angel was born (Júlio Bressane, 1969) and Bang Bang (Andrea Tonacci, 1971) which had already been buried as a progressive chimera, now returns as a regressive vector. In the last scene, in front of a shack on the edge of the Transamazon Highway, a fallen, humiliated and abandoned Iracema shouts abuse at Tião and, instead of being angry, she laughs, as if laughing at the staged situation itself. Iracema crosses the road and leaves the visual field on the right, while the plan keeps the truck moving away until it disappears covered by dense dust. What remains is the apathy of a lost place in that “big Brazil” project.

Bodanzky went up to the Amazon to show the other side of the dictatorial boastful policy. Everything he filmed, from the most ridiculous and casual shot to the most significant and emblematic, must be considered. Nothing is spare or lost. Iracema it is a call to reality and confrontation.

*Roberto Noritomi he holds a PhD in sociology of culture from USP.


Iracema: an Amazonian fuck
Brazil, 1974, 90 minutes
Directed by: Jorge Bodanszky and Orlando Senna
Screenplay: Jorge Bodanszky and Hermano Penna
Screenplay: Orlando Senna
Cast: Paulo César Peréio, Edna de Cássia, Conceição Senna.

See this link for all articles