Marighella – the guerrilla fighter who set the world on fire

Image: Robert Rauschenberg


Commentary on the book by Mario Magalhães

The book by journalist Mario Magalhães on Marighella has 736 pages, subdivided into 43 short chapters, an epilogue and more acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, name index – and notebooks with images without pagination. It was originally released in 2012 and gained new repercussions after being turned into a 2019 film, directed by Wagner Moura.[1]

No film based on a book merely reproduces its textual origin, both due to language differences (predominance of the word, in the book, and the image, in the film) and the moment in which each work was made. The Marighella de Magalhães emerged in the first government of President Dilma Roussef (2011/2014), when the 1964/1985 dictatorship was still predominantly treated as a dictatorship. Moura's film appeared during the Jair Bolsonaro misgovernment (2018/2022), which largely recovered the brutal procedures of that previous dictatorship to pretend that it was not.

It is worth commenting on the book and understanding these differences, the reach of the first work and the metamorphosed reaffirmations, more or less guaranteed by what came later.

The book, in the language of a somewhat romantic journalistic chronicle, is marked by informative minutiae, mixed with generalizations (a sympathetic and gluttonous central character, for example), with documentary sources not always clearly identified and men and women suited to the vision that its author has of that universe. Does it include alleged intimate speeches or thoughts of the central character, without indicating precisely where such data came from – correspondence, interviews, testimonials from third parties? Some references to documents in the body of the text are incomplete or indirect. Notes at the end of the volume (no numbering!), acknowledgments and bibliographic indications reduce these problems a little, but not so much.

Although based on the book by Magalhães, Moura's film focuses on the period after 1964, with Marighella in the armed struggle and facing the terrible repression of that dictatorship. In this sense, the cinematographic narrative adopted a more twilight tone, towards death, but still full of life, with some lines of hope, without renouncing poetic licenses and barely addressing the Brazilian workers of that period.[2]

The book begins with an attempt to escape and fight against police officers, at the beginning of the 1964-1985 dictatorship, narrative starting points, characterization of Carlos as a left-wing militant and internal critic of the PCB and the João Goulart government, an epic climate of resistance and courage – Marighella shot, moving between places of imprisonment, pain and persistence. After this opening, the volume takes on a more chronological tenor, with childhood and adolescence in family and school, the beginning of adult life, joining the PCB, subsequent political trajectory, including two dictatorships, armed struggle against the last of them...

The communist uprising in Brazil in 1935 was characterized as almost exclusively military and partisan, in barracks or similar spaces. Magalhães confined Marighella to the PCB, with little indication of the workers he and his comrades were fighting for. And he repeatedly described torture and more violence suffered by communists in prison, the martyrdom of these men (there is almost no mention of women in that space), sadism by government agents.

Despite these horrors, the imprisonment in Fernando de Noronha, after 1935, recorded the natural beauty of the place and even a certain professional dignity (as far as possible in a bloody dictatorship) of Colonel Nestor Veríssimo da Fonseca, director of that prison, capable of establishing agreements with their prisoners. There was a separation between communist and integralist prisoners. Ilha Grande, where they were later transferred, would be worse, but it would still harbor traces of sociability among the convicts, including living with their wives.

Carlos' life, after he got out of prison, in 1945, seems to be rebalanced, with some internal disputes in the PCB, unconditional admiration for Jossif Stalin and Luiz Carlos Prestes and the resumption of love relationships, enhancing his virility and only briefly characterizing his partners, including Elza Sento Sé, mother of his son, and even Clara Charf, the partner with whom, according to Moura's film, he lived until he died – the book mentions a final relationship with Zilda Paula Xavier Pereira. There are references to his other loves (absent in Moura's film) and Clara's tranquility about this polyamorous facet of Carlos – no similar experiences of hers are mentioned. Certainly, Marighella's affective life is not key to understanding her presence in the public scene, but the book and the film brought it into their narratives, in different ways, characterizing the character, in the case of the printed biography, as a warrior of many loves.

After the Estado Novo and the end of World War II, an anti-strike directive emerged among the communists, part of the USSR's international policy in that period, which was not rigidly followed by Brazilian workers – the biographer mentions hundreds of movements of this nature in the state of São Paulo. Paul.

Parallel to Carlos' life, Mario's book discusses the PCB, with an emphasis on the figure of Prestes. 1935, 1945 and 1964 are great references for the narration, highlighting Carlos, Luiz Carlos, PCB and, to a lesser extent, trade unions and, later, other groups opposing the dictatorship. The political opposition far from the armed struggle (Congress, Alternative Press, Arts) is also little mentioned in the book, as well as the life of the poorest workers.

Mário shows a special talent as a narrator when approaching 1964, a melancholy difficult passage in content and also in textual form. The biographer tends to admire more the proposals and actions of Leonel Brizola (Rede da Legalidade, Grupos dos 11) and Francisco Julião (defense of Agrarian Reform, Ligas Camponesas) in the universe prior to the coup, opposing them with errors of evaluation, hesitations and limits of João Goulart and Luiz Carlos Prestes, in particular, the hope in a reformist national bourgeoisie.

It is in this initial period of the dictatorship that the differences between Marighella and the party leadership are accentuated, with his defense of alternatives to the PCB guidelines, including armed struggle. Developments of this were his suspension and subsequent expulsion from the PCB, in addition to harsh criticism from Prestes and other communist leaders of that option. Marighella gained international notoriety, deserved praise and support from Fidel Castro, Jean Paul Sartre and Luchino Visconti, among others, but did not achieve support in more Soviet bloc countries (with the exception of North Korea, near the end of the armed struggle in Brazil). , while suffering increasing attention from Brazilian and North American repressive bodies.

Along with the theoretician and leader of this struggle, Carlos made the man of action grow in himself, who participated in bank expropriations, when he was already over fifty, the opposite of the Parisian motto of 1968 “Do not trust anyone over 30 years old ”, quoted in the almost ending of the American film the planet of the apes, from 1968, directed by Franklin Schaffner.

The written biography emphasizes the role of planning and articulation that Marighella played in relation to the armed struggle after 1964, mapping the Brazilian territory, enlisting guerrillas, writing about the issue. Designated by the dictatorial Minister of Justice Luís da Gama Filho as “Public Enemy Number One”, in November 1968, Carlos declared himself honored with this qualification: after all, he was enemy number one of a criminal dictatorship! The book highlights him as a planner of this Brazilian armed struggle on a national scale, without ignoring other groups and leaders who even disputed with him and the National Liberation Alliance proposals in that field, or allied themselves with Carlos and the ALN in some initiatives.

There is a lot of information about finances, armaments, plans to continue such combats in 1968 and 1969, guerrilla logistics. The Brazilian universe of work, with wage squeeze and job instability (the FGTS appeared in 1966/1967, eliminating stability by staying in the same job), is rarely seen, although it suffered severe blows during that dictatorship: only on page 511, the wage squeeze and fear among workers, which kept them away from public demonstrations against dictatorial practices, emerged, followed by a vaunted Brazilian economic growth, which was translated, in terms of dictatorship propaganda, as the “Brazilian miracle”. Businessmen figure equally to a limited extent, despite having so much benefited from the dictatorial violence that they helped to construct and manage.

Although Mário recognizes Marighella's political mistakes, his book tends towards secular hagiography, expressed in a unique personality, on the intellectual and personal levels, mixed with ALN failures in the fields of logistics and interpretations that, together with government barbarism, ended up costing him lives of militants and their defeat. It is an example of Historical Culture that invites dialogue with other critical materials, in terms of document analysis and theoretical approach.

The biography points out as sources of inspiration for ALN's actions the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation, the struggle of the Palestinians to fight British Imperialism and the Algerian combat that faced the French colonizers, plus the always declared admiration for Cuba and Vietnam for the boldness against -imperialist of these countries.

The arrest, torture and murder of members of the São Paulo ALN are narrated by Magalhães in dantesque scenes: head injuries, blood, bruises, the horror in the name of the alleged dictatorial law. The murder of Marighella, in an ambush prepared by police chief Sérgio Fleury and his team, is a logical development of this context. Police lies tried to maintain that Carlos, when he died, was armed, accompanied by security, that there had been an attack by guerrillas against the police present there, etc.

The sad end of the long narrative is softened by the later stories of ALN survivors and their allies, their participation in Brazilian politics and popular struggles after the dictatorship. The image of the pandorga that disconnects from its moorings and disappears into the sky, the book's epilogue, introduces a touch of beauty to this outcome, recalling the potentialities of struggles that remain as inspirations for new social practices.

Mário Magalhães is a talented journalistic narrator, who holds the reader's attention in a long and often tense volume, overloaded with information that is not always contextualized.

The time frame that Wagner Moura's film made, by focusing on the fight against the 1964/1985 dictatorship, has an advantage: other films about youth, love, the daily life of poor workers and more topics of that character and his time may yet be made from the same book, new inspirational developments for other audiences.

* Mark Silva He is a professor at the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of Teaching history in the XNUMXth century: In search of understood time (Papirus).



Mario Magalhaes. Marighella, the guerrilla who set the world on fire. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2012, 736 pages.



[1] marighella. Brazil, 2019 (released in 2021). Directed by: Wagner Moura. Production: Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Fernando Meirelles, Wagner Moura and others. Screenplay: Felipe Braga, Mário Magalhães and Wagner Moura. Argument: based on the book Marighella, the guerrilla who set the world on fire, by Mario Magalhães. Photography: Adrian Teijido. Editing: Lucas Gonzaga. Cast: Seu Jorge, Bruno Gagliasso, Adriana Esteves, Herson Capri and others. Duration: 155 minutes. Colors

[2] SILVA, Marcos. “Marighella”. Comment about the movie marighella, by Wagner Moura. Rio de Janeiro: Andreia Barata Ribeiro and others, 2019. the earth is round. São Paulo, December 22nd. Available at


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