“Memories of prison” according to Florestan Fernandes

Scene from "Memories of Prison" by Nelson Pereira dos Santos


"prison memories I was marked by the emergence of a new political awareness of the national reality and a repulsion towards the conformism typical of rebellion movements”

T.S. Eliot in the poem The devastated land states that “April is the cruelest of months” because in it germinates “the lilacs of the dead earth”, “the agonizing roots of the spring rain”, “the dry tubers” and “the land in forgotten snow”. He says: “I read a lot at night and travel to the south” as a strategy to escape the “remnants of the European winter” (ELIOT, 1999, p. 52).

Ruy Castro (2024), perhaps inspired by TS Eliot, in a recent article, asked whether we can consider April “the cruelest of months”. Among other events, he recalled “April 1831, when Dom Pedro I abdicated the Brazilian throne and left it to his six-year-old son”, the violent 1st. of April 1964, which lasted 21 years and “had its 60th anniversary vigorously uncelebrated a few days ago”, “April 1981, when there was the bomb in Riocentro” and, to further complicate the doubt, it ended the text by remembering “ the cruelty of April 1500, when they discovered/invaded Brazil”.

Ruy's serious and ironic text reminded me of an old and current review by Florestan Fernandes (1920-1995) about the book prison memories, by Graciliano Ramos, and its film adaptation made by Nelson Pereira dos Santos (FERNANDES, 1984, 2022).

Graciliano Ramos (1892- 1953) was arrested by the Estado Novo dictatorship when it was beginning to take shape, at the beginning of 1936. Without formal accusation or trial, the writer from Alagoas was detained in Maceió for alleged involvement with the Intentona Comunista, against the government of Getúlio Vargas, which occurred in November 1935 and was fought by the National Security Forces. Passing through several prisons, including the Correctional Colony, in Ilha Grande (RJ), he was imprisoned until early 1937, during which time he began writing Memories of Prison. Published in 1953, the book narrates the political prisoner's daily life, the unsanitary conditions and some episodes of repression at that time, such as the deportation of Olga Benário to Nazi Germany.

In 1984, the book was adapted for film by Nelson Pereira dos Santos (1928- 2018). That same year, Florestan Fernandes wrote about the book and the film in the “Colunas Eternas” series on Folha de S. Paul (FERNANDES, 1984).

prison memories

(By Florestan Fernandes, August 20, 1984).

How many years ago did I read prison memories? I do not remember. It would not be necessary to have lived under the hell of the Estado Novo to suffer the impact of the greatness of that book, which links exemplary artistic creation to the most consequential moral and political anger.

Those who speak of “critical literature” and “engaged art” almost always remain on the periphery of symbols and on the surface of political struggle. Graciliano Ramos fought the fight at the deepest level of defending the dignity of the self and the irreversible condemnation of institutionalized despotism. Temperament and circumstances lit the flame of the “revolted intellectual”, thus generating the only work of integral denunciation and complete unmasking existing in our literature.

I didn't read the book again. Not even now, when I felt an unstoppable urge to encourage readers not to miss its cinematic transposition. The strength of the book, in my memory, is linked to the inner revolt, the desire to denounce and unmask beyond and beyond the limits of ideological and political nonconformity, to seek an objectivity so uncompromising and penetrating that it reminds us of “true science”, in the sense of Karl Marx.

By overcoming his resentment and the humiliations suffered, the intellectual discovers the meaning of prison and the violence that prevail throughout Brazilian society, in order to identify the microcosm within which he was thrown as the most brutalized and forgotten limit of the whole, but, at the same time, the most expressive and revealing.

At a stroke, the Estado Novo and the various psychological, police, military or political fringes of oppression showed themselves for what they were, in their specific historical reality and in the projections that welded it to the more or less remote and recent slave and colonial past, that is, in its structural historical reality.

In a country in which decolonization was confused with the changing of the guard in the ruling house and with the monopolization of power by the dominant strata of the manorial estates, prison memories I was marked by the emergence of a new political awareness of the national reality and a repulsion towards the conformism typical of rebellion movements, which would impregnate the history of “proletarian notions”.

It was an extremely difficult creative task to transpose a book like this into the language of cinema, which moved the nation, but remained ignored by scholars of Brazil in its most enlightening and provocative original perspective, in rupture with the “official history” and, specifically, with the various then existing modalities of “armchair sociology” and “academic social science”. For the second time a writer wrote a masterpiece within his activity (if taken The Sertões, by Euclides da Cunha as a parallel), but now, the product transcended the existing order as a whole and called it into question. Could cinema respond dialectically to this realization?

I only watched the film by Nelson Pereira dos Santos and his collaborators once (among whom the competence of the technicians is nothing like the excellence of the authors). The impression I was left with, corroborated by a long critical reflection, led me to the certainty of an effective dialectical correspondence.

The film operates on the three levels of the book: the psychological, that of memory itself, which focuses on everyday occurrences; that of events, in which history is also objectified through memory and direct experience with the reality of the brutal, shocking and repulsive State, a portrait of the society of which it was a part and of those who commanded it, for whom it constituted a “necessity” policy"; that of the “repetition of history”, partially visible through the occurrence of everyday life and events, but for the most part a matter of unmasking critical analysis, whereby the brutalization and bestialization of man reflected how the dictatorship was included in a chain of continuities, that made the present a faithful mirror of the oligarchic past, the neocolonial slave past and the colonial slave past, allegedly disappeared. What needs to be noted: the film does all this through cinema's own paths, without parasitizing on the talent of Graciliano Ramos or mimicking the obligatory portentous framework of references.

prison memories, in the cinematographic version, more freely explores the artistic language and the possibilities available to cinema to fragment reality and then recompose the concrete on the different levels at which it appears in the perception, in the minds and in the history of men.

Those who love the book for itself will not recover it in the film. Anyone who loves the various truths that Graciliano Ramos faced with manhood and courage will see in the film an ingenious and complete transposition of the book. It would be an understatement to say that both complement each other.

Nelson Pereira dos Santos explains the cinematographic technique as Graciliano Ramos explains the literary technique, as a resource for discovering the truth, a weapon of intellectual denunciation and an instrument of political struggle.

As “their” historical situation dates back to today, the immediate target is, naturally, the current dictatorship and the conditions that give it an inconcealable colonial substance. This is the brilliant aspect of the film, so to speak.

The current prison memories It could not be something external, such as the “chance” of a dictatorship that is even more rational in its use of institutionalized corruption, oppression and violence. Therefore, ending the film with the sequences that were chosen for this purpose represents a masterful solution, which gives the film the same intellectual, moral and political meaning as the book, the same strength of overwhelming indignation.

In short, it is evident as a colonial present, which will not disappear by itself or by an impossible redemptive action by those who weave the continuities of despotism. Leaving prisons does not mean defeating dictatorships. To put an end to them, on the historical soil of Latin America, it would be necessary to destroy the colonial framework in which they are based and which gives them the malignant ability to survive those they imprison and free...

* Deborah Mazza She is a professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Faculty of Education at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Florestan Fernandes' sociological production and educational issues (Cabral Editora/ University Bookstore). [https://amzn.to/4dna4Ni]


Prison Memories.
Brazil, 1984, 185 minutes.
Direction and script: Nelson Pereira dos Santos.
Production: Luiz Carlos Barreto and Nelson Pereira dos Santos.
Cast: Carlos Vereza, Glória Pires, Nildo Parente and José Dumont.


CASTRO, Ruy. The cruelest of months? In Folha de S. Paul, Opinion, 03/04/2024.

Eliot, T.S. The Wasteland. Lisbon: Water Clock, 1999.

FERNANDES, Florestan. Prison Memories. Sociologist analyzes film adaptation of Graciliano Ramos' classic. In Folha de S. Paul, Eternal Columns Series, 20/08/1984. The review was republished in Folha de S.Paulo. 19/01/2022, p. A9.

RAMOS, Graciliano. prison memories. 23rd. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 1987.

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