Cinema and “The Rifles”

Mira Schendel, 1964, ink and wash on paper, 48.00 cm x 66.00 cm. Photographic reproduction Eduardo Ortega


Comment on the film by Ruy Guerra

Just as it takes us to the savannah to see a lion, cinema can take us to the Northeast to see refugees. In both cases, proximity is a product, a technical construction. Industry, which controls the world, also controls its image, brings the savannah and drought to the canvas of our neighborhoods. Because it guarantees real distance, however, constructed proximity is a test of strength: it offers intimacy without the risk, I see the lion, who does not see me. And the closer and more convincing the lion is, the greater the technical miracle, and the greater the power of our civilization.

The real situation, therefore, is not one of a living confrontation between man and beast. The spectator is a protected member of industrial civilization, and the lion, who is made of light, was in the camera's sights as he could be in the sights of a rifle. In the film about animals, or “savages”, this constellation of forces is clear. Otherwise, no one would stay in the cinema. From this point of view, despite their stupidity, these tapes give a fair idea of ​​our power; the fate of the animals is our responsibility. In other cases, however, the evidence tends to fade.

The proximity mystifies, establishes a psychological continuum where there is no real continuum: the suffering and thirst of the Northeastern scourge, seen up close and in a certain way, are mine too. The human sympathy I feel bars my understanding, as it cancels out the political nature of the problem. In identity, the relationship is lost, the connection between the Northeast and the armchair I am in disappears. Led by the image I feel thirsty, I hate injustice, but the main thing has evaporated; I leave the cinema devastated, but I don't leave responsible, I saw suffering, but I'm not guilty; I don't leave as the beneficiary, which I am, of a constellation of forces, of an exploration enterprise.

Even large ribbons of cutting intent, such as God and the devil e Dried lives, have flaws on this point – causing, it seems to me, a bit of uneasiness. Aesthetically and politically, compassion is an anachronistic response; who says so are the very elements from which cinema is made: machine, laboratory and funding do not sympathize, they transform. It is necessary to find feelings at the height of cinema, of the technical stage of which it is a sign.

Ruy Guerra's film, which is a masterpiece, does not seek to "understand" poverty. On the contrary, he films it like an aberration, and from that distance he derives his strength. At first glance, it is as if two incompatible tapes alternated from scene to scene: a documentary about drought and poverty, and a plot film. The difference is clear. After the holy ox, with its faithful, after the speech of the blind man and the mystical shouting, the entry of the soldiers, motorized and talking, is a break in style – which is not a defect, as we will see.

In the documentary there is local population and misery; in the plot film the work is done by actors, the figures are from the sphere that is not hunger, there are rifles and trucks. In the facial mobility of those who do not go hungry, of the actors, there is desire, fear, boredom, there is individual purpose, there is freedom that is not present in the opaque faces of the migrants.

When the focus shifts from one sphere to another, the very scope of the image changes: the faces that are inside are followed by others that are not; the brutes are to be looked at, and humanity, plot or psychology, is read only in the moving faces. Some are to see, and others to understand. There is convergence, which remains to be interpreted, between this formal break and the theme of the film. The actor is to the extra what the city dweller and technical civilization are to the victim, what possibility is to pre-planned misery, what the plot is to inertia. It is from this coding that results in the visual effectiveness ofthe rifles.

The eye of cinema is cold, it is a technical operation. If used honestly, it produces a kind of ethnocentrism of reason, in the face of which, as in contact with modern technology, what is different cannot be sustained. The violent effectiveness of capitalist colonization, in which reason and arrogance are combined, is transformed into an aesthetic standard: it immigrates into sensibility, which becomes equally implacable, for good and for bad – unless it slackens, becomes trivialized, loses touch with reality.

“All that is fixed and hardened is dissolved, plus the retinue of ancient traditions and conceptions… what is holy is profaned, and forced at last to take a sober view of their positions and relations.” From the beginning, n'the rifles, misery and technical civilization are constellated. The first is slow, full of nonsense, an aggregate of defenseless people, disqualified by the spiritual and real mobility – the trucks – of the second. Although misery appears a lot and with force, its reasons do not count; is related, and has a negative sign.

By showing her from the outside and from the front, the film refuses to see anything more than anachronism and inadequacy in her. This distance is the opposite of philanthropy: on this side of transformation there is no humanity possible; or, from the perspective of the plot: short of transformation there is no difference that matters. The mass of the miserable ferments, but does not explode. What the camera shows in the abstruse faces, or rather what makes them abstruse, is the absence of the explosion, the leap that was not taken. There is therefore no plot. Just the weight of presence, remotely threatening. The political structure was translated into an artistic structure.

The soldiers, by contrast, are as if they can do anything. In city standards, they are any lower-class men. Instead, however, uniformed and atheists, they roam the streets as if they were gods – the men who came from outside and by jeep. They talk about women, they laugh, they don't depend on the holy ox, that's enough for them to be, effectively, something new. These are great scenes, in which his arrogance recovers, for our experience, the privilege of being “modern”: to be a city dweller is to be admirable. The same goes for the merchant and the truck driver. Your actions matter; they live up to the story, whose local levers – warehouse, rifles, transport – affect.

In these figures, even what matters is nothing more than an intention; the soldiers' ill will, for example, suggests alternative solutions to the final conflict. In other words, where there is a transformation of destinies, everything counts, and there is a plot. – A field of freedom has opened up, in which we feel at home. The nature of the image has transformed. There is psychology in every face; there is a sense of justice and injustice, individual and understandable destinies. Soldiers are like us. More, they are our emissaries on the ground, and like it or not, their practice is the carrying out of our policy. This is where we are at stake, much more than the suffering and belief of the scourged.

From a novelistic point of view, the solution is masterful. It vetoes the anodyne feeling, forces responsible reasoning. Focusing on the soldiers, who came from the capital on call to defend a warehouse, the plot forces an unsympathetic identification, self-knowledge: between the hungry and the police, compassion goes to the former, but it is in the latter that ours are. similar. By shifting the dramatic center from the migrant to the authority, the film gains a lot, as it makes its material more intelligible and articulate.

If from the perspective of misery the world is a homogeneous, diffuse calamity, in which the sun, boss, police and satan have an equal part, from the perspective of the soldiers a precise and transformable picture results: the distance between the migrants and private property is guaranteed by the rifles, which, however, could cross it. The image, as Brecht wants, is of a modifiable world: instead of injustice, its conditions, practices, its guarantor are highlighted. Due to the context, good feelings are not limited to sympathy. Where we identify, we despise; so that compassion necessarily passes through the destruction of our emissaries, and, in them, of an order of things.

The soldiers walk down the street in their superiority, but to the city's eye, which is also yours, they are modest people. They are, at the same time, pillars of the property, and mere wage earners, they stand guard as they could work elsewhere – the truck driver was once a soldier. They command, but are commanded; if they look down they are authorities – if they look up they are people too. A system of contradictions results, which will be a beacon for the plot. The logic of this conflict appears, for the first time, in perhaps the strongest scene in the film: when a soldier, in front of his companions, explains to the caboclos the operation and effectiveness of a rifle. The range of the shot is X, pierces so many inches of pine, so many bags of sand, and pierces six human bodies.

So far, the information is intended to threaten. Then, when he specifies the parts of the rifle by name, he wants to gawk. Technical vocabulary, impersonal and economic by nature, is passionately enjoyed as personal, and perhaps even racial, superiority: we are of another species, which it is best not to disobey. Contrary to its vocation for universality, knowledge explores and consolidates difference. This contradiction, which in a small way is a profile of imperialism, does not go without bad faith.

When he insists on technical language, inaccessible to the caboclo, the soldier awakens animosity among his companions, who stop laughing. The dramatic scheme is as follows: the specialist's vocabulary, prestigious for some, is commonplace for others; to elevate himself, the soldier needs the complicity of his comrades, who then need his fall to regain freedom. The insistence, in this case, becomes stupid, soon trapped in a gear: the ignorance of others no longer proves one's own superiority, but it is necessary to insist on it, to trample the caboclo more and more, in order to retain, by virtue of the common condition, of oppressors, the fugitive solidarity of angry comrades.

In each other, the soldiers see the mechanism of the oppression of which they are agents. Because they are not solitary soldiers, they refuse reciprocal confirmation, necessary for the superior race; and because they are soldiers too, they do not go as far as radical unmasking. Hence the hesitation in posture, between the inflated chest and the scoundrel. And hence, also, the two permanent temptations: the arbitrary destruction of the retreatants, and the violent disintegration of the troops. Later conflicts will be an unfolding of this pattern. Thus the murder of the caboclo, the fight that broke out between the soldiers, and the love scene, which in its brutality is very much like rape.

The series culminates with the extremely violent pursuit and death of the truck driver. The episode is as follows. The food must be transported outside the city, away from the evacuees, who watch everything without blinking. The soldiers stand guard, terrified by the mass of hungry people, but also exasperated by the passivity they show. The chauffeur, who is starving and was once a soldier, does what he could also do for soldiers; he tries to stop the transport of supplies. Hunted by the entire detachment, he is finally caught in the back, and run through by a full rifle charge. The frantic excess of the shots, as well as the sinister joy of the chase, make the exorcism clear: in the ex-soldier, soldiers shoot their own freedom, the vertigo of turning over the flag.

Refracted in the group of soldiers, the real question, of property, ends up being reduced to a psychological conflict. The clash of consciences, which has its own movement, is outlined and intensified several times, and ends in the final shootout. A partial dialectic was triggered, moral only, of fear, shame and fury, restricted to the field of the military, even if it decides in the presence of the retreatants. It is an innocuous dialectic, however bloody the fight may be, as it does not excite the hungry mass, which would be its true subject. It is as if, in the face of the central conflict, the dramatic development is off center. [1].

In technical terms, the climax is false, as it does not resolve the tape, which in turn does not move towards it: although the shooting is the culmination of a conflict, it does not govern the sequence of episodes, in which they alternate, always separated, the world of plot and the world of inertia. At first glance, this off-center construction is a defect; what good is your crisis if it is a displaced and distorted version of the main antagonism? If the crisis is moral and the antagonism is political, what is the point of approaching them? serves, nothe rifles, to mark the discontinuity. In other words, it serves the critique of moralism, as it stresses both moral responsibility and its insufficiency. The important link, in this case, is in the absence of a direct link.

Even in the final scenes, when there are parallels between the camp of the soldiers and the camp of the hungry, the gap between the two is carefully preserved. The devouring of the holy ox does not result from the chauffeur's death. It's an echo of you, like a degraded response. The persecution and shooting, although they have a political basis, do not convey conscience to the migrants, nor organization; but they convey excitement and movement, a vague impatience.

The bearded prophet threatens his ox-jesus: “If it doesn't rain soon, you'll stop being a saint, and you'll stop being an ox”. Immediately, the edible sacred, which had been preserved, is transformed, as Joyce would say, into Christeak. The retreatants, inert until now, in this final minute are like piranhas. – The group of retreatants is explosive, and the moral position of the soldiers is unsustainable. Moral crisis, however, does not feed the hungry, nor can it be cured by what they have done. The relationship between the two forms of violence is not one of continuity or proportion, but neither is it one of indifference; it is random and highly flammable, as the viewer feels.

In the plot film, which is from our world, we witness oppression and its moral cost; O close up it is in bad faith. In the film of misery, we foresee the conflagration and its affinity with lucidity. O close up it is abstruse, and if it were not so it would be terrible. In the “defect” of this construction, whose elements do not mix, a historical fatality is fixed: our civilized West glimpses with fear, and horror at itself, the eventual access of the dispossessed to reason.

* Robert Schwarz is a retired professor of literary theory at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of whatever (Publisher 34).

Originally published on Brazilian Civilization Magazine. noto. 9/10, September/November 1966.

Technical sheet

the rifles

Brazil, 1963, 80 minutes

Directed by: Ruy Guerra

Screenplay: Ruy Guerra and Miguel Torres

Director of Photography: Ricardo Aronovich

Scenography: Calazans Netto

Cast: Átila Iório, Nelson Xavier, Maria Gladys, Leonides Bayer, Paulo César Pereio, Hugo Carvana, Maurício Loyola.

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[1] My argument and vocabulary are taken here from a study by Althusser, “Notes on a theater materialiste”, in which a structure of this kind, “asymmetrical and off-centre”, is described and discussed. Cf. Pour Marx (Maspero, 1965).

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