A bandit against the military dictatorship

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By LUIZ BERNARDO PERICAS

Commentary on the film Giovanni Fago

1.

During the leaden years, several artists raised their voices against the military dictatorship, through books, songs, plays and films. In cinema, perhaps the most unusual example of this aspect is O' bandit (that's right, with an apostrophe), by Giovanni Fago, an “Italian western” set in Bahia! Released in December 1969, this Italian-Spanish co-production went unnoticed by many lovers of the seventh art. And even by lovers of spaghetti westerns. Although relatively little known today, the tape, however, is a classic case of blunt criticism of the authoritarian power of the generals and imperialism.

Giovanni Fago, the film's director, began his career as an assistant to legends such as Mario Monicelli, Vittorio De Sica, Renato Castellani and Lucio Fulci and from 1967 onwards, he became conductor of “bang-bangs” like For 100 dollars you amazzo e Uno di più all'inferno. And, of course, from O' bandit. Instead of northern Mexico or the “Wild West” of the United States, the work takes place in the northeastern backlands. And instead of revolutionaries, cowboys and bounty hunters, the traditional characters of hinterland Brazilian: priests, blesseds and colonels.

Cuban-American actor Tomas Milian was called to play the main role. In 1958, he moved to Italy, where he participated in films by Mauro Bolognini and Luchino Visconti. Your first western was The Bounty Killer (1966), by Eugenio Martín. He also starred, within the genre, works by Sergio Solima and the classic Let's kill, comrades (1970), by Sergio Corbucci, when he starred alongside Franco Nero, Jack Palance and Eduardo Fajardo. Throughout his career, Tomas Milian would also participate in films by Franco Brusati, Dennis Hopper, Michelangelo Antonioni, Tony Scott, Oliver Stone, John Frankenheimer, Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, Andy Garcia and Bernardo Bertolucci. In O' bandit, he would give a memorable performance.

It is easy to hear the echoes of God and the devil in the land of the sun, by Glauber Rocha, and by the cangaceiro, by Lima Barreto, throughout the narrative. It is worth highlighting here the magnificent and original photography by Alessandro Ulloa, the soundtrack by Riz Ortolani and the editing by Eugenio Alabiso.

2.

The film begins with an attack by troops commanded by Colonel Minas (Leo Anchóriz) against the bandit Firmino and his group, in a village in Bahia. The officer guarantees the integrity of the citizens if the bandit surrenders. But lie. The soldiers mercilessly massacre all the bandits and slaughter the local population, for allegedly helping the criminals. Young Expedito, the protagonist of the story, will be injured on the occasion.

Furthermore, his father (who during the shooting just looked, resignedly, at a cage, where a trapped bird symbolized the limited life and without possibilities of change of the country man; by the way, all the residents had caves with enclosed birds) is murdered, and his cow (the countryman's livelihood), also eliminated by bullet. The violent act clearly shows that the “people” apparently have no way to escape this “official” world of injustice and oppression. The State cannot be trusted. He will destroy everything in front of him; men, therefore, are “dispensable”…

Expedito, however, will experience a sudden and radical change in his destiny. Treated with medicinal herbs by the hermit Julian, a “holy man”, he recovers in a short time. The blessed, in his speech as a religious fanatic, says that Jesus was strong and carried a whip in his hands, to expel the merchants from the temple; At the same time, however, he was kind and helped the poor. He also affirms to the recovering interlocutor that he had personally been with God, who had commanded him to announce to the world that “Justice” would prevail. Strangely, according to him, Our Lord looked a lot like… Expedito! “A man will come who will look like me, and you will send him to fight for Justice and call him Redeemer”, adds the bearded old man.

From then on, there was a radical conversion. Expedito becomes a wanderer (supposedly sent by Heaven) who will try to convince the miserable people of a hut village to follow him. At that moment, however, he is confronted by “Black Devil”, a criminal who seeks to recruit him into his gang. The “redeemer” does not accept: after all, “he” is the chosen one, the “king of the cangaceiros”, the one who will carry the cross and the machete with him. “A machete is longer than a hand, but a rifle is longer than a machete”, says the Afro-descendant bandit who ends up allowing the boy to follow his path (something he will regret in the future). After that, the young man throws away the object of Christianity that he carried as a staff. His decision has been made…

Expedito's next step is to head to a fort in the capital (a mix of barracks and prison), where a large popular party organized by Colonel Minas in honor of Bishop Pedreira Souza would take place. The cangaceiro apprentice arrives at the place sitting on a rolling cart, pretending to be a paralyzed beggar. His insulting attitude, however, bothers the officer, who orders him to be arrested. “Fascist!” shouts Expedito. Certainly, a poor, uneducated countryman isolated from the world would never utter this word and would not even know of its existence or meaning.

In fact, this cry, a true outburst, represents the indignation of the entire progressive opposition, which characterized the military in power in Brazil since 1964 in that way (even if inaccurately). The term strong, of course, was purposely placed in the mouth of that character, a simple and exploited man... Disdaining the supposedly disabled man, the soldiers push him on a ramp that takes him straight to a cell full of inmates: it is his symbolic visit to hell. The physical disposition of the discouraged inmates, By the way, it is very interesting and refers to the scenography of experimental theater.

The prisoners will receive an injection of courage from this external element (perhaps the armed “vanguard”) and will become his disciples (one of them, by the way, is named Peter). Meanwhile, the bishop, with all his pomp and wealth, sets the tone of artificiality and power, participating in the celebrations to bless the barracks' cannons! Throughout history, what is seen is a constant rapprochement and alliance between the State, the Church, the colonels and the army. Expedito, in the meantime, leads a collective escape, explodes the weapons (killing, in the process, Minas and the representative of the Holy See) and begins his career as a bandit.

Standing, in the middle of a cemetery, surrounded by his minions (his “apostles”, sitting or lying on the ground, close to the tombstones and crosses), Expedito, with cartridge belts crossing his chest, will confirm his metamorphosis: “the redeemer came to free the people of shackles… the country is hungry for Justice and the oppressed cry for their freedom… blessed… are those who know how to handle weapons!” One of the men still tries to escape, wanting to abandon the group. But he is shot by the bandit. Now, we can no longer turn our backs on the popular struggle: whoever is in it will have to remain… or be eliminated. The historical responsibility is in place. “We will fight for justice and revenge.” It is an exhortation to guerrilla warfare…

Dutchman Vincenzo Helfen (Ugo Pagliai) arrives in a village and parks his car in the middle of the square. The miserable little town, en masse, rushes towards the vehicle, a new thing for everyone there: the archaic and the modern collide, confront each other. In a short time, the car is completely plucked, showing the incomprehension (and at the same time, fascination) with the contemporary, opulent and prosperous world, which had never reached so far, in those wildernesses. Not even the carcass escapes... All that remains of the vehicle is the axles and... a book! The representation of sophisticated culture has no value for those rural workers, immersed in ignorance and poverty...

The foreigner, sent by a European company, had gone there in search of oil. The objective is to exploit (or rather, steal) the country's wealth and send all profits abroad. Expedito, without knowing this, however, enters the village and comes across the Dutchman. Now, he is a transformed man. Milian's makeup, at this moment, vaguely resembles that of Solomon “Beauregard” Bennet, the iconic character from Face to face, the film by Sergio Solima in which he starred opposite Gian Maria Volonté. The “redeemer” demands that Helfen read the entire book to him, a narrative about the sea (traditionally, the representation of the country utopia, an idyllic and almost unattainable place where he can escape and find happiness). In the end, however, Expedito thinks it's all nonsense. History tells him nothing: his choice is the real world around him. And act on it, from a messianic perspective. “I prefer the life of the baby Jesus”, he comments.

After being released, Helfen will have a meeting with the high clergy of the Church, politicians and Governor Branco (played by Eduardo Fajardo; the character's name, by the way, is quite suggestive, especially if we consider that he was a powerful member of the elite in a majority black state) about the best ways to explore oil in the “territory from Água Branca to Palmeiras”. The Dutch, perhaps naively, believe that the deposits will bring benefits and prosperity to the region, as the people will have work, money will circulate and it will be necessary to build roads and other infrastructure works in the area.

But the governor is incisive: “We have to evacuate the population of the area, by hook or by crook… Água Branca will have to be erased from the map… The laws are very useful, they allow us to act legally in our own interests.” After all, as the new bishop would say: “There is a danger of an explosion of materialism”. In other words, workers could organize themselves into unions or parties (alleging that these would be imbued, perhaps, with a Marxist character) and face the powerful; this should not be allowed.

With Expedito's triumph over government troops (sent to destroy him), decimated by his followers, the redeemer shows that there is the possibility of victory against the authoritarian State. A new way of neutralizing the criminal, therefore, must be put into practice, so that the plans of the governor and the multinational are not obstructed. Helfen, the key element in this case, has an idea: he will try to seduce the bandit, initially offering modern weapons. According to the European, Branco admired the “redeemer” and was willing to throw a party in his honor to seal the agreement. The attempt to co-opt the popular leadership is clear: if Expedito put an end to the other bands of cangaceiros that operated in the region, the authorities would grant him some demands. “The simple fact of being invited is already a great victory, after all the harm that [Branco] did to us, both to me and to my people… and to my cow”, the outlaw would comment.

And then, Expedito and his companions enter the party at the Government Palace, portrayed in a Fellinian manner. The guests from the local elite are caricatures: ridiculous, arrogant and disconnected from reality, they live in a parallel world, surrounded by servants, talking about topics that have no connection with the lives of the population (the governor's wife, for example, talks about spring, very wet that year). The incompatibility between the interests of the “people” and the rich is clear.

The function continues, and the gap between the bandits and the “powerful” only seems to widen. For the “redeemer”, the soup is horrible. “Dirty water,” he would say. The scene is almost a subliminal tribute to the girl Mafalda, the comic book character created by Argentinean Quino. It is worth remembering that the girl hated eating soup, the tasteless food that represented her country's military dictatorship.

The agreement will be confirmed: Branco agrees to his opponent's demands, a farm and the cancellation of the price on his head, giving him safe conduct so that he could live without being persecuted by the authorities. As the celebrations continue, one of the robbers steals the bishop's ring and the others dance insanely among the rich.

Expedito himself will dance with one of the maids. Popular culture shows its strength; she is the victor, penetrating the almost impermeable environment of the bourgeoisie and taking over the place.

From then on, the leader of the bandits will begin a relentless pursuit of the other gangs operating in the backlands. Without realizing it, he will be doing the dirty work that the governor wanted so much. Until he faced “Black Devil”. The anthological scene of the duel in the dunes is perhaps one of the most interesting and memorable of spaghetti western and rivals that of Three men in conflict, by Sergio Leone, and by Violent people go to hell, by Sergio Corbucci.

This time, however, the insane clash is carried out with machetes, while in the background, nervous samba plays constantly, making the images take on a dimension of madness. It's almost a Glauberian delirium transformed into an Italian western. As one can imagine, the “redeemer” kills his adversary. And then he will behave like an authority, giving gifts to the populace (stolen objects), even inviting priests to visit the farm he had won and which he named “Earthly Paradise”, where he believed he could build a more just society.

Meanwhile, foreigners begin to withdraw the oil. Capitalism would not care about Expedito's outbursts, and could live with him, as long as he did not interfere with his activities and profits.

“The wells are ours, the Brazilian ones didn’t cost much”, says one of the employees of the European company. Even so, he comments in a dismissive tone that “cheap labor produces meager income”.

Helfen, indignant, retorts:

“The people don’t have anything to eat!”

"And truth. But we will force you to eat to increase production!”

“They will refuse. They know they won't last forever. It’s better not to get used to it…”

The game of deception operates throughout the entire tape. The authorities deceive the people, while foreigners deceive the government and the Church. Even Expedito, who fights them all, ends up tricked by Branco, by Helfen and who knows, even by the hermit Julian.

Branco even goes so far as to hire Frank Binaccio and his group of American gangsters to put an end to the “redeemer” once and for all. They are the imperialists, allies of the established power, sellers of the country, partners of the authoritarian State in the fight against the poorest. Warned by Helfen (now regretting everything he had done), however, Expedito eliminates the Yankee criminals and in the end, assassinates the governor. It is the “guerrilla’s” revenge. And also, symbolically, of the Third World against colonial interests.

But from then on, it is not known what the fate and role of those fighters will be. “I’m starting to think I’m not the redeemer”, confesses Expedito. Fago himself does not seem to know whether the path of arms is viable. The question remains at that moment. The bandit and his men just leave together, without a defined objective, towards an uncertain destination.

Here we have a beautiful film, largely undervalued and forgotten by the general public. Still, even with possible flaws, historical inaccuracies and a certain degree of naivety, this is a tape with many qualities, which must be rescued. And seen by all those who enjoy this genre of cinema.

* Luiz Bernardo Pericas He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of Caio Prado Júnior: a political biography (boitempo). [https://amzn.to/48drY1q]

Reference


O' bandit
Italy\ Spain, 1969.
Directed by: Giovanni Fago.
Photography Director: Alessandro Ulloa.
Soundtrack: Riz Ortolani
Editing: Eugenio Alabiso.}
Cast: Thomas Milian, Leo Anchóriz, Howard Ross, Eduardo Fajardo, Ugo Pagliai.


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