In 1960s Brazil, a poor farmer named Zé (Leonardo Villar) is desperate when his favorite donkey falls ill. He makes a vow to his patron saint, Saint Barbara, that if his donkey recovers, he will give half his land to the poor, and then make a cross and donate it to her cathedral in Bahia, thirty miles away. Miraculously, his donkey recovers, and Zé makes good on his word, carrying the cross on foot the whole way with his wife Rosa (Glória Menezes) walking alongside. They reach the steps of the cathedral where Zé explains himself to the pastor (Dionísio Azevedo), adding that he brought the cross to her cathedral because St. Barbara didn’t have a church any closer to where he lived.
But when the bemused pastor asks Zé why he didn’t just bring the cross to the church where he made that promise in the first place, Zé admits that he hadn’t gone to a church. Instead – he went to a local Candomblé meeting, and made that promise to the idol of Yansan there, because he’d heard that Saint Barbara and Yansan were kind of the same thing. So surely that must count, right?….The pastor, scandalized, disagrees strongly, and refuses to let Zé into the church. But Zé is a devotee of Saint Barbara and will not go back on his promise to her. So he sits down to wait, telling anyone in the gathering crowd his story and gathering a lot of attention in the process – and not always from people who understand his mission.
This would make for a good double-feature with Billy Wilder’s Ace In the Hole. Both stories have a lot to say about what happens when a small misunderstanding goes “viral”, with everyone responding not to the actual facts of the situation, but rather to their own perception of it – and maybe exploiting it for their own ends. A reporter (Othon Bastos) hears that Zé gave some of his land to the poor and dubs him a Communist in favor of land law reform. The local Candomblé practitioners see him as a champion for their own rights. The capoeira team sees the growing crowd as a captive audience for their performances, just like the local café owner who’s making bank off beer and coffee orders. And the local pimp (Geraldo Del Rey) senses that the tired, fed-up Rosa might be easily lured to his side with the promise of a hotel room to stay in, rather than sleeping on the church steps like Zé’s doing.
But where Ace In The Hole focuses on one of the people exploiting the situation, O Pagador de Promessas focuses on the heart of the storm – the innocent and faithful Zé, who’s got a simple and straightforward mission and doesn’t understand why people won’t let him do it. He doesn’t care anything about land reform, he has no opinion either way about Candomblé or capoeira – all he wants to do is bring his cross into the church, because he promised Saint Barbara he would. What’s the big deal?
The screenplay is sharp, but I was particularly impressed by a couple of lovely wordless sequences as well. Zé has timed his mission to coincide with Saint Barbara’s feast day, and the church has already planned a celebratory parade through town, with worshippers carrying their statue of Saint Barbara at the front. After the parade, as they reach the steps and start climbing, Zé picks up his cross and falls in alongside them, gazing up at the statue’s face. And for several seconds we see, in turn, shots of the awestruck Zé gazing up at the statue – alternated with shots of the statue’s own lifeless face. The statue isn’t alive and can’t look back. But Zé still follows her all the way to the door of the church, stopping only when the priest once again angrily turns him back.
Another sequence was even more expertly done. After giving into the pimp for one night, a guilt-stricken Rosa rushes back to Zé’s side and begs him to just give up and take her home. But Zé is stubbornly digging in on his cause – and the pimp has all the time in the world to hover on the edges of the crowd where Rosa can see him, all casual-like, so she can find him if she wants to come have another go. And at one point, she does step away from Zé towards the pimp – but then hesitates, looking back and forth between Zé and the pimp. But instead of just watching Rosa look between them – we also see the café owner and his buddy watching the whole scene, with the shots alternating between them looking at Rosa and then following her gaze as she looks between the two men. Rosa’s having a crisis of conscience – but the café owner sees it as just part of the whole spectacle.
O Pagador de Promessas has thus far been the only Brazilian film to earn the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.