film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Black God, White Devil (1964)

Like the earlier Barren Lives, this is another film about the poor underclass in Brazil’s desert region. But this particular film is way headier.

Ranch hand Manuel (Geraldo del Rey) is on his way to work one day when he runs into Sebastião (Lidio Silvia), a self-styled prophet, and his followers. After curiously lingering to listen a while, Manuel goes on to work, after briefly stopping home to tell his wife Rosa (Yoná Magalhães) about him. Rosa is pretty uninterested, though – she’s got too much housekeeping to do, and Manuel’s supposed to be at work anyway. But Rosa’s indifference turns to alarm when Manuel returns home from work early, saying that there was a problem at work and he thinks he accidentally killed his boss and they have to get out of there pronto, and hey, maybe we can go find that Sebastião dude?

Sebastião and his crew are easy enough to find, and Manuel is soon all in on his teaching – a vaguely Christian-leaning gospel of labor and sacrifice, with a “promised land” close by. Rosa’s a little skeptical though, especially when Sebastião starts claiming the “promised land” can be reached through mystic means – including blood sacrifice. When Manuel offers Rosa herself as a likely sacrifice (she’s a non-believer, after all), she is understandably alarmed. Luckily for Rosa, the ceremony is interrupted by a vigilante (Maurício do Valle) who’s been tracking the couple down. The rest of the congregation leaps to their defense, Manuel snaps out of his trance, and they secretly slip off while the vigilante does battle with the others.

After trying their luck with the sacred, Manuel opts for the profane when they meet Corsico (Othon Bastos), a gun-slinging rabble-rousing revolutionary who quickly takes Manuel into his violent fold, rechristening him “Satanas” to boot; Rosa is a bit more comfortable here, befriending Corsico’s ladyfriend “Dadá” (Sonia dos Humildes). But the vigilante catches up with them here too, spurring Manuel and Rosa to once again try to flee, and leaving Manuel to wonder whether he can count on either God or the Devil, or whether he should rely only on himself.

I was fortunate enough to see this in a theater; it’s just been recently restored, and New York’s Film Festival has included it in the schedule this year. It does look lovely – rife with symbolism and striking imagery. One of the most arresting sequences comes when Manuel is walking up a hillside with Sebastião – or, rather, Sebastião is walking. Manuel is instead walking on his knees while trying to balance a boulder on his own head, in an extreme form of penance. (Apparently, Del Ray insisted on doing this for real, with a 40 pound stone; it was so taxing that he had to beg off filming for the next two days because of fatigue.)

However, I attended a rather late screening, and I’m afraid this was a bit too heady and mystical to compete with the fatigue. I may have fared better if it were earlier, but I had a hard time following the story itself, pretty as it looked. And, arguably, if it had been a bit clearer that would have penetrated the fatigue a bit better.

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