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Glauber Rocha with a French accent

The Bahian filmmaker and international criticism opened a dialogue that helped internationalize New Cinema

Othon Bastos in a scene from the film Black God, White Devil, 1964

AFP IMAGEFORUMOthon Bastos in a scene from the film Black God, White Devil, 1964AFP IMAGEFORUM

In 1963, the filmmaker and critic Gustavo Dahl said in a letter to Glauber Rocha: “The article in Cahiers du Cinéma is very good for us, speaks only of the group, of you, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade and Leon Hirzman, and says that we are the world’s foremost filmmakers. I am now even more convinced that only New Cinema has the ability to penetrate Europe. We should get organized and send films to all the festivals, on our own or through the Foreign Ministry, set up a New Cinema center in Paris, to open a world front.” The strategist of this social network “revolution” established with French criticism was the Bahian filmmaker, Glauber Rocha, who had made numerous trips to Europe since 1960, and was ultimately exiled there in the mid-1970s.

“Undoubtedly Rocha was one of the Brazilian intellectuals who gained the most prestige in Europe. The alliance between him and French criticism is a type of cultural exchange rarely seen. Based on the relationship with Rocha, a number of critics of specialized magazines became advocates of Brazilian cinema and its vehicles as spokesmen for ideas coming from the Southern Hemisphere,” says literary critic Arlindo Rebechi, a professor at the Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp) School of Architecture, Arts and Communication, Bauru campus, who researched the subject in “The Critical Reception in France of the films Deus e o diabo na terra do sol (Black God, White Devil) (1964) and Terra em Transe (Entranced Earth) (1967) by Glauber Rocha, in the 1960s: a documentary survey in French archives,” which was financed by FAPESP.

To Rebechi, criticism of Rocha quite rightly focuses much attention on the interpretation of his films. But the story of Rocha as an intellectual and the value of his writings were relegated to the background, except for isolated works by a few good researchers. “My goal is to map the as yet little studied relationships established by Rocha and his partners in France, with an emphasis on how his films can be viewed and discussed within the context of how they were received; this centers on the filmmaker as an authentic agent of his own career and an authentic representative of the then so-called Third World,” says Rebechi.

Scene from Black God, White Devil


According to Professor Rebechi, the unpublished documents surveyed in France at the Bibliothèque Nationale Française and the Française Cinemateque archives will fill in the picture we have of the filmmaker. “There is a common-sense view of ‘a camera in hand, an idea in the head,’ characterizing Rocha as an improvisational artist, and nothing more. Although it is important to understand and interpret his films as a celebrated contribution to Brazilian culture, we still need a better understanding of his writings and the dimension of his discourse as an intellectual engaged in the world he lived in. Reinforcing this is the originality of my research,” Rebechi says. According to him, very little has been said of Rocha’s work in France and the impact of his films there. “It’s something that few, perhaps very few, researchers are trying to do,” he says.

This material is difficult to find in Brazil. Only part of it can be found in more specialized archives, and Brazil has no complete collections of these journals. The documentary research in the French archives focused on writings about the critical reception of Black God, White Devil and Entranced Earth because the films had a major impact in France. “Apart from saying a lot about the films, these writings provide a good idea of the social networks established by Glauber Rocha,” says Rebechi. It will now be possible to more confidently map out the impact of these films and speeches by how they were received. “By surveying both the coverage of major magazines such as Positif and Cahiers du Cinéma, as well as smaller ones associated with film clubs, such as the magazine Cinéma e Jeune Cinéma, we can obtain more reliable information about how these two films were received and more accurately deduce how Rocha interacted and dialogued with these critics at those respective festivals,” says Rebechi.

Another interesting aspect is that by knowing the role of the filmmaker at these festivals we can also understand his strategy not only of interacting with critics, but, as noted by Rebechi, also advocating for Brazilian cinema even on behalf of films not his own. “We can also understand how the movement to internationalize New Cinema evolved, the programmatic way that Rocha and his colleagues were always willing to take the movement outside the borders of Brazil,” says the author.

Scene from Black God, White Devil


Uma estética da fome (An Aesthetic of Hunger), the best known and emblematic writing of the Bahian director also reflects the programmatic tendencies of its author in internationalizing New Cinema, because it was written for presentation at a conference on Latin American cinema held in Genoa in 1965. “The text was read at an event that brought together leading European filmmakers, had a terrific response and months later was published in Positif and other European magazines. If Black God, White Devil anointed Rocha as a filmmaker in Europe, with An Aesthetic of Hunger he affirmed his place as a cultural agitator,” says Rebechi.

The French cultural scene at the time was very favorable for Rocha’s films and New Cinema was well received. Nouvelle Vague questioned classical cinema and its conventions, and made room for the discussion of new languages; Algerian independence had broadened the debate on colonialism and third-world thinking, attracting intellectuals like Roland Barthes and Edgar Morin, among others. To get an idea of the importance of Rocha in the debates, one need only read the tone used by a critic and important historian such as Georges Sadoul in writing to the director in 1963, instructing him on how to enter a major festival: “You will attached find the rules of the event, which will have great impact. If possible, of course, if you could send us a copy of Viva a terra before March 30, it would be interesting. If Barravento has not been presented before, do everything possible to send a copy to Paris,” the critic said. Note: Viva a terra was an earlier title of Black God, White Devil.

“Always aware of the scope and impact of his actions and performance, Rocha took political responsibility for a mature and horizontal dialogue with European criticism, that is, without the old inferiority complex that often haunts us,” says Maurício Cardoso, a professor at the University of São Paulo School of Philosophy, Letters and the Humanities (USP-FFLCH), Department of History, and author of O Cinema tricontinental de Glauber Rocha: política, estética e revolução (The Tricontinental Cinema of Glauber Rocha: Politics, Aesthetics and Revolution), research that examines the international plan of the filmmaker in exile. “Tireless and free, creative and untimely, Rocha caught the attention of French and Italian intellectuals, especially those on the left, whether they were connected or not to the respective communist parties. His hallmark was the ability to interpret film as an expression of the material conditions of each country within its culture, breaking with the notion of influence or copy that marked relations between First World filmmaking and the filmmaking of underdeveloped countries,” says Cardoso. To Cardoso, Rocha was able to converse with Godard, Pasolini, and Buñuel, among others, as an equal conversing with colleagues.

A scene from Entranced Earth


“The thinking of the left was on the rise and Rocha’s works found resonance both from a thematic point of view and in terms of cinematic language,” says Rebechi. According to him, Rocha established a dialogue with the French press, especially among the most influential film magazines: Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif. Both were at the center of the debate on the question of language, but there were nuances. Positif’s critics saw Rocha as a great supporter of Latin American political action cinema, while Cahiers du Cinéma was more interested in a kind of innovative auteur cinema in form, made with a limited budget, says Rebechi.

“The value of Rebechi’s work is that he retrieved and organized an very important collection, which for the first time will now be available to researchers. Furthermore, it illuminates a lesser-known aspect of Glauber Rocha’s career that cannot be ignored,” says Professor Antonio Dimas of the FFLCH-USP Department of Classical and Vernacular Letters, who coordinates the study Cultural Territories in Brazil, which aims to evaluate Brazilian cultural territories from a literary perspective, including the essays of the Bahian filmmaker. “Detailed knowledge of the richness of Glauber Rocha’s intellectual trajectory — which goes beyond films — and the various shapes it took is extremely valuable research,” says Dimas.

“The alliance between Glauber Rocha and French criticism leads the scholar of Brazilian cinema to a rich field of studies: it is a rarely seen cultural exchange, a product of the cultural scene of the 1960s, both by the French intelligentsia of the period and by Brazilian intellectuals of the left, especially those of Brazilian cinema. Without a doubt, these are interpretive suggestions that the material collected in France already supports,” says Dimas.

Now the goal is a more thorough reading of the unearthed documentation, after which Rebechi will seek to find connections between elements of correspondence, biography and other texts to bridge Rocha’s intellectual activity abroad with his activities in Brazil, in order to better understand them. “Establishing this bridge is essential because the international social network built by Rocha is linked to a domestic social network, in which filmmakers and critics such as Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes and Jean-Claude Bernardet, among others, were involved,” said Rebechi.