Hailed repeatedly as the greatest Brazilian film of all time, Black God, White Devil is at the very least a truly remarkable work. A key film of the stridently leftist Cinema Novo movement, Glauber Rocha’s second full-length is notable both for the fact that Rocha was only 25 when he wrote and directed it and that its sometimes uneasy alliance of drama and symbolism was supposedly an influence on the young Martin Scorsese.
These things aside, however, what is truly incontrovertible is that this (Deus e o Diabo na Terra do So to use its original Portuguese title) is a film that is a decidedly acquired taste. Its deliberately unnerving pacing (long slow passages are interrupted with brief scenes of jump-cut violence), minstrel-style sung narrative and employment of an overtly theatrical acting style that sometimes borders on the parodic, can often overshadow a story that has clear echoes in the spaghetti Western movement of the same period: in 1940s Brazil, impoverished ranch hand Manuel kills his landlord in an argument over cattle and escapes with his wife Rosa into the sertí£o – the drought-ridden hinterlands in the north of the country. There they face a choice between the religious fanaticism of a self-proclaimed saint and his deluded followers or a life of violence among some equally dogmatic caingaceiros, or rural peasant bandits. Forsaking both religion and the cold logic of the outlaws, Rosa and Manuel discover that only through self-determination can they truly become human – before the film rushes hurriedly towards its disconcertingly pell-mell ending.
An exotic and undeniably ambitious blend of European avant-garde cinema (on its release in 1964 Black God was applauded publicly by Luis Buí±uel) and Brazilian folk traditions, it’s hard not to occasionally feel as though a lack of knowledge of the latter might be a barrier to a true appreciation of the whole. That the film’s central thesis – extreme poverty engenders desperation, which leads to the kind of superstition, fanaticism and eventually madness that should be resisted at all costs – is no less resonant 45 years later is beyond doubt. But while Black God, White Devil is daring in its execution, the extremes of its style arguably mean that Rocha’s point is delivered in a manner that’s as emotionally arid as the plains of the sertí£o.