Antonio das Mortes, or O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro (The Dragon of Evil against the Saint Warrior) is the final instalment in a trilogy of films by the self-appointed leader of the 60s Brazilian Cinema Novo movement, Glauber Rocha. Written as well as directed by Rocha, all three films centre around the figure of the cangaceiro, a holy bandit hero or mystic outlaw, which Rocha likens to Saint George the Dragon-Slayer. In contrast to the first two films, in Antonio das Mortes the central protagonist is not the saint, but the dragon; the ‘cangaceiro killer’ of the film’s title, Antonio das Mortes. The story follows Antonio as he is hired by a tyrannical landowner to kill Coriana, the last of the cangaceiros. Antonio and Coriana face each other in a machete duel and, after the fatal blow is struck, all-out chaos ensues.
‘A camera in the hand, and an idea in the head’ was how Rocha defined Cinema Novo, and it perfectly describes the poetical/political guerrilla filmmaking of Antonio das Mortes. The luxuries of classical narrative cinema are stripped clear. Everything is shot on location and in available light; the camera is largely hand-held, or fixed to a tripod to give a detached, blank perspective; the soundtrack fades roughly and abruptly in and out; and the effects (gun shots, knife wounds, etc) are purposefully cheap and hard to take seriously. Antonio das Mortes (and Cinema Novo more generally) is little concerned with fleshed-out characters and naturalistic drama, and occupies itself instead with the rapid flow of ideas, icons, and associations. The characters in the story aren’t really characters, but rather symbols or devices within the film’s dialectical economy. There are no personalities vying for our empathy, just archetypes and actions, the meaning (or host of meanings) of which we are left to interpret on our own.
The most striking thing about Antonio das Mortes is its tremendous energy and confidence. All of the performances (and ‘performances’ is definitely the right word) explode with intensity, certainty and enthusiasm; and this is the case as much in the chaotic crowd scenes, as in the tighter, more choreographed dialogue scenes. The direction from Rocha is excellent, retaining a tight and richly philosophical narrative, while giving his actors an immense amount of freedom. The pastiche mythology of Rocha’s script is inspiring, highly original stuff too. It would seem for example - given that we are encouraged to sympathise with Antonio’s position - that Antonio and Coriana, as characters, are not representatives of good and evil per say, but rather representatives of essential eternally opposed forces that govern the universe (male and female, rich and poor, strong and weak, light and dark, etc). The film has a strong folkloric quality that is redolent of Sergei Paradjanov’s The Legend of the Suram Fortress and it is stylistically just as impressive.
For all its intellectual and stylistic panache, however, Antonio das Mortes can also be slightly dense, esoteric and dry. The bulk of the exposition about cangaceiros and other character types is given in scrolling titles at the beginning of the film, and the audience is then expected to keep up, which it is often not easy to do. Similarly, there is constant reference to and comment on Brazilian politics of the 1960s, which will probably mean little to modern audiences. The way Rocha uses the drama purely as a means through which to expound his dialectical philosophy results in a film where there is no empathy, no great feeling, no appeal to the heart. This may not be the point of Antonio das Mortes, but compare the film to Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, which does something similar. In Godard’s film - in the star personas of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina - an old, human warmth manages to seep through the general fragmentation and pastiche. The actors are clearly performing, are clearly parts of Godard’s philosophical toolkit, and yet they retain their personality. They have a certain meaning (or host of meanings) in other words, and yet at the same time we love them; and thus the film affects us more deeply and on more levels. This maybe hints at the limitations of Cinema Novo as a cinema that thinks too much. Cinema is surely born out of more than just ‘a camera in the hand, and an idea in the head’? Surely it also requires a beating heart in the chest?