Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil

Yoná Magalhães in Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil (1964)

Glauber Rocha was only sixteen when he began reviewing movies for a local paper in the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador, twenty when he made his first short film, Pátio (1959), and twenty-three when he completed his first feature, Barravento (1962), which screened the following year at the inaugural edition of the New York Film Festival. In 1964, the year that democratically elected Brazilian president João Goulart was overthrown by a U.S.-backed coup that launched a military dictatorship that would last until 1985—four years after Rocha died of a lung infection at the age of forty-two—Rocha made the first film in a loose trilogy regarded as a central work of the Cinema Novo movement.

Black God, White Devil, which Luis Buñuel called “the most beautiful thing I have seen in a decade, filled with a savage poetry,” premiered in competition in Cannes, as did Entranced Earth (1967), the winner of the FIPRESCI Prize, and Antonio das Mortes (1969), for which Rocha won Best Director. “Combining Dada, surrealism, anarchy, mystical Trotskyism, candomblé, and the anthropophagic tropicalism of the modernist poet Oswald de Andrade, Rocha flummoxes, perverts, howls with freedom and despair,” wrote Carlos Valladares for Gagosian Quarterly last year.

A new 4K restoration of Black God opens at Film Forum in New York on Friday. “If Rocha’s Italian contemporaries Sergio Corbucci and Damiano Damiani devised the Zapata western to turn the traditional western inside out—critiquing rather than valorizing imperialism—then Black God, White Devil might be called a Lampião western, after the folk hero of Brazilian social banditry who casts a long shadow over the film,” writes William Repass for Slant. “More than allegorizing third-world revolutionary and decolonial struggles, Rocha stages a mythmaking intervention into Brazilian history.”

Out in the sertão, the bleak Brazilian hinterlands, ranch hand Manoel (Geraldo Del Ray), cheated out of his wages, slays his boss, flees with his wife, Rosa (Yoná Magalhães), and falls under the spell of a religious fanatic, Sebastião (Lidio Silva). Sebastião preaches rebellion against the landowners, but his methods are so brutal that Rosa kills him, and the couple flees again, joining a band of cangaceiros, roving thieves led by Corsico (Othon Bastos) and Dadá (Sonia Dos Humildes).

The second hour of Black God “becomes a bizarre, haunting piece of Absurdist theater, with the sertão’s sun-baked expanses as a stage,” wrote Jonathan Romney for Uncut in 2009. “Hovering in the background of all this is the legendary hired killer Antonio das Mortes (Mauricio do Valle), a rifle-toting figure in a vast black hat and huge overcoat, who could have walked straight out of a Sergio Leone western—no coincidence, since Leone was a huge admirer of Rocha, and incorporated elements of his imagery into his own Man With No Name cycle.”

Rocha “consciously uses iconography from Eisenstein [Battleship Potemkin, ¡Que viva México!], Buñuel (Nazarín), and Godard (Les carabiniers) to create a mise-en-scene that’s decidedly European avant-garde, while he has the actors pose and speak in a deliriously theatrical manner derived from Brecht and Grotowski,” wrote Ted Shen in the Chicago Reader in 1999. “The fusion of European and Afro-Brazilian elements—dialogue, exquisite black-and-white images, and music by Villa-Lobos—is startlingly original and poetical in conveying the hope and despair of the oppressed.”

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