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Black God, White Devil (Blu-Ray Review)

5 min read
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When shifted its algorithm earlier this year in an attempt to correct regional- and fanbase-specific biases, one of the major casualties was the cinema of Latin America—and particularly Brazil. Films like Central Station (1998), A Dog's Will (2000), They Don't Wear Black Tie (1981), and Aquarius (2016) were all booted from the site's Official Top 250 Narrative Feature Films list, pushed out for holding greater import in their home country than elsewhere. Remarkably, as it stands, the list only contains one Brazilian film—the crossover hit City of God (2002), a stylish crime drama that owes as much to Hollywood as it does to its native nation. As we drift ever closer to a homogenised middlebrow mass, it's critical that audiences dig outside of their comfort zone, embracing films that hold specific local cultural value. A great time, then, for to rerelease a newly restored Brazilian classic, Black God, White Devil (1964), directed by .

Rocha was a major figure—perhaps even the figure—of the ‘60s and ‘70s (literally “New Cinema”) movement in Brazil . A reaction to both the civil unrest and wealth disparity within Brazil and a reaction to traditional Brazilian cinema of the ‘50s (mostly cheap “chanchada” musicals and Hollywood-aping epics), Cinema Novo was massively influenced by the concurrent French New Wave and earlier Italian Neorealism. Like those movements, Cinema Novo was as concerned with sociopolitical polemics as it was with the genre mechanics of cinema itself—but was further distinguished by the harsher realities those on the poverty line were facing in Brazil at the time. Rocha himself observed in his landmark essay, The Aesthetics of Hunger, “Herein lies the tragic originality of Cinema Novo in relation to World Cinema: our originality is our hunger, and our greatest misery is that this hunger is felt but not intellectually understood.”

With that in mind, Rocha's work can be understood as an attempt to get at the truth (in as much as such a thing exists) of the “misery” of contemporary Latin America, rather than reducing it to a formal aesthetic. Certainly Black God, White Devil, his second feature, comes across as a mission statement in that regard. Set in the midst of a dire drought in the Brazilian hinterlands, the world Rocha creates is a startlingly bleak one, defined by arid landscapes and wind-cracked lips. Amidst this land of little, we meet Manoel (), a young cow herder with next to nothing to his name, and his wife Rosa (). On the cusp of starvation, Manoel attempts to cut a fair deal with his boss after the death of several cows, their eyes picked dry by clouds of flies. His reaction when the wealthy ranch owner attempts to screw him is, perhaps inevitably, murderous. And so the two go on the run, a more morbid and fragile pairing than your typical Bonnie and Clyde.

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Black God, White Devil (1964)

Given the nature of the plot, it's fitting that Rocha toys with several aesthetic motifs taken from the Western genre—imposing figures that cast deep dark shadows on white walls and bandits with wide-brimmed hats popping shots from behind cactuses—but there's a greater melancholy at the root of Black God, White Devil. As Manoel and Rosa's journey takes them from their dust bowl village to the outskirts of civilisation where a religious cult has taken root, Rocha contrasts his high impact black and white photography with driftingly intimate handheld perspectives, pushing through crowds of beseeching faces. The camera holds long on the religious iconography, from the simple wooden cross pushed into an untimely grave, to a tilting camera movement that takes an extreme wide shot of a sermon on a mount (not the mount) to the heavens. Already a complex interplay is taking place between the personal and the communal; faced with a waking damnation, Manoel seems fated to fall at the feet of religion, however twisted it may be. And twisted it most certainly is.

Black God, White Devil is at its most powerful during its multiple wordless sequences of violence, often enacted in the fashion of a religious pilgrimage, scored by mantric chants, gunfire, and the hollow rings of nearby church bells. Rocha's merciless causticity speaks to the conflict of the eternal soul and more earthly concerns, finding little rhyme or reason to the laws dictating how one behaves with one or the other in mind. In the midst of one massacre, even the editing becomes discordant, looping and physically displacing characters between cuts. Somewhat jarringly, Black God, White Devil also features a score of folksy Brazilian guitar music, the lyrics of which outline the various characters and their motivations in a far more direct fashion than the images do; a film of dramatic contradictions that cares little to resolve them.

Taken from original 35mm materials preserved by the Cinemateca Brasileira, this is another characteristically good looking release from Radiance, emphasising the depth and beauty of Rocha's use of deep contrast. Also assembled on the disc are two eye-opening feature length documentaries, the first, Labyrinth Glauber The Brazilian (2003), focusing on the life and times of Rocha, and the second, Cinema Novo (2016), taking a wider-angle view of the filmmaking movement he defined. Less compelling is the somewhat monotone video essay commissioned alongside the new restoration, Intimacy & Distance (2023), though it still helps unpick some of the film's more thorny political images. Taken as a whole, and especially in light of Brazil's often tenuous place in the accepted film canon, this marks an important and remarkably informative starting point for those wishing to dig deeper into one of the country's most illustrious filmmakers. After all, there's more to life than City of God.

Special Features

  • New 4K restoration from original 35mm materials preserved by the Cinemateca Brasileira
  • Audio commentary by restoration supervisor Lino Meireles
  • Intimacy & Distance: the political visual style of Black God, White Devil – a visual essay by Manuela Lazic and Alessandro Luchetti (2023, 14 mins)
  • Labyrinth Glauber The Brazilian – a documentary on the filmmaker by Silvio Tendler featuring interviews with colleagues and collaborators (2003, 98 mins)
  • Cinema Novo – an award-winning documentary by filmmaker and son of Glauber Rocha, Eryk Rocha on the Brazilian filmmaking movement, featuring interviews with noted figures including Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade and Rocha himself (2016, 90 mins)
  • Trailer
  • Optional English subtitles
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow
  • Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho and critic Rafa Sales Ross
  • Limited edition of 3000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with limited edition booklet and reversible sleeve

The Radiance Films edition of Black God, White Devil arrives in the UK on December 18th.