Directed by Glauber Rocha, this cornerstone of Brazilian cinema has finally been restored in 4K! Hours before it’s sold-out showing at the 60th New York Film Festival, I was able to sit down with Lino Meireles, the producer of this restoration project. Our talk ranged from history to a possible physical media release of the film. Many thanks to Lino for taking the time, and I hope you enjoy this illuminating conversation!
Earlier we talked about how this film can really be seen as the starting point of the Cinema Novo movement, and I’m curious if you can help situate its place in comparison to the films that followed such as The Brave Warrior (1968) or Antonio das Mortes (1969). How did Black God White Devil come to influence not just these films, but Cinema Novo overall?
L.M: Officially, Cinema Novo starts in the first few years of the 60s—and I’m not a film historian or film theorist, but I think those first few exports Brazil ever had in the Cinema Novo movement were too dependent on Italian Neorealism, especially aesthetically. Glauber’s first movie, a film called Barravento (1962), initially had a different director. Even that film, I think, has a lot to do with Italian Neorealism. So, even in Glauber’s own career he has a work that’s a little too Italian Neorealist for me, personally, to regard it as Cinema Novo.
[During that] whole time he’d been maturing the idea of Black God White Devil in scripts, and mentions in letters with his friends that this was really going to be his first movie; and what does this film have that Neorealism didn’t have, that the films Brazil was making didn’t have? Maybe we can enumerate some stuff like non-diegetic music during the course of the feature. He uses Brazil’s most famous composer, Villa-Lobos, his classical music, in various parts of the movie. He has a lot of frantic and out of sync editing in this film: sections with a bunch of jump cuts and sections with a bunch of long takes, he really mixes it up. There isn’t a documentary vibe to any part of this film. Its themes are operatic, its characters are mythic—except for the one common man, Manuel, the cow herder who we follow throughout the movie. You’re talking about divine representation here, characters who are representative of god and of the devil, the film’s two halves. All of this scope is something that Italian Neorealism wouldn’t do, and is what Cinema Novo began. [Manuel] takes care of some cows for a rich farmer, but ends up killing the farmer, and that’s when the Cinema Novo explodes onscreen both in plot and in style. It’s a specific rupture from Neorealism.
Many Brazilian directors went to Europe to study film, since there weren’t really film schools in Brazil. The people who came before Glauber —Saraceni, Nelson Pereira dos Santos—all went to Italy. So, they first got this understanding of what cinema could do by watching Neorealist films. [Italian Neorealists] wanted to represent an underclass, the mass majority of people who lived in a country and, from being the mass majority, could change the country, but they weren’t the ones being shown on film screens. [Brazilian filmmakers] were pretty inspired by this Italian vision of postwar cinema; but at the same time Glauber understood that he needed to aesthetically create something new, create something Brazilian, even though it was of course inspired by Italian Neorealism.
I think that really speaks to the decolonial approach a lot of Latin American film movements at that time were taking. I mentioned Third Cinema, also beginning early 60s-early 70s, really including themes of social inequality, focusing on the poor. This definitely speaks to the historical importance the film has, and I was wondering if you could speak to its contemporary importance. Releasing the restoration in 2022, with the Brazilian political landscape seeming to be on the verge of a very drastic shift, what is the role of Black God White Devil today?
L.M: One of Glauber’s favorite American authors was William Faulkner. In fact, I think Glauber worked a long time on a script to film a book of his (Wild Palms). I mention this because one of Faulkner’s quotes reminds me of Glauber. When Faulkner said ‘the past is never gone, it isn’t even passed,’ that’s pretty defining of Glauber Rocha’s filmography: his filmography is never gone from Brazil, it isn’t even passed. You can show pretty much all of his movies and they’ll make sense right now, [speak] to the issues the country’s facing.
We can go back to that rupture between Cinema Novo and Neorealism, where these films start taking on universal, operatic themes, addressing common stories, tales, myths, difficulties people have, existential difficulties that people have, and [the films] do become rather timeless. Manuel needs to have some direction in his life after running from the system, so he links up first with a messianic divine figure—that goes badly—then he hooks up with a self-described demonic figure—and that goes badly too. Glauber isn’t offering a solution, that’s another thing that makes this film universal. If the film had specific answers in the 1960s, I think most of those answers would be out of touch right now, but the questions remain. This is a film that raises questions. These aren’t literal representations, these are human figures that align themselves with the divine.
That’s another thing that Glauber is criticizing: people saying they have divine power. He’s not actually talking about god or the devil, he’s criticizing the messiahs, the people who offer solutions of leadership, who show up pointing paths to the great masses in Brazil. He’s criticizing them as wrong. By the end of the movie, you don’t really know the answer. Glauber called this a Marxist movie because it was about identifying the power of the people, even if that doesn’t bring answers within the film. Presently, Brazilian politics are continually run or disputed by people who say that they’re the one, that they have the answers, that they’ll bring the country out of various economic, cultural, fascist holes it gets itself into. As long as these people are out there and they’re not bringing solutions, they’re not making the country a better place, Glauber’s questions are going to be there, they’re going to be echoing. Of course, we see that in a myriad of other countries as well. The film doesn’t really have an answer for it other than the people should be the change they want to see.
The restoration premiered at Cannes over the summer, but it is showing here at New York Film Festival in the midst of Latin American History Month. I’d like to know what it means to you that this pinnacle of Brazilian cinema is showing at such an interesting time for Latin American history, culture, and what are some Latin American films you think should be restored or shown more wide appreciation?
L.M: Well, I’m the producer for the restoration. The director of the project is Glauber’s eldest daughter, Paloma—a director in her own right—and she says that he guides his projects even from the afterlife. So, whenever there are questions of timing that emerge with this project, we really ascribe it to his touch.
Since the film originally played Cannes in ’64, we’ve had a goal to re-show the movie there. That in turn warranted invitations in Italy, Spain and now New York. I’ve lived a long part of my life in the states, so I’m very happy to present this film here in New York. New York is an international town, and since the film is universal, it’s meant to play in these cities that are so international, so people from all over the world can see a particular culture’s story and see their own cultures in that story. It’s a skill that Glauber had in making his own movies. With American elections you’re going to see—well, you’ve already seen—a messianic leadership say ‘I alone can solve it, follow me blindly.’ [Similarly,] Both of the figures in the film have their own followers. It’s [a problem] all around the world, and New York is one of the capitals of the world, so I’d be happy to know that people who haven’t seen the film before will get a chance to see it—and wherever they’re from, they’re going to understand this story, they’re going to understand these issues and they’re going to understand that people need to figure out where they’re going in life. The whole thing’s going to be done with a Brazilian flavor, but this story is universal. It’s the story of all of us as we try to make our way in the world.
As for other films, I’d like to restore one after the other. Brazilian culture thrives, but it has issues with financing for preservation and restoration. It’s so tough to get funding for culture in Brazil to make new things that we tend to put a focus on making the new, and then hope that what’s past will sort itself out—as pretty much was the case with this film.
It had a DVD release in 2002, and it stayed like that until 20 years later, this year, when we restored it in 4K so it can be shown around the world in the best manner possible. One of our restorers likes to say that this film will play better than it did in Brazilian cinemas back then, only because Brazilian cinemas didn’t have great technical aspects. People would struggle to listen and make out what was being said. So, this film is a rebirth. I say that only so you can imagine that if it’s so hard to make new art, restoring art that’s already been made is like a subset of that, and that’s why it’s really important to show this movie here: so people will know that we can do this in Brazil. This film was completely [restored] in São Paulo and Rio, completely in Brazil. When they restored Glauber’s other films for DVD at the beginning of the century, a lot of it was in France, some of it was in the US, but Brazilian cinema technicians have come of age. I call this film the cathedral of Brazilian cinema. If we can restore it in Brazil, we can restore every single film that’s in our National Archives. I can’t even begin to name films that should be seen. Pretty much Glauber’s whole filmography, there are just so many, and we’re in a crucial time right now. If you think about cinema as an art-form, it’s only been around for just 110 years, so people who made films in the 60s, and are still making them today (and Brazil has a lot of them), they’ve been present for the majority of cinema’s existence. We’re at a time when these people are now 80 or 90. We just lost Godard, who represented French cinema for most of cinema’s history. As we start to lose a few of these people, it’s an interesting question to ponder: are we going to restore these films, are we going to leave them in freezers and jars? All the material we used in this film was preserved at a national institution called the Brazilian Cinematheque. It’s only because of them that we were able to do this today; but they don’t restore, they’re only a preservation institution. A lot of people who made Cinema Novo are still alive, but they’re starting to leave now, so maybe this will be an interesting place to start really focusing on restoration and preservation.
As an avid physical media collector, I was very curious if there’s going to be a 4k release of this restoration, and will that be 4K Blu-ray or 4K UHD?
L.M: We are negotiating with distributors here in the US. It’s pretty advanced. I think any film lover will have one or two ideas about who’s interested in a film like this. So, yes, but the long life for this film will be streaming, because that’s how people consume film right now. The only reason to release a physical media edition is not actually for the film itself, but to do it with a company who has a history of pretty incredible physical releases, with care for aesthetics and extra material, so that’s definitely on the radar.
Well I’m looking forward to it! Thanks so much for the time.
L.M: Thank you! It’s been great speaking.
I’ll be covering New York Film Festival throughout the next week, so be sure to stay tuned for more reviews, interviews and press conference highlights! You can do this by signing up to The Chicano Film Shelf’s mailing list (for FREE)! Just click ‘Sign-up’ on the drop-down menu. Members are updated anytime there’s new content or exclusive giveaways!