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Man Marked for Death, 20 Years Later (1984) Review

When I first started this blog, the main goal was to shed light on movies I thought were overlooked, especially the cinema of Latin America. That’s why I’m so happy to announce that this review was done with the help of MAWU Films, a new company specializing in restoring and remastering films from Africa and Latin America (be sure to follow them on Instagram and Twitter)! Huge thank you to the team for sending me a review copy of their first release, Eduardo Coutinho’s 1984 documentary, Man Marked for Death, 20 Years Later, which explores the assassination of a Brazilian peasant union leader.

When Coutinho first learned how João Pedro Teixeira was assassinated for his involvement in organizing the Sapé Peasant League in northeast Brazil, he originally intended to make a fictionalized version of the leader’s life and struggle; but the US-sponsored military coup of 1964 brought many problems to the film’s production: all footage was confiscated, and the few crew members who weren’t arrested and tortured were forced into hiding for several years. It wasn’t until two decades later that Coutinho would be able to resume his work on the project. By then, it had morphed into an even more complex film, tracing the impact of history and social change on family dynamics, class conflict and community.

Having changed from a “semi-documentary,” as Coutinho put it, into a full-fledged documentary, the film’s cinematography is very straightforward, focusing more on the director’s skills as an interviewer than anything else, and I think that’s maybe one of the best things about this film. As we see Teixeira’s family members and comrades shed tears when confronted with the horrors of the past, each trying to learn how to move forward in the present, viewers are able to really meditate on these aspects of the film rather than have to navigate an overly-plotted narrative. This makes the movie’s core much more accessible. At its heart, Man Marked for Death approaches family as a microcosm of what it means to live in a dictatorship. The more we travel throughout Brazil, finding and speaking with Teixeira’s long-lost friends and relatives, hoping for a reunion that may never come, we ultimately understand the price of his struggle, as well as the importance of his mission. This becomes particularly clear as the film focuses around his widow, Elizabeth, who took up her late husband’s cause as her own, speaking at rallies and protests less than a month after his assassination. Her demands for peasants’ right to land would ultimately result in Elizabeth also being driven to hiding in a rural town.

A lot of scenes in this film are incredibly powerful, and are increasingly relevant as Brazil still finds itself under the far-right Presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, who (like the government that persecuted those associated with this film) sees land as something he owns, allowing a record number of trees to be chopped down in the Amazon this year alone. While this primarily affects Brazilians, the impact of such policies reverberates throughout the globe. Considering its historical and contemporary importance, MAWU couldn’t have chosen a better film as their first release, which leads me to the discussing the release itself.

Because this is a physical media review, it’s necessary to go over the packaging. The film arrived in a padded envelope, and was kept in perfect shape despite being shipped overseas. I normally hate slipcovers because of how sensitive they are, bending, folding, sometimes even tearing at the slightest nudge, but this one is made of O-Card, a light card stock material that retains durability without sacrificing a sleek aesthetic. It’s a beautifully packaged film that a lot of work clearly went into. I highly recommend getting the limited edition, which comes with this slipcase, but MAWU’s website also says they plan to release standard editions which are guaranteed to be more reasonably priced, so you have no reason to not buy this film!

In terms of the specs, we get a 1080P Blu-ray presentation at 24fps, as good as it gets without a 4K upscale. As I mentioned, this is their first release, so I don’t think it’d be fair to expect 4Ks right out the gate (look how long it took companies like the Criterion Collection to get into 4K releases), but hopefully as we all begin to support and talk about Mawu releases, that’s a market they’ll look to get into! The audio is mastered as a 2.0 Dual Mono track, crisp and audible over any sound system. Maybe most importantly, the disc is region free, so anyone on any continent can view this movie; a region-free player is NOT required. I think that alone shows how the brand genuinely wants to stimulate worldwide discussions about this important piece of Brazilian cinema.

I’m a sucker for special features, and this first release has plenty of those. Along with a limited-edition poster featuring the film’s original artwork, this release also includes an interview with Brazilian director Zelito Viana on his involvement in producing the film, its continued significance and what it was like to work with Coutinho. We also get an archival interview with Eduardo Coutinho himself, which gives some fascinating background on the film’s production process. These aspects of the film are further explored in the 20-page booklet featuring an essay by Professor Natalia Brizuela which goes into both the production history of the film, as well as how it was affected by and responded to enormous social change in Brazil. Overall, I couldn’t recommend this release more strongly. Buy it here, and be sure to keep an eye out for future MAWU releases!

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