A look at Brazilian Cinema Novo’s ‘Black God, White Devil’ (1964)

At the startling age of 25, filmmaker Glauber Rocha created Brazil’s most treasured masterpiece, Black God, White Devil which centers around Manuel and his wife, lower-class peasants in search for salvation through the slums of a corrupt country with false prophets and unmerciful tyrants. Manuel, at heart, a good man with an ill-fate. This theme resonates throughout the entire picture: concepts of unavoidable fates and destined plans for each of our lives. Manuel, a cow herder cheated from his money by his boss, kills the man and escapes the town in search of what his admired Saint Sebastian preaches; an island whose dry land will converge into sea, and whose sea will dry into land. This is the promised land. However, his wife doesn’t buy it. She is skeptical of the so-called saint and questions his teachings. The moment Sebastian questions her soul, suggesting a demonic presence, he sacrifices the innocent blood of a baby to save her. This sets off a series of events of which I will not mention here. However, that sacrifice ends the beginning part of the film (approximately an hour) into the final hour of the film. So far, we have seen the “black God”, a dark skinned saint whose teachings have been put into question and seen as immoral, and now we discover our “white Devil”. As Manuel and his wife escape, they join forces with a revolutionary gang with admirations and teachings from another saint. Manuel becomes one of them in means of redeeming the loss of his saint and finding the promised land. He is given a new name, “Satan”, for his was not fearful enough. This, again, implies the notion of fate. Manuel is a good hearted man whose actions always lead him back to immoralities and evil doings. This gang forces him to take part in violent acts in shedding innocent blood. He has no choice but to listen to fate’s voice and allow the plan set forth by a higher force.

I will admit that Black God, White Devil is a contextually complicating film if one ignores historical aspects of Brazil’s past. One must be acquainted with concepts of its religious wars, corrupt governments, or even teachings of fate and God. Do not be deterred though, everything is demonstrated in a fairly simple form. One of the delights of the work comes from its mastery in action rather than in dialogue. We are forced to learn about these characters and these towns through their deeds rather than through their words. The cinematography is also note-worthy since the way it is stylistically done gives the impression of destiny being in control. Throughout the film, we are blinded by whiteness, what most cinephiles would call over-exposure actually helps contrast between intention and good deeds. The color white, a symbol for good, overflows the frame while evil takes over the scene. These are just a few of the magnificently symbolic and technically well-made achievements the film has to offer. When one stops analyzing Black God, White Devil any further, one realizes the simplicity it has to offer. Fate has a plan for every single one of us, and sometimes, that concept isn’t as tormenting and restrictive as one might think it to be.

Thank you for reading,

Omar Antonio Iturriaga

*: Brazilian Film Library and Television Filmfest