The House


Orgy or: the Man Who Gave Birth

The story of Boca do Lixo filmmaking began a few years before any of its movies. In 1962, The Given Word, the story of a man who becomes a local hero for demanding entry into a church despite authority's refusal, became the first Brazilian film to win the Palme D'Or at Cannes. The film insightfully analyzed Brazilian social inequalities of religion, gender, class, and race, but also humanized its characters well enough to give the film mass appeal. In a way similar to how Rashomon's top prize at Venice a decade earlier created a profile for Japanese cinema in the West, The Given Word's prize alerted European cultural elites to Brazilian film.

Two years later, Cannes invited two Brazilian films for the first time in its history. Vidas Secas was a stark social drama about a family of five living in the rough northeast region known as the sertåo; Black God, White Devil was a polemical, allegorical, mythological, propulsive, and angry tale of poor people chased by both the church and by bandits. In contrast to The Given Word's studio production and distribution, these two films were independent works. They stood at the front of an independent narrative movement that came to be called Cinema Novo.

Glauber Rocha, Black God, White Devil's director and the group's most prominent member, wrote that, "To make a film, all you need is an idea in mind and a camera in hand." Foreign critics excitedly compared the group's energy and stylistic flourishes to the concurrent independent waves in France and in the United States. Its members' image as rebel filmmakers gained considerable romance after a military dictatorship took over Brazil that same year.

But not everyone loved Cinema Novo. A rival group of Brazilian filmmakers invisible to Europe criticized its filmmakers, declaring that their work was stagnant, and that they were the stale, pretentious order in need of toppling. In contrast to Cinema Novo's modes of agitprop and social realism, Cinema Marginal fragmented storytelling altogether, blurring fiction with reality, smashing contradictory tones together, and assaulting audiences with estrangement. Unlike Cinema Novo's frequent inspiration in literature and popular myth, Cinema Marginal craved pop-art guideposts, freely mixing theater, radio, TV, and comic-book techniques with references to other films.

In less than a decade, Brazilian cinema had gone from one channel to three. Productive studio, independent, and avant-garde movements were now running simultaneously, and often responding to each other directly. Cinema Marginal hated its siblings, as suggested by the title of a key film in the movement, Killed His Family and Went to the Movies. The enmity was partly ideological. Glauber Rocha wrote an essay, "An Aesthetic of Hunger," that outlined his ideas for a dialectical, politically engaged cinema. Cinema Marginal's ideological leader, Rogério Sganzerla, responded with "The Aesthetic of Garbage," claiming his greatest goal was to make disposable films that could be forgotten in a week. One group desired revolution, another chaos.

Marginal filmmaker João Silvério Trevisan felt the second desire keenly, initially calling his 1970 debut feature How I Killed My Father after one of its characters, a blissed-out youthful idiot who keeps crying that he murdered Dad as he walks with other misfits along a country road. The essentially plotless film's spirit, Trevisan said, was a mix of Buñuel and Bresson, but also rooted in the work of Brazilian poet and playwright Oswald de Andrade, who had written in 1928 that "All that interests me is what is not mine. The law of man. The law of cannibalism." The film's slapstick collisions between different Brazilian archetypes, whose train grows larger and larger as it approaches the country's mythical birthplace for an immaculate birth, simultaneously fired at the influences of a patriarchal society and of a patriarchal film culture. While Black God, White Devil questioned masculinity through the figure of a haunted hired gunman, called a cangaçeiro, the gay Trevisan detonated it with a cangaçeiro who was pregnant.

This isn't the only gender play in Orgy or: The Man Who Gave Birth, as the finished work was called. A mother portrayed by a burly mustachioed man runs after her naughty young son, roaring, "Hey come here, I'm gonna pull your pants down!" A black drag angel turns when people poke her tinsel, spitting out through giggles, "I've already asked you, not in the wing!"

If that sounds kinky, it should. Anybody in this film who wants sex can get it easily, through the eager gift of a chunky hooker racing toward her cabin and alerting the ladies, "Hurry up, women, there are customers." But Trevisan, a former clerical student, understood that blasphemy would disturb his audience more than sex could. The angel's accompanied by a fat black spiritual leader wearing a wooden crown, who together shock the hell out of an approaching altar boy, priest, and nun (the lady, for comfort, solemnly mutters a mambo). Like Buñuel, Trevisan finds sacrilege sacred. "I think saints are unnecessary people," one character says, "'cause life is a comedy to be played out."

"God won't tolerate jokes like this," the king commands; one salesman tells another, "God knows how chaotic mankind would be without my products." God's invented and enlisted haphazardly for greed and power's sake. Like dictated sex and gender roles, the Lord's merely one of society's chains. The movie works to break the viewer of all those chains, from the level of language upwards. Its first half-hour's grunts and gibbers of men tearing their clothes off and slapping each other silly are every bit as valid as the language a pair of Tupi indians invent, consisting entirely of names of Brazilian cities. Effective communication between people is oral rather than written; the intellectual sitting on top of a pile of books grows hungry and eats the pages. The film's most prominent bit of written text is a road sign reading ESPERANTO IS THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE, written in Portuguese.

By giving language to people, the film lets them own history. Every idea is expressed and set through language, and one of the most important for a society is history, since it uses history to justify behavioral codes. Orgy suggests its approach to history by showing a flag of St. George's dragon burning to a crisp, a direct reference to the opening credits of Rocha's 1968 film Antonio das Mortes. Rocha's theme in that film is the way in which cultures marginalize their histories, told through the metaphor of centuries-old historical figures idly stranded in the present; an unforgettable moment shows them wandering the highway, looking lost. While texts can fix history, in other words, living people remake it. Rocha sees a continuum of ignorance and isolation; Trevisan reverses centuries of oppression (against indians, against slaves, against present-day government dissidents) by uniting groups from throughout Brazilian history in communion. The sheer absurdity of their nearness says a lot about how split society has always been, and will always be, while still wishing for a better world.

Subversion comes through freedom. The film's happy gathering of freaks and geeks together form the utopia of a people's history. A queen considers Brazil and trills out delightedly, "It's a marvelous place! It doesn't matter if you're black, white, brown, or even a foreigner. There's room for everyone in this country!" If you smile at those words, it's because you know they're not true.

There wasn't room for Orgy, nor for its maker. Government censors banned the movie. It never played commercially in Brazil; this year's Rotterdam sessions were its international premiere. Trevisan fled the country after the film was banned, and lived in Mexico and in the United States before returning. Since then, he's become a celebrated gay-rights activist, and an even more celebrated novelist. Like many Cinema Marginal filmmakers, he only directed one feature. But the dictatorship is long over, and at Saturday's Orgy screening, Trevisan told the audience that he was going to make another.

The Rotterdam International Film Festival runs from January 25—February 5.

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TAGS: antonio das mortes, black god white devil, glauber rocha, international film festival rotterdam, joao silverio trevisan, luis buñuel, orgy or the man who gave birth, oswald de andrade, rashômon, robert bresson, rogerio sganzerla, the given word, vidas secas








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