“It’s a western about the third world,” the news ticker says at the start of 1968’s The Red Light Bandit. Its hero, played by Pablo Villaça, is a soulful, slim rapist and murderer from a favela, whose mother tried to abort him so that he wouldn’t starve. He’s here to complete “the most complete of all criminal districts”: the Boca do Lixo.
The Red Light Bandit is an electric, legendary movie, one Brazilian cinephiles know practically by heart. Its director, Rogério Sganzerla, was 21 years old when he made it, and the anarchic energy of his “Zorro of the poor” could only have been captured by someone so young. Imagine a city kid drunk on comic books and radio plays and getting the neighbors to act them out with him. Then imagine, through the fantasy, a city revealed. “A punk tried to take a wallet from another punk,” a cop says. “However, both were penniless.”
The bandit, a refugee from Paraguay to Brazil, is just 26 but has 26 deaths to his name. Nobody really knows the man in dark sunglasses; he slips in and out of São Paulo’s life, sometimes burgling a mansion (and leaving the modern art painting behind), sometimes driving a flamboyantly gay, cat-petting stylist’s cab. We follow his exploits through a two-mouthed, radio-style bullet-pointed narration that keeps turning into fights between the male and female voices. “It’s the bomb and hunger,” they burst out, “In this century they separate the third world from the rest of the universe.” Meanwhile, the news ticker keeps pouring words forward, and amid tales of our “Pothead Criminal” we learn that Hitler’s heir is passing false dollars on a São Paulo beach.
You never forget that the bandit, “a poor devil from Freud’s theories or from the slums,” lives in context, and that his mission of destruction is inevitably doomed to fail. He can never knock the millionaires down to the level that he and all his family members were born at. He doesn’t want to be a hero. “If you don’t kill it’s no use,” he says, simply stating his way of life.
The more times one sees The Red Light Bandit (the bandit’s from Luz, an especially poor part of the city), the funnier it gets. Jokes fly by so fast, many proudly claiming Brazilian culture (the bandit writes “merci” on a sleeping lover’s ass, and a subtitle translates it “obrigado”), that only multiple viewings can pick them all up. But the film also grows sadder each time. The bandit’s depressed and suicidal, and his lover (played by Sganzerla’s wife, Helena Ignez) can’t help him. He drinks oil and tries to dynamite himself, but like a cartoon character, he simply won’t die. He can’t, because he’s too famous, and too useful. The tragedy of the bandit’s life is that the more chaos he wreaks, the better he grows for business. A fat politician smiles at the thought of him as a symbol. “Without poverty we have no folklore. And without folklore, what do we have to offer tourists?”
But mythology is important for deprived people as well as for tourists (look at Che). A manic side character has been raving, “Those who wear shoes won’t survive!” for much of the movie, and at film’s end the shoeless take to the streets. Amidst footage of flying saucers (after all, the rich and the poor come from different worlds), we see favela residents dancing around a fire. Jimi Hendrix blends with Caetano Veloso. The third world has triumphed.
The Rotterdam International Film Festival runs from January 25—February 5.