Black God, White Devil / Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (1964)

The literal translation of this film’s title is ‘God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun’.  I think that is a more suitable title.  Black God, White Devil is too restrictive and singular.  The film is packed with Gods and Devils and the distinction is often obscure.

There are times when I have to accept that I don’t have the knowledge to fully appreciate what I am watching.  This is one of them.  Having no knowledge of the socio-political context of the making of the film and only a limited theological knowledge, I know that the film contains allusions and references which completely escape me.  ‘Black God, White Devil’ requires background reading and repeated viewing to be fully appreciated.  It is easily good enough to justify the effort.

What I can fully appreciate, is the technical excellence of the film-making.  Filmed in a stark monochrome which lends the outdoor shots a bleached-out quality (the kind of thing I’ve seen ripped off throughout the last two decades by expensive videos for the likes of U2, Texas and REM) and heightens the drama of the extreme close-ups employed.  There are excellent performances by Geraldo Del Rey and especially Othon Bastos as Corsico and the use of a musical narration is innovative and works well.  Some of the lines of dialogue are elusive and mysterious (though this could, perhaps, be attributed to bad translation!) heightening the almost dream-like atmosphere that Glauber Rocha builds.  Some of the scenes are works of expressionistic beauty- the Odessa steps homage during the village massacre, the sacrifice of the baby and murder of Sebastian, the opening footage of cattle skulls, the shadows of the dagger and rifle and the wedding party desecration.

This is a work which deserves the attention it demands.  A beautiful, harrowing but slow and challenging film.  7/10- that it doesn’t score more highly probably owes more to my ignorance than the film’s shortcomings.

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