Antonio das Mortes ( O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro”, France-Brazil-W.Germany, 1969)

A western but not as we know it

A western but not as we know it

Like the film that preceded it that featured Antonio das Mortes, Black God, White Devilthe original title is more evocative: The Dragon of Evil Against the Saint Warrior. The saint in question is George, a seemingly ubiquitous myth that straddles continents. You might expect the titular hero, Antonio, to be the saint however we are defiantly not in Hollywood territory. Glauber Rocha, the director, was one of the defining voices of Brazil’s Cinema Novo, an anti-colonialist new wave of the 1960s. As in Black God, Antonio starts off as a killer hired by the Establishment.

I remember seeing the film on Channel 4, in its early days (if memory serves Thursday evening was World Cinema night; hell, they were the  ‘good old days’!), and being bowled over by the film. Whether this was to do with the fact I didn’t have a clue what it was about or the stunning stabbing sequence I’m not sure. I guess when we’re young if we stumble across something that is unlike anything we’ve experienced before we think it’s good. However, Antonio das Mortes does require some knowledge of Brazilian culture and, more specifically, Cinema Novo.

This isn’t the place to elucidate what it all means; I recommend Brazilian Cinema edited by Randal Johnson and Robert Stam. However, there’s no doubting the power of the film from the parody of the western shootout at the climax, the Eisensteinean montage when the bad Colonel/landowner is executed and the death of the capitalist, mentioned above, who’s stabbed by his ‘mistress’, the Colonel’s wife. Rocha’s film uses characters as representative of social groups: a teacher stands in for intellectuals (he starts as a boozer); the ‘cangaceiro’, the Robin Hood-type bandit, who represents the legendary Lampiao; the Colonel (the military) is literally blind and so doesn’t see the consequences of his beliefs.

Rocha dramatises his ‘aesthetics of hunger’, which he argues will inevitably lead to violence, with two massacres shot with the intensity of the finale of The Wild Bunch but without the voyeurism. Antonio das Mortes is tough going in parts but is undoubtedly an example of ‘landmark’ cinema.

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