Normally Sydney Film Festival at the State is grey hair and people being helped down the stairs. These would be the ones who remember the days when the event was a patch of light in the dim local film scene - or the ones that can afford the seats. It was a bit startling to find myself surrounded by eager young people holding excited conversations. I thought they must have got the day for Nick Offerman wrong but no. They were there to see Brazilian heart throb Wagner Moura star of the ferocious Tropa de Elite movies.
I’d hoped he’s talk about those but he was there to spruik his new film Marighella an account of Brazil’s Public Enemy Number One in the days of the sixties dictatorship, a subject which had clear overtones of life under the current Jair Bolsonaro government.
Their concerns over freedom of the press resonate locally at a time when the news media here are full of coverage of police making off with Australian journalists’ records in an environment which has made an alarming step to the right.
Moura's Marighella kicks off with the subject’s followers robbing a train (lengthy fluid camera movements) and sticking up a bank. I couldn’t help wondering how a film full of violent action could be so unexciting but that was not what this one was about. It documents the desperation of Seu Jorge’s Marighella taking up an “eye for an eye” struggle with the then current regime who were big on torture and assassination, using police brutality and a shackled press to follow an agenda set by the USA, determined that the rest of South America wasn’t going to follow the Cuban model. This one is a Brazilian “Years of Lead” movie right down to the abduction of an American consul.
In a gesture towards balance, they show Marighella’s team shooting down a US police instructor in front of his six year old and spare some sympathy for the sadistic cop on their trail, showing him trash talking the C.I.A. (no one uses the name) officer for whom he has contempt, telling him that won’t stop the US from funding him because they know he is the most effective opposition to the Marxist underground. They even allow characters to contemplate the notion that Armed Struggle may not have been the best path.
However, there’s no doubt about who they think are the good guys. Seu Jorge makes the lead a dignified and aware figure inspiring the devotion of his followers, even leaving room for a bit of comedy like his ridiculous curly black wig disguise or telling his priest ally that he’s going to have to seduce a general’s wife who has a thing for Franciscans until he bursts out laughing. Marxists and Catholics make common cause.
The film gets into issues like the Brazilian authorities failure in their efforts to prevent news of Marighella’s activities getting out, countered by the Americans who want to put his wanted posters everywhere. We see a cop pissing on one. An effective counterpoint is made with Marighella’s young son being educated in Salvador where he argues with his teacher who calls the Brazilian military take over a revolution while the boy asserts it was a coup. Their lack of contact bears down on both the boy and his father. The police spy obtains details of the proposed father/son meeting out of a bloodied contact, leading to a tense a near miss Bahia docks ambush and the taken-from-real life scene of his son learning about Marighella’s death by watching press images of his body being processed.
Despite the sketchy depiction of the movement, the actors do register. The scene of them shouting the Brazilian National Anthem cut into the end credits was taken during a warm-up exercise they did to energise their performances and retained by Moura to emphasize the seriousness of what they were doing.
He registers sympathetically in person calling himself “an actor who directed a film” rather than a career movie director. The Hub overflowed with his admirers cheering, whooping and whistling his observations and his triumph in getting his film a release in Brazil. Festival Director Moodley commented that he wished the crowd would come for other SFF movies. Time was when that was what a Cinémathèque audience did - but that was another country.
Of course the sixties dictatorship was also the period of the Brazilian Cinema Novo. Moura’s film has elements in common with the work of Glauber Rocha. (they both reference bandit leader Lampiao). I remember one commentator observing that ten years later the movement’s directors were making TV biographies of Brazilian generals. We’ll see.