TERRA EM TRANSE (LAND IN ANGUISH), an explosive study of art and politics in the third world, is Glauber Rocha’s most personal film as well as his most brilliant contribution to political cinema. A number of circumstances make this rereading of the film especially timely. Recent events in Chile, where a rightwing, U.S.-supported coup overturned a popularly elected and progressive government, remind us that TERRA EM TRANSE was made after a similar coup, also U.S.-supported, deposed Brazilian president Joao Goulart in 1964. When it first appeared, the film was widely misread as a romantic endorsement of Guevarism. The film’s final shot of Paolo with upraised rifle was interpreted as a call for the kind of armed guerilla struggle that led Che Guevara and Fidel Castro to victory in Cuba. But in fact, as we shall see, the film is more interested in demystifying the liberal politics that led up to the coup than in proposing any specific revolutionary strategy.
The film is especially relevant to any discussion of a revolutionary esthetics for film, particularly in light of the revived interest in the implications for cinema of Brecht’s idea of distanciation. TERRA EM TRANSE points the way to a possible political cinema which avoids the twin dead ends of a condescending populism on the one hand and an aridly theoretical reflexivity on the other. Populism (Pontecorvo’s BURN, Costa-Gavras’ Z) wraps a radical political message in Hollywood packaging in an attempt to be accessible. In contrast, reflexive cinema (Godard’s LE GAI SAVOIR, Godard-Gorin’s WIND FROM THE EAST) makes us painfully aware of the filmic medium by self-conscious investigation of its processes. Rocha’s film is reflexive—an essay on the intersection of film and politics—but it is neither bloodless nor dispassionate. While allowing for the role of emotions in political life, it never falls into the trap of merely personal outburst; nor does it create idealized characters as objects of our identification. Saturated with anger, eloquence, personal and collective hysteria, it is in no sense a Hollywood film, for it investigates rather than exploits its emotions.
The events of TERRA EM TRANSE takes place in the imaginary state of Eldorado. Felipe Vieira, governor of the province of Alecrim, refuses to resist a coup led by the rightist Porfirio Diaz. (1) After an angry discussion with Vieira, the protagonist and narrator Paolo Martins, accompanied by Vieira’s secretary Sara, flees the governor’s palace and is mortally wounded by the police. As his life ebbs away, he recalls the events which led to this personal and political defeat. Four years earlier he had been the poet-protégé of Diaz, before leaving him in order to explore a more political kind of poetry. He goes to Alecrim to work with the communist militant Sara in the gubernatorial campaign of Vieira, a liberal populist politician. They win, but the governor elect, because of his ties to absentee landlords, violates his campaign promises and unleashes his police against the peasants. Disillusioned, Paolo throws himself into a life of orgies and existential nausea.
Later, when Sara asks him to make a televised report in order to destroy Diaz, now allied with EXPLINT (read imperialism), Paolo accepts out of love for Sara and makes a film, “Biography of an Adventurer,” recounting Diaz’ successive political betrayals. Denounced as a traitor by Diaz, Paolo joins Vieira’s presidential bandwagon. In an atmosphere of popular celebration marred by repressive violence, the people dance the samba and contribute to the gathering momentum of Vieira’s populist campaign. The right, fearful of electoral defeat, beings to prepare its putsch. Brought back to the starting point of the film, we see Paolo offer Vieira a gun, which Vieira refuses. Crosscutting alternates Paolo’s final dying moments with the coronation of Diaz and a long last shot shows a silhouetted Paolo with uplifted rifle.
Organized around Paolo’s. memories as he lies dying, the narrative of TERRA EM TRANSE consists of the lucid recital of a life dominated by political illusions and thus conforms to what has been called, in reference to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the “Quixotic formula of systematic disenchantment.” As if to highlight this structure of enchantment and disenchantment, Paolo speaks in both the prologue and epilogue of the impossibility of his naive and impotent political faith. The first object of his faith is Porfirio Diaz, whose very name has divine resonances, whom Paolo calls the “god of his youth.” The second object of his faith is his “leader,” the populist demagogue Vieira. The word “leader,” in fact, reverberates ironically throughout the film, culminating in Paolo’s explosion of disgust against Vieira when he fails to resist the coup: “You see, Sara? ...Our leader! ... our great leader!”
What is new in Rocha’s elaboration of the Cervantes formula is the precise political meaning he gives to it. Paolo comes to be disaffected from all the bourgeois political leaders, whether rightists like Diaz or liberals like Vieira. In his disappointment, he is doubled by people like the journalist Alvaro and by communist militants like Alto and Sara. Paolo shares his disenchantment with the people, who “can believe in no leader.” (Like the peasant leader Felicio, Paolo goes from faith in Vieira’s promises to disillusionment and death.)
The film as a whole elaborates what can be called the theme of the “apparent difference.” Vieira and Diaz appear to occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum, but the parallel montage of their electoral campaigns, superficially contrasting them, on a deeper level creates an ironic equation of the two politicians. The press magnate Fuentes, the “nationalist,” thinks his role differs from that of Diaz. Historical forces stronger than both of them make their roles converge. Paolo fondly thinks that he is not an oppressor; but on occasion he acts as Vieira’s policeman. Sara and the militants seem farther to the left, but their actions only reinforce Vieira, and ultimately, Diaz. All these political figures are linked because of their common ties to the bourgeoisie. All of them, with the exception of Diaz, nurse the illusion of their own purity. The film’s doubling procedures, however, constantly remind us of their subterranean affinities with their supposed enemies.
At times the struggle between Paolo and Diaz seems less ideological than psychological, a case of the artist wrestling with his alter ego. Pablo nurses a kind of oedipal hatred toward Diaz, his political and spiritual father. The oedipal note is sounded in the final ironic words of the “Biography of an Adventurer”—“Here is the father of our country.” A bizarre, almost sexual bond links Paolo and Diaz. At one point, Paolo imagines himself fighting with Diaz and abandoning him, while Diaz cries hysterically, in the accents of desperate and unrequited love: “You left me alone, alone!” The film’s editing reinforces the parallels between Paolo and Diaz (“Diaz, dying like me...”). At another point, the off-screen voice of Paolo is superimposed on the image of Diaz, whose lips are moving, as if Paolo were somehow speaking through Diaz.
This identification of Paolo with Diaz has a social as well as a psychological dimension. Diaz personifies the imperial origins of Brazil. He carries the cross of the Portuguese navigators and the black flag of the inquisition. Here, the film suggests, is the historical source of the bourgeois class in Brazil. These are the “rotten roots” to which Paolo refers. Paolo tries to disown these roots by crying: “He is not in my blood!” He imagines himself killing Diaz, but in so doing he is not so much eliminating an individual as liquidating his own personal and historical past. For socially speaking, he is what Alvaro calls him, “a dirty copy of Diaz.”
The central dialectic of TERRA EM TRANSE involves art on the one hand, and social reality on the other. The dialectic is summed up in the poem which comments on Paolo’s death:
“He failed to sign the noble pact between the pure soul and the bloody cosmos, a gladiator defunct but still intact—so much violence, yet so much tenderness.”
— Mario Faustino, “Epitaph of a Poet“
The bloody cosmos and the pure soul, violence and tenderness, politics and poetry—these are the poles around which TERRA EM TRANSE revolves. The film shows the degradation of the ideal in the real world, where “purity rots in tropical gardens.” Romanticism, the film suggests, is out of place in a world where the political earth is in convulsion. Poets like Paolo, who cultivate the private sensibility in the world of the putsch, do not survive in places like Eldorado. In TERRA EM TRANSE, social violence is constantly intruding on private tenderness, just as the soundtrack superimposes the crackling fire of machine guns on the tender harmonies of the Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos.
To the intellectual hunger for the ideal of romanticism, TERRA EM TRANSE opposes the real physical hunger of the Brazilian masses. When Paolo, quoting the French romantic Chateaubriand, speaks of his “hunger for the absolute,” Sara brings him back to earth by asserting simply, “Hunger.” While Paolo bemoans “the misery of our souls,” Sara is more preoccupied with social misery.
Rocha’s art refuses to obscure the fact of hunger. His films treat hunger as subject and as pervasive metaphor. His cinema is hungry in its urgency as well as in the enforced technological poverty which characterizes film production in the third world. It is not surprising that Rocha entitled one of his most important declarations of artistic principles: “An Esthetic of Hunger.”
Paolo represents the poet, abroad in the world of class struggle and coups d'etat. His habitual mode of speech, simultaneously frenetic and solemn, is poetic.(2) The lava of his words repeatedly erupts into apostrophe, incantation, angry curses. His poetry, ubiquitous in TERRA EM TRANSE, punctuates, interrupts, underlines and counterpoints the action. Most often, however, it expresses his inner voice, rather like the soliloquies in Hamlet. Paolo recurrently appears in close up with his voice off, in a technique reminiscent of the Orson Welles’ adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies.
Paolo, furthermore, shares significant traits with Hamlet—an overheated imagination, a perverse virtuosity of language, a rigorous skepticism coexisting with exasperated idealism, and the view of himself as the legitimate heir of power. Like Hamlet, he is the more or less lucid critic of an ambient corruption in which he himself participates. His almost obsessive references to death, to worms, to a people whose sadness has rotted its blood, reinforce the atmosphere of suffocating malaise. TERRA EM TRANSE is Shakespearean in its intense interplay of the personal and the political. Shakespearean as well are the frequent ruptures of tone, with lyric calm preceding explosions of violence, and the complex interaction of love scenes and political scenes, so that the two come to color and “contaminate” each other.
Apart from putting poetry to diverse rhetorical uses, TERRA EM TRANSE also pinpoints the diverse political uses to which poetry can be put. While working as Diaz’ protégé, Paolo timidly expresses a desire to speak of politics in a new kind of poetry. Diaz condescendingly suggests that everyone feels radical in their youth. Paolo subsequently offers his services to the apparently more receptive Vieira. The country needs poets, Vieira remarks, like those romantics whose voices stirred the crowds.
He applauds Sara’s recitation of a poem (“The street belongs to the people, as the sky belongs to the condor”) by Castro Alves, a Brazilian romantic poet who fought for the abolitionist cause. The poem highlights the historical ambiguity of Romanticism; the same movement that produced the self-indulgent narcissism of the French poet Lamartine also engendered the socially conscious poetry of Percy Bysse Shelley and Castro Alves. Vieira’s allusion to “those romantics” evokes a moment in Brazilian history when political and artistic movements acted in symbiosis.
The subsequent events of the film, however, show the precise political limits within which poetry, and art generally, operate. It becomes obvious that Vieira prefers his political poets to be safely buried in the past. When Paolo tries to dissuade Vieira from using the police against the peasants, a voice over sings the Castro Alves poem. The street may belong to the people in the world of poetry, the film suggests, but in fact it belongs to their oppressors.
TERRA EM TRANSE criticizes the naive notion that art in itself can create a revolution. Paolo Martins loses his initial faith in political poetry, concluding that “words are useless.” Sara, who generally represents the best face of orthodox communism, tells Paolo that poetry and politics are too much for one man. Literal minded critics, taking Sara’s judgment as the film’s final verdict on the question of art and politics, fail to appreciate the dialectical relation between poetry and politics in the film. They also miss the obvious irony, since the film itself not only “includes” poetry but also proceeds poetically, constituting the cinematographic equivalent of poetry.
Cinema has accustomed us to filmmakers who include in their films surrogates for themselves (for example, the magic lanternist in Bergman’s THE MAGICIAN) or analogues for their art. In the references to poetry in TERRA EM TRANSE, one must read as well art in general, and cinema in particular. Paolo’s talk of new poetic forms in which to speak of politics inevitably calls up Rocha the filmmaker, creating new forms of political cinema. Who would know better than he that established power prefers servile pens—and cameras—to aggressive and radical ones?
Both his enthusiasm for poetry and his reservations about its social efficacy apply as well to cinema. One moment in the film effectively equates the two. In a shot whose backlighting and rectangular composition recall Godard, we see Paolo aim his camera out of his apartment window and take a photograph, while his off-screen voice comments: “I, for example, devote myself to the vain exercise of poetry.”
Paolo, we must remember, is a journalist and filmmaker as well as a poet. He makes “Biography of an Adventurer” in order to destroy his fallen idol Diaz, who is shown laughing while the off screen commentary tells of the successive betrayals behind his rise to pre-eminence. In one sense, “Biography of an Adventurer” is a kind of micro-tale which resumes and recapitulates the film as a whole, for the film within the film, like TERRA EM TRANSE, recounts Diaz’ rise to political power. On a deeper level, however, “Biography of an Adventurer” tells a story which resembles that of another “adventurer”—Paolo himself in TERRA EM TRANSE.
Important differences, however, prevent the film within the film from being a mere replica in miniature of the film as a whole. The “Biography” is a piece of militant journalism sponsored by one political force in order to destroy another political force. It is the kind of film that politically committed filmmakers often make or are encouraged to make—clear, factual, militant, and immediately “useful.” The dialectical juxtaposition of two kinds of political film brings out the strengths and weaknesses inherent in each. The “Biography” is direct, “effective,” but also unsubtle, manipulative, and slick. TERRA EM TRANSE as a whole is complex, all nuance and subtle contradiction, but at the same time it is difficult of access, full of subjectivity, somewhat confusing. Thus the film within the film serves as a critique of the totality of the film, and the film as a whole points up the limitations of the film within the film.
TERRA EM TRANSE shares a number of features with CITIZEN KANE—its flashback structure, its journalistic subject, its verbal and visual exuberance, its baroque density. The “Biography,” for its part, is modeled on the “March of Time” newsreel in Welles’ film. Like the newsreel, it exposes the duplicity and treachery of people in power. Diaz represents an underdeveloped, third world Hearst; both of them are wealthy, arrogant and demagogic. In both films, the metallic staccato voice of a news reporter hammers home the points of the film with heavy handed irony. Both of the films within the film, furthermore, are situated in a precise political context. In CITIZEN KANE, the masters of a new kind of filmic journalism finance a film in order to “bury” the older journalism of the Kane-Hearst empire. Paolo makes his film to politically bury Diaz.
TERRA EM TRANSE sensitizes us to the social context of filmmaking. We are shown that films do not emerge full blown from the heads of their creators. Paolo makes his film because certain political enemies of Diaz pay for him to make it. Paolo, having offered his humble pen first to Diaz and then to Vieira, now offers his humble camera to those who would destroy Diaz. If Paulo’s poetry was already conditioned by political ends, his film—since cinema by its very nature is immersed in socio-economic process—is even more profoundly affected by political and material interests. The film exposes the illusion of the self-determining artist who thinks he’s using the apparatus which is in fact using him.
Both films are treated reflexively. The newsreel in CITIZEN KANE is shown as part of a discussion among the participating journalists. We are shown a projection room and the projectionist who adjusts his equipment. The journalists discuss possible changes in the film. We are made aware that film is artifice, a collective creation, the end product of innumerable esthetic and political decisions. The “Biography” highlights the artifice of film in a different way. As an off screen voice delineates his perfidies, Diaz laughs as if he were conscious of the soundtrack but unmoved. The footage has obviously been manipulated, for we see Diaz perform in a film whose political ends he would never have approved. The technique reminds us that all films are fabrications; it illustrates Godard’s notion that the distinction between documentary and fiction film is an arbitrary one.
This reflexivity partially explains a puzzling fact about TERRA EM TRANSE. On the surface, the film leads us to identify with a central hero, yet somehow we never do. As both narrator and protagonist of the tale, Paolo is the only personage who is granted subjectivity. His sensibility colors all the events of the film. His lyric poems punctuate the action, and lyric poetry, after all, is the privileged mode of personal feeling. Voice over monologues in conjunction with close shots of Paolo—certainly the cinematographic equivalent of the lyrical mode—recur throughout the film. Paolo, furthermore, resembles the conventional cinematic hero. Young, handsome, dynamic, sensitive, articulate, sexually attractive, he would seem to constitute an ideal object for our identification. Yet the identification never takes place. We neither identify with Paolo’s life nor weep over his death.
In a sense, TERRA EM TRANSE is linked to one of the least realistic of artistic genres—opera. Rocha has often expressed his fondness for the “cinema opera” of Welles and Eisenstein. Opera itself, especially Verdi and his Brazilian counterpart, Carlos Gomes, pervades the soundtrack. Paolo’s death, coextensive with the film, recalls the protracted agonies of opera, where people die eloquently, interminably, and with poetry on their lips. As if to call attention to the operatic reference, the wounded Paolo twice declaims: “Eu preciso cantar!” (I must sing!) Paolo does not try to escape or locate a doctor. Sara does not bind his wounds. Such basely material preoccupations have no place in cinema opera. The film also shares with opera its love of exalted, stylized speech. Although some of the dialogue is naturalistically rendered, the world of the film remains one where people speak naturally to each other in poetry.
In his famous essay on the significance of a revitalized opera for the creation of epic theatre, Brecht speaks of his desire to make opera contemporary and democratic. He claims that opera, while procuring a certain realism, annihilates it by having everyone sing. If we apply the terms of his comparison of epic and dramatic theatre, we find that TERRA EM TRANSE invariably falls into the epic category. Rather than incarnate a process, it tells its story with narrative distance. Rather than involve the spectator, it transforms him into a critical observer of the contradictions of character.
We are in a sense Paolo; yet at the same time we see him critically, much as we see a figure like Mother Courage, simultaneously from within and without. Paolo, like Mother Courage, ultimately learns very little from the disasters that befall him, but we as an audience can learn much by observing him. He is, as Walter Benjamin said of Gaily Gay, the protagonist of Brecht’s A Man’s a Man, “an empty stage on which the contradictions of out society are acted out.” Rather than treat Paolo as an exhibit of some absolutized Human Nature, TERRA EM TRANSE makes him and his transformations the object of study.
The mechanisms that subvert our identification with Paolo are extremely complex. Paolo is less a rounded character than a political figured the point of convergence of various political and cultural forces. Our interest in Paolo, consequently, is always subordinated to our interest in the political realities in which he is enmeshed. The title reads TERRA EM TRANSE, not PAOLO EM TRANSE. The film aborts our natural tendency to idealize Paolo, for he is always seen critically, and first of all by himself. At one point, he denounces his own bourgeois class as week and decadent. He derides himself as “a romantic,” and other characters echo his autocritique. The communist militants berate his political irresponsibility, while Sara always brings him back to concrete social reality. To his temptation for facile heroism, she responds: “We don't need heroes.” When he laments having sacrificed his profoundest ambitions, she reminds him what real sacrifice means—thankless political work, childlessness, imprisonment and torture.
The film also insists on the scorn that Paolo displays toward the very people he wants to liberate. While clinging to a romantic notion of “the people,” he shows only contempt for them in his everyday life. It is as if Rocha has anticipated, within the film itself, all possible criticisms of his protagonist. His refusal of heroes reflects both his analysis of the Brazilian political situation as well as his programmatic opposition to Hollywood conventions of character.
This critical undercutting of Paolo’s status as hero does not, however, fully explain our failure to identify with him. The failure derives rather from the basic esthetic strategy of the film—its refusal of the techniques of dramatic realism. TERRA EM , TRANSE underlines its anti-realistic intentions by the ultimate implausibility —the posthumous narrator. Everything conspires, furthermore, to diminish any feeling of suspense.
The film is framed by a prologue and epilogue, both of which treat thecoup d'etat, Paolo’s flight and his subsequent death. We know from the outset both the how and the why of Paolo’s death, and this knowledge frees us to look at the film critically, as an analysis of political forces. Rocha is less interested in the outcome of the conflict than in an “anatomy” of the conflict. He has called TERRA EM TRANSE an “anti-dramatic film, which destroys itself by a montage à repetitions.” The narrative is constantly derailed, deconstructed, re-elaborated. The incidents of the film are exploded, analyzed into a play of political forces.
The world of TERRA EM TRANSE is one of spatio-temporal discontinuity. Rather than giving us the conventional impression of spatio-temporal coherence, Rocha forces us to reconstruct spatial and temporal relationships. There are no establishing shots to situate us. We are further disoriented by dizzying camera movements and an unorthodox variety of camera angles. Even in sequences characterized by spatial homogeneity, there is discontinuity in the cinematographic treatment of the unified space. We are given fragments which defy organization into a narrative whole. In the various orgy and cabaret sequences, for example, it is impossible too divine any preexisting fiction which has been treated elliptically. We have to create the spatiality and the temporality of the scene.
TERRA EM TRANSE proliferates in jump cuts and violations of orthodox “continuity.” Two different shots, for example, show Sara entering the same door twice in a row in what the film itself designates as a temporally impossible repetition. Violence, above all, is consistently de-realized by the editing. Guns are omnipresent but they are never coordinated with their sounds. We see pistols and hear machine guns; we hear machine guns but see nothing. A policeman on a motorcycle presumably shoots Paolo, but we see no wound. Violence is treated in a fragmented and anti-realistic way, in keeping with Rocha’s expressed desire to reflect on violence rather than make a spectacle of it.
Realism is further undermined by an autonomous and discontinuous soundtrack. There are contradictions, for example, between visual and aural “scales” we see Fuentes in extreme long shot but hear his voice in aural “close up.” We see Alto fire a machine gun, but we hear nothing; yet the people quiet down, as if they had heard it. Then Rocha suspends the soundtrack to an unnaturally total silence.
The same, autonomy which characterizes the soundtrack also marks the camera movements. The camera does not generally accompany the action. Rather, it performs its own autonomous ballet of stylized, geometricized and choreographed movements, creating a tension between the mobility of the personages and that of the camera. The work of the camera is extremely “visible” and the visibility is designated as such by the inclusion in certain shots of the equipment involved in making a film. At one point, for example, we see a cameraman filming exactly the shot—of the murdered man of the people—that we have just seen in the film.
TERRA EM TRANSE refuses transparence and illusionism in yet another sense, by always making us aware of the rhetorical and stylistic mediation of the story. The film exhibits a conflict of cinematographic styles, so that the meaning partially emerges from the creative tension between diverse methods of filmic writing. Alongside the Welles influence, two other specifically cinematographic styles can be discerned.
One is the style of direct cinema, obvious in the hand held camera, in the frequent use of direct sound, and in the preference for ambient light. The technique, when this style predominates, seems to operate by chance. People block the camera’s access to key personages, as if the camera were capturing spontaneous moments of everyday life. Coexisting with this direct style is the style of Eisensteinian montage, which reconstructs the action as a function of the director’s political intentions. The Eisensteinian style is visible in the jump cuts and deliberate mismatches between shots, in the use of socially emblematic personages (Felicio the peasant, Geronimo the union official, Vieira the populist), in the graphic stylization, and in the use of nonsynchronous sound.
Glauber Rocha does not merely cite the cinematic tradition; he uses it and transforms it. One moment, for example, recalls the sequence from POTEMKIN when the goateed Doctor Smirnov, responding to complaints by the sailors, uses his glasses as a kind of magnifying glass to examine maggot covered meat, which he pronounces “perfectly healthy and ready to be eaten.” Rocha has his senator, after lavishing grandiloquent praise on Eldorado’s perfect society, use his glasses in an identical fashion to examine the corpse of the murdered man of the people. The analogy is clear—in both cases the corrupt representatives of established power deny the most glaring evidence of social ills. The senator’s empty and swollen phrases mask sordid political realities. He too pronounces a visibly sick society, a maggot-ridden corpse, “perfectly healthy.”
Just as Eisenstein drew on the popular theater of his day—his “montage of attractions” originally referred to the “attractions” in a circus: tightrope, lion tamer, clown—so Rocha turns to account various popular traditions and “lower” forms. Vieira’s electoral campaign is treated as an ambulatory circus, aptly metaphorizing the bread and circuses of populist politics. Thus Rocha exploits the theatricality inherent in certain privileged moments of Brazilian collective life—circuses, carnival, samba schools, political rallies, processions.
TERRA EM TRANSE operates a double demystification—one political, the other esthetic. It deconstructs two styles of representation. Populism, after all, constitutes a style of political representation. In its Latin American version, certain progressive and nationalist elements of the bourgeoisie enlist the support of the people in order to advance their own interests. TERRA EM TRANSE performs a mise en scene of the contradictions of populism. The character Vieira represents a composite political figure, combining the traits of a number of Brazilian populist leaders. The film exposes the fatal compromises that Vieira makes as well as his failure of nerve in moments of conflict with the extreme right.
The sequence of confrontation between the peasants and Vieira’s police unmasks the contradiction between the electoral promises—of populism and its real commitments. To Paolo’s question—“I wondered how the governor elect would respond to the promises of the candidate”—the sequence gives an unequivocal answer, The governor-elect responds with guns and billy clubs. Populism sets a trap for the people. It incites the people to speak, but represses them when their voices of protest become too strident. It invites the people into the palace, but murders them if they become too militant. Paternalistic encouragement precedes brutal repression.
On another level, TERRA EM TRANSE rejects an aesthetic style of representation which might also be labeled “populist.” The populist esthetic is paternalistic. It claims that art should speak to the people in simple and transparent language, at the risk of not “communicating.” It practices the sugarcoated pill theory of art. It is sweet in order to be useful. To get its message across, it gives the public its habitual dose of cinematic gratifications—an intrigue, a love story, spectacle. It treats the public as slightly retarded, in need of a simplistic and prettifying art, just as Vieira speaks demagogically of justice and the power of the people, while doing nothing to advance the political maturation of the people. Populism treats the people as mere extras: it wants its spectators to be passive.
Just as important as this work of demystification is the fact that TERRA EM TRANSE renders the “feel” of political experience. The film recognizes the importance of human feelings in politics—the euphoric camaraderie of a political campaign, the resentments which arise when fragile alliances disintegrate, the provisional relative moralities of political combat, with its betrayals and problematic commitments. TERRA EM TRANSE communicates the anguished excitement of political action in a brutally repressive Latin American context. The film conveys an atmosphere of menace and the pervasive odor of imminent death. One cannot expect a Brazilian political film to have the icy theoretical distance of Godard’s LE GAI SAVOIR, for leftist politics in Brazil is literally a matter of life and death, as it rarely is for left bank intellectuals.
TERRA EM TRANSE portrays what Rocha has called the “tragic carnival” of Brazilian politics. The carnival ambiance is omnipresent in TERRA EM TRANSE. Fuentes, in carnival costume, declaiming to his fellow orgiasts, declares the state of permanent happiness in Eldorado. While the people, again in costume, dance the samba, the senator declares that neither hunger nor illiteracy exist in Eldorado’s best of all possible worlds.
“Transe,” in Portuguese, simultaneously connotes frenetic movement, personal delirium and collective hysteria. It evokes as well the trance of African religious cults, like the music of candomble which opens and closes the film. At the same time, the apparent movement of carnival (and of populist politics) is shown as alienated and factitious, a dead end frenzy. The word transe itself conveys this paradoxical simultaneity of stasis and movement. The carnival is seen through disabused eyes, and the hysteria is ultimately mastered by the distancing technique. The film alternates distanced analysis with psychic explosions. Like Paolo, the spectator goes in and out of the transe.
TERRE EM TRANSE is a provocative, aggressive, intentionally difficult film, an advanced lesson in reading political and cinematographic significations. It consistently violates our expectations; it withholds spectacle when the story demands it, and denies romance where plot conventions would require it. Even its orgies are anti-erotic. Where we expect sharp political definition, the film gives us poetic, imagistic freedom. It creates a world of systematic contradiction, between and within the personages, between sound and image, between cinematographic styles. Brutal ruptures in editing keep the spectator off balance, incapable of identifying in the conventional way. For Glauber Rocha, to have proceeded in any other way would have been radically compromised through the very artistic codes by which it had been mediated. TERRA EM TRANSE is a piece of revolutionary pedagogy. While its methodology and vision are Marxist, it offers no correct line or pat answers. The solution lies in our becoming conscious.
Robert Stamm (link)