ON GLAUBER ROCHA’S TERRA EM TRANSE (LAND IN ANGUISH, 1967) IN FIVE FRAGMENTS, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary screening, January 29th and 30th, Neighboring Scenes 2017
1. The Plot
The feverish pulse of Glauber Rocha’s most personal and, at the same time, highly political film, centers on a singular consciousness: poet and journalist, Paulo Martins, leaves his political allies after a quarrel. He is assassinated while driving the car with his lover and comrade in arms, political activist Sara. What follows is a retelling of Paulo’s evolution, from somewhat naïve artist, who becomes embroiled with a rightwing mentor, to the increasingly dissatisfied oppositionist, who, eventually, cannot find himself anywhere on the political spectrum. If the description sounds like a dissertation, the film is nothing like it: mad yet lucid in turns, with jumps and dizzying cuts, it imitates Paulo’s impatient, anguished seeking, as it slowly builds up to a painful political dystopia.
2. Dreamer, Dreaming
Transe, or trance, permeates the entire film. It dictates its organization—nonlinear, preoccupied less with chronology and logic, and more with Paulo’s emotional states. But more than this, it is a metaphor for Brazil itself. The action takes place in a fictitious country, Eldorado. But Eldorado, the imaginary city of gold, is a familiar trope—a place of riches, of greatness, it was sometimes taken to be interchangeable (however ironically) with the newly built capitol, Brasilia, inaugurated in 1960. As a brainchild of president Juscelino Kubitschek, the city, whose execution was placed in the hands of Oscar Niemeyer as architect and Lúcio Costa as urban planner, rose on the vast planes within only three years. Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector epitomized it in her crônica as a place that both terrifies, and yet presents an irresistible allure. The pull is such that, at times, Lispector writes as if Brasilia were a stand-in for her own libido. Brasilia is a dream of progress, Lispector notes, but as such it contains a dark side. In Brasilia’s case, this is literally so. Filmmakers and artists from Ana Vaz, Dane Komljen and Adirley Quierós, have made short films about the kind of nightmares that Brasilia contains. Most specifically, the displacement of poor populations to the outskirts (Queirós’s A Cidade É Uma Só, and the later feature, White Out, Black In), the colonizing impulse (Vaz’s A Idade da Pedra) and the homes of the workers who built the city but which were later destroyed, submerged by an artificial lake (Komljen’s All Still Orbit). In a song of Brazilian singer Gal Costa, with lyrics by music icon Gilberto Gil, Eldorado is a direct allusion to both, the myth, and to contemporary politics: “After the end of the world/ the reign of gold/ after the end of the world/ the reign of Eldorado.” In Brazil of the 1960s, post the military coup that brought down leftist president João Goulart, known as Django, the dream of power, of money and progress at any price proved more powerful than the poetics of poverty, of class solidarity, or of social consciousness, espoused by Glauber Rocha and the Cinema Novo.
3. Philosopher/Poet vs. Statesman
Ever since Plato, there has been a question of what place in politics, if any,
might be reserved to wise men. Socrates was a tutor of kings, and so was Seneca, yet both their lives ended infamously, in suicide. Paulo’s path isn’t all that different—while his death is at the hands of others, he does commit a political suicide when he abandons his ally, the populist leader, Felipe Vieira. In Paulo’s mind, Vieira lacks the ruthless determination that is much needed to face the country’s problems heads-on: a truly socialist leader ought not hesitate when faced with the option to use violence. Much in this vein, Paulo shows up at Vieira’s residence with a rifle, and demands that his leader use it. When the other refuses, Paulo storms out.
Here then we have the poetics of not so much hunger—hunger is suffering, and only later revolt—but rather of calculated, ideological force. This is Rocha in a mid-stage, before he has any real dealings with Cuba, or sees just how difficult it is to sustain the dual role of artist and activist. Cuba, according to some of his biographers, would later haunt Rocha as one of his greatest disappointments.
But here is Paulo, Rocha’s creation and, to some extent, alter ego—his words are eloquent, but what of his deeds? Rocha’s Brechtian conception of his anti-hero does not facilitate a straightforward reading: Paulo is not a figure we necessarily identify with. We might come to understand his torment, perhaps even feel it, but what of his attitude, beliefs? Disaffected, disoriented, Paulo reflects the maddening polarization of Brazilian politics during the military regime. This was not necessarily forgiven: much like his filmmaker compatriots who lived and worked behind the Iron Curtain (Krzysztof Kieślowski, to mention but one), Rocha was criticized on both sides of the political spectrum. He risked becoming a persona non grata.
I have not read feminist interpretations of Rocha’s work, yet it is astounding what a forceful presence Sara, portrayed by Glauce Rocha, exudes. For sure, this has much to do with Glauce Rocha’s talent. She had previously acted in such renowned Brazilian films, as Rio, 40 Graus (Rio, 40 Degrees), by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Cinco Vezes Favela (Five Times Favela), an omnibus film, with the direction that included Leon Hirszman, Joaquim Pedro and Cacá Diegues, and in Ruy Guerra’s Os Cafajestes. In the political chaos that surrounds Paulo, Sara alone can ground him. And only Sara has the ethical integrity to challenge him. When Paulo wallows in desperation, she reminds him that she has given up everything—the possibility of having a family, being a mother—to then be persecuted, imprisoned, and tortured. Her body bears the marks of her engagement, is a political body, per excellence. During their exchange, brilliantly written and staged by Rocha, Paulo goes on about “the hunger for the absolute [ideas].” Sara refutes him bluntly, with one word, “Hunger.” Hunger, to a determined activist, like Sara, is not a matter of language, of argument, or of one’s self-fulfillment. Hunger is physical, requires concrete steps to counter it. Yet Paulo isn’t capable of following in Sara’s practical, prosaic footsteps. His mind is too populated with contradictory ideas, his desire for actualization too great to settle on a single objective. The poet fails, and in his failure, he is redeemed only by the patient love, and the steady regard, of this woman. Tragically, it’s too little to keep him alive. Paulo rejects Sara’s guidance—her moral compass cannot serve a man who, like Paulo, sees life as an uncompromising adventure. The final shot finds Paulo suffering alone, against an arid landscape, amidst the Armageddon of incessant gunfire and sirens. In his last pangs of agony, the Eldorado of his dreams is reduced to dust. Its logic impervious to his demands.
5. Opera, operetta
Terra em Transe possesses incredible musicality, most eloquently noted in Aesthetics and Politics in Modern Brazilian Cinema, by the great Brazilian Cinema Novo scholar, Ismail Xavier. On the most basic level, Rocha makes use of both Western and Brazilian opera, to accentuate the high stakes and the epic nature of his political drama. At the same time, since he deploys distancing and irony—we are never quite in Paulo’s skin—what begins like an opera, increasingly feels like a bloated operetta, ópera-bufa, in parts.
In his essay on Terra em Transe, “Land in Anguish: Allegory and Agony,” Xavier writes of the aural agony that Rocha inflicts on us with the soundtrack. From the wonderfully rousing, rhythmic popular Afro music, we are thrust into an increasingly aggressive “music” of guns. This staccato is separate from the visuals and punctuated by deafening silence. This dis-synchronicity, Xavier believes, shows Rocha’s desire to proceed with the Brechtian alienation—violence is not a spectacle. It is somber rather than reckless, though Paulo could hardly be accused of being cool-headed—and here lies the key distinction between protagonist and maker. Violence assaults us, and it is the great achievement of Rocha’s film that, even before his own personal disillusion set in (Rocha saw his efforts increasingly thwarted on a number of ambitious projects, in Cuba and in Europe)—long before any of this, in the midst of his infatuation with the socialist project, there remains the question of Paulo’s integrity. The price for his poeticizing politics is exceedingly high. Reality, or rather, realpolitik, is crushing. Soon, Rocha would also find it so.