by Elcio Basilio*
Reviewed and edited by Anna Paula Bennech and Giovanna Imbernon
Organized by Elcio Basilio
Brazilian modernism flourished in the 1920s, and next year we will celebrate the Modern Art Week’s centenary – a movement that took place in São Paulo in 1922 and is considered the milestone of modernism in Brazil. One of its most notorious figures was Mário de Andrade, along with his fellow writers and painters, Mário was very interested in finding a national identity and how our art could express it. Which colors and sounds would be the most representative of this young country, only 100 years old by then, considering that before 1822, Brazil was still a Portuguese Colony.
Mário de Andrade was particularly drawn by the mythology of the South American native peoples and the persistence of oral narratives in remote areas of Brazil. He traveled the country searching for the material and, after years of collecting the stories, in 1928 the poet decided that he would write a novel loosely based on the writings of the German Ethnologue Koch-Grünberg, mixing them up with many other tales he had identified and, of course, his personal touch and sense of humor. And that is how Macunaíma was born, the reckless and carefree manners from the main character came along with a colloquial vocabulary and several erotic episodes, causing a stir in Brazilian literature at the time. This did not prevent the book from being considered a masterpiece by many of its contemporary readers, but the book only achieved great popularity with its movie adaptation forty years later.
From 1928 to 1969, many cultural and political events took place in Brazil and the world. The obsession with nationality had taken some sinister turns around the globe with the rise of Nazi-Fascism, and politicians, in general, were trying to forge strong social bonds among people. From 1937 to 1946 Brazil’s government was kept under a presidential dictatorship with a nationalistic agenda, which was responsible for creating Brazil’s national industry. Again, in the ’60s, with the whole cold war paranoia, another coup was planted in Brazil in 1964. Alleging a communist threat, and with the support of the US, the Brazilian Army held a Military Dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. From 1968 to 1974, at that time the film adaptation of Macunaíma was shot, the regime was particularly violent and authoritarian.
Joaquim Pedro de Andrade was part of “Cinema Novo”, the Brazilian new wave cinema that emerged in the early 1960s. At first, the state censorship did not stop our filmmakers from shooting their scripts, even though some of the most political comments had to be hidden, they were still able to make films with such liberty that still impresses us nowadays. Although their movies would eventually have some cut-off scenes or be entirely censored, some of our finest films were shot at that time.
Considered one of the most censored movies during the dictatorship, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Macunaíma (1969) was unwanted by the military censorship not only for the obscenity of some scenes but also for its ideological content. The figure of Macunaima, a black-skinned indigenous, was not exactly the type of hero the military government was looking for; he was a lazy non-European type who had just come out of Brazil’s backwoods. Just the idea of Macunaíma being considered a national hero was annoying for the government, but the film’s sequence that most bothered the censors was the one with Ci – a character from the book, who was originally an amazon warrior, and that was turned into a left guerrilla militant, gun chased by the police and who responded with violence, killing the cops pursuing her in the cinematographic adaptation. The scene stages playfully one of Brazil’s most difficult periods. However, even during this violent action scene, the movie does not lose its touch of irreverence. According to Heloisa Buarque de Hollanda, Ci wearing Lee jeans and running at the sound of Roberto Carlos pop-rock is a parody of the modern woman (Hollanda 1978, 28).
During her relationship with Macunaíma, Ci is the one who brings the money home. Macunaíma is pretty at ease in this position. Here, we could also point out that the main character dialogues with other iconic heroes of the new wave cinema, e. g. Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) from Breathless (Godard, 1960), and Vittorio Cataldi (Franco Citti) from Accattone (Pasolini, 1961): both crooks, always setting schemes and looking for women to sustain them.
Macunaíma’s film version can be easily considered a true masterpiece of Brazilian Cinema Novo. However, and modestly, the director Joaquim Pedro de Andrade stated that, if his film was something new in matters of cinema, that was not due to his work, but a consequence of the innovative structure of the book. Of course, we recon the importance of Joaquim Pedro’s works, but we must agree that another modern aspect of the movie is the autonomy of the scenes and its structural logic, which is undoubtedly an outgrowth of how Mário de Andrade has conceived the chapters. In his novel, almost every chapter is an independent adventure that could work by itself – that is why the author used to describe his book as a literary rhapsody. But again, the dynamics of the scenes is very up-to-date with 60’s modern cinema, this episodic composition was already very clear in Godard’s Weekend (1967) – a movie that had particularly caught the attention of Joaquim Pedro de Andrade (Hollanda 1978, 13).
The oral tradition from which Macunaíma comes also gave the movie a laid-back style, very contemporary in the sixties. Mário de Andrade said that some sentences from the book, that are repeated almost like a chorus, were composed in such poetic features to sound as popular sayings, take as an example the couplet “With fewer ants and better health, Brazil will lead the world in wealth”. In the movie, this saying is intensified by the vocal performance of the actors, how delightful it is to hear Grande Otelo complaining “Aw! What a fucking life!” with his charismatic and mocking tone. And how about the thundering voice of Curupira (Rafael de Carvalho) demanding “Flesh of my leg!” or the unforgettable accent created by Jardel Filho to give life to the neo-bourgeois antagonist Pietro Pietra.
The constant repetition of these sentences also functions as punch lines aiming at creating humor through a fine irony, something very characteristic of modern cinema, in which the characters seem to be self-conscious of their fictional status. That is why Macunaíma, like other modern masterpieces, can be seen as a parody of classical narratives, considering that it rearranges distinct traditions in plural but coherent works of art.
But if we consider Macunaíma a simple comedy character, how seriously could we take the idea of the hero being a genuine representative of the Brazilian people? Often infantilized by a childlike hedonism, Macunaíma is incapable of taking serious decisions and avoids all responsibility. Like many modern heroes, he is not attached to any place or people and consequently, he does not have a bond with anything. This existential emptiness, or a so-called lack of character, can be seen as a shortage of connection to something lasting. Dishonest, selfish, greedy, and unfaithful, he is never motivated to do anything, he only accomplishes something after being forced to do so, usually as payback for some deceit. How much of this behavior could we see in ourselves? A few maybe, but more than Brazil’s national hero, isn’t Macunaíma a fine example of a modern antihero? Created with satirical purposes, the character can be seen above all as a criticism of the anguish that the modern world puts us through.
Andrade, Mário de. 1984. Macunaíma. New York: Random House.
Chamie, Mário. 1977. “Mário de Andrade: Fato aberto e discurso carnavalesco.” Revista Iberoamericana, Vol. XLIII, No. 98-99 (Jan-Jun). DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/reviberoamer.1977.3214
Hollanda, Heloisa Buarque. 1978. Macunaíma: Da Literatura ao Cinema. Rio de Janeiro: J. Olímpio Editora.
Souza, Gilda de Mello. 2003. O tupi e o alaúde: uma interpretação de Macunaíma. São Paulo: Editora 34.
*Elcio Basilio is a Postdoctoral researcher in Communication and Semiotics at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP) with a work about Antonioni’s “Incommunicability Trilogy”. In 2020, he defended his doctoral thesis entitled “A palavra e sua ausência”, an analysis of the use of speech and silence in the cinema of Philippe Garrel. His research often relates art cinema with literature and philosophy, he also works as a filmmaker.