More noise than signal

Entranced Earth

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

If I recall correctly, this film made the list off the back of something like the IMDb summary, which runs roughly thus: “In the hypothetical Latin-American country of Eldorado… poet and journalist Paulo Martins fights against the populist governor, Felipe Vieira, and the conservative president Porfirio Diaz”. Which, to be fair, if you’re trying to boil Terra em Transe, Brazilian writer/director Glauber Rocha’s 1967 film, down to a paragraph is about as close as you’re going to get.

It does rather sell short the outright weirdness of the film, though, and I’m rather sure that’s why the film’s Wikipedia page, so often the home of the needlessly detailed recap, doesn’t even bother in this instance. It would probably be foolish of me to even attempt to recap the plot, but no-one’s ever accused me of good sense.

To be honest, it’s tough to add a great deal more to it. Jardel Filho’s Paulo Martins is a poet first, and journalist a very distant second. If I’m reading it rightly, it’s framed non-linearly, with him reminiscing, sort of, with his girlfriend Sara (Glauce Rocha), while driving very quickly away from the hot mess Eldorado has found itself in, assault rifle in hand, lamenting his part in the hot messification along with pretty much everything else.

We flashback to Paulo’s more idealistic days, as he convinces José Lewgoy’s Felipe Vieira to run for Governor’s office on what appears to be a left-wing, socialist ticket, railing against the elite, but this soon descends into populism, with Vieira making a string of promises he couldn’t hope to meet to the adulation of the masses who desperately want to believe him.

We also see his relationship with hardcore capitalist rich boy President Porfirio Diaz, who stands for all the things you’d expect, and worries that external business investment will drop off after Vieira’s election, and plots to overthrow him, by arms if necessary, although budget constraints rather limit the opportunity for on-screen civil war.

Paulo is, in truth, little more than an observer in these events, and aside from decrying them he has little role in attempting to stop them. And what events they are, as before long both sides are pushed out to ludicrous extents, with Vieira almost subsumed by a wave of the worst sort of mob rule and Diaz playing out some Wolf of Wall Street style playboy excesses before ending up giving what’s possibly some sort of party political broadcast as a frothing, ranting fascist.

I’m perhaps underplaying the oddity of the film. What with Paulo being a poet and all, outbreaks of poetry presented as dialogue are frequent and, well, melodramatic isn’t the right term, but it’s as close as I can come to it. In that regard it’s rather like a musical without the backing track. It’s a wildly baffling piece to watch, when entering blind, and while I can’t say I enjoyed it, in any traditional sense, it is fascinating.

Now, having done a little digging, I can at least make some sense of the context. Rocha was a leading force behind Brazil’s Cinema Novo, a movement very much a response to the French New Wave, and indeed the closest examples I can think of to liken this to would be some sort of cross between this year’s Neruda and Last Year at Marienbad. Rocha seemed to have a rather expansive and hopeful view of the influence that cinema could wield, way over and above simply highlighting injustices. It seems, along with their involvement in political causes, that they thought to shepherd a cultural revolution.

This rather hit the skids when Democratic President João Goulart was turfed out of office in a military coup, with noted asshole Castelo Branco assuming the dictatorship, bankrolled by the IMF and American multinationals. Not unlike the stated aims of Diaz for Eldorado, not at all coincidentally enough. Clearly, writer/director Rocha was affected by this, and Paulo Martins’ rage at, well, everyone, but particularly the politicians he feels betrayed by or disappointed in, must be a bit of author insertion.

So, with this in mind, it’s possible to parse the film a little better, although ultimately I’m not sure it’s more than raging against the dying of the light, and Paulo’s bellicose denunciations of everyone that isn’t him can grow a touch tiring by the end of the piece. It’s a howl of anguish more than it is a film, although it’s all the more interesting for it.

We’re not the kind of podcast that throws around the term Brechtian, but if we were, we’d be throwing it around right now. The editing, the deliberate desynchronising of sound, the pacing, the (one hopes) deliberate overacting, some of the framing, and certainly the refusal to establish any shot makes the film a dizzying mess, and as protagonists go, Paulo seems custom-built to repel empathy. It has taken the arthouse dial and turned it to “all the arthouse”, which would often have me running screaming, but Terra em Transe is just too peculiar a film to hate.

At the risk of repeating myself, I can’t hand on heart say that I enjoyed Terra em Transe, but it, and the political and cultural milieu around it are absolutely fascinating and well worth reading about. Viewed in a vacuum, it’s hard to take it seriously, and hard to breathe, so don’t view it in a vacuum. Or a hoover, for that matter, although that’s more of a hygiene concern. Looked at as part of the wider goings-on in Brazil at the time, it’s a very interesting, inventive and outré mood piece, and a curiosity that’s worth indulging.