In 1953, the Sao Paolo-based film company Vera Cruz released “O cangaceiro.” After overwhelming success in Brazil, the film was distributed by Columbia Pictures in 22 countries and was awarded at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
Directed by Lima Barreto, a former journalist and award-winning documentarian, the film popularized the Brazilian western—a genre that would achieve its true poetic potential in the following decade when the filmmakers of the Cinema Novo movement revisited Brazil’s history.
The cangaceiros—bandits who attacked towns and fought the big landowners to avoid slavery and starvation—emerged from the sertao, a vast region in Northeastern Brazil hit by an endemic economic crisis and severe draughts, during the last years of the nineteenth century.
Like Joaquín Murrieta, the Robin Hood of El Dorado (the semi-legendary figure in California during the Gold Rush of the 1850s), cangaceiros’ courage, mysticism and violent opposition to social injustice made them folk heroes.
In the more faithful tradition of cangaceiro literature the bandit is neither good nor evil, their actions being both liberating and repressive. The cangaceiro is a guerrillero who fights for his survival in a violent region besieged by hardship. In the film, Barreto portrays the cangaceiro as a figure who lives beyond his historical context and whose link to the land seems magical and supernatural, but portrays it as a more simplified, good and bad hero.
Cinema Novo’s Glauber Rocha criticized the film for being an unrealistic depiction of the cangaceiro and settling for an adventure-style Hollywood film. On the other hand, Brazilian critic Ana M. Lopez points out that “rather than disjointed foreign borrowings” the film’s hybrid elements make it “transformative” not “imitative.”
Among the 18 movies produced by the Vera Cruz Film Company in five years, only “O cangaceiro” obtained both critical and financial success. Columbia Pictures took advantage of the film’s success at Cannes and, with a new ending and under the title of “The Bandits,” distributed it worldwide as if it were a film produced in their studios.
“O cangaceiro” is often described as a story of love and death, the romance between the bandit Teodoro and the teacher Olivia, along with a secondary story about the armed struggle of a band of cangaceiros commanded by Captain Galdino Ferreira. Although both narrative lines are effectively combined, it is the representation of the figure of the cangaceiro and the popular armed movement that rose up in Northeastern Brazil between the 1880s and the 1930s that draws our interest to Barreto’s film today.
“O cangaceiro” will play Sunday, May 6, as part of the ongoing film series “Brazilian Voices of Cinema” presented by Colectivo Cinema Errante at Artists’ Television Access, 992 Valencia St.