The Death of Glauber Rocha


By Serge Daney

Originally published as ‘La mort de Glauber Rocha’, Libération, 24 August 1981. Revised version of the translation found on

Inspired and irritating; the best known – and I dare say the greatest – Brazilian director was somewhat forgotten. Cinema novo, tropicalism, tricontinentalism – where are they now? Glauber Rocha himself forgot nothing.

The last time I saw Glauber Rocha was in the office of Cahiers du Cinéma, near Bastille. I didn’t know him, but I’d seen his films ten years earlier. Nobody talked about him anymore, except to say that he had gone crazy or that he’d compromised himself with the Brazilian military regime. He had come to France for what was virtually a sneak screening of his latest film, a film he’d spent a lot of time, money and work on and which had left the Venice Festival-goers perplexed, to say the least. It was called A Idade da Terra (The Age of the Earth) and was like nothing known to man. A torrential, hallucinatory film. A filmic UFO, no more, no less. Glauber was in Paris to try and get the film distributed, to renew old contacts, take his bearings. He talked a lot, he was probably raving: nothing of what he said was without significance.

At Cahiers we asked him whether he would write or say something about Pasolini, whom he had known, and to whom we were devoting a special issue. He locked himself in an office and, having no need of an interviewer, talked alone for two hours in front of a small tape recorder. Ill at ease, we could hear his vehement tone of voice, the charm of his Brazilian accent in French, his bad-tempered and affectionate settling of scores with PPP, his post-mortem reproaches. It was already a dialogue of the dead. We didn’t see him again, for he went off to Portugal where he seemed to be working on a film project. He has just died, on his return to Brazil, of complications from an illness we knew nothing about.

Of the great mischief makers of modern cinema, Glauber Rocha was perhaps the furthest from us. Firstly because from the seventies on, his reputation became downright bad: he had done a backflip, he had spoken in favor of the military regime of Geisel, then of Figuereido, and the state cinema organization, Embrafilme, had swallowed up a lot of money in that crazy film-fleuve of his, the UFO A Idade da Terra. And then because, deep down, he had always been far away, as far from us as Brazil can be. We had only come together because in those crazy times there was still something called “the history of the cinema”, which, before our very eyes, would weave the most paradoxical alliances. Glauber Rocha could discuss Eisensteinian montage with Godard, say what made Faulkner a cinematographic writer, or, paradoxically, why one should regard Bunuel as a “tricontinental” director. There seemed to be no differences between the guerrillas who were leading the “new waves” all over the world, whatever shores they died on. We were resisting; we were resisting Hollywood-Mosfilm, with a mixture of revolt and piety. We did not yet believe that America had conclusively won in the realm of sounds and images.

In 1963, Glauber Rocha and his friends (Diegues, Hirzman, Guerra, Dos Santos, Saraceni, etc.) published a pamphlet: “A Critical Revision of Brazilian Cinema”. Born in Bahia in 1938, Glauber, like everyone else, had run a cine-club and had written film criticism. Like everyone else in Latin America, he and his friends had made the most of a brief period of liberalization, a breathing space, to try and change Brazilian cinema from the inside. Three films established his reputation: Black God White Devil (1963), Terra en Transe (1966) and Antonio das Mortes (1968).

Western criticism, always curious about folklore and addicted to labeling, loved this new cinema, this “cinema novo” which Glauber symbolized. Knowing nothing of its old cinema, nor of Brazil, it loved it all the more. Then, as the military started to make a comeback (and what a comeback!), it forgot all about it. Returned to their contradictions, the cream of the aforesaid cinema novo faced the events that followed each in his own way: Glauber going into exile in 1971, Hirzsman clamming up, Ruy Guerra going off to Mozambique, only Diegues gradually becoming the Brazilian director. Glauber Rocha, the most patently “brilliant” of them all, will have the most erratic evolution. Two monstrous films which ought to be seen again today, Der Leone Have Sept Cabecas (1969) and Cabecas Cortadas (1970), the failed project for a History of Brazil, an unsuccessful film in Italy (Claro), a gag appearance in Godard’s Vent d’Est, a controversial short (Di Cavalcanti), and to wind up, A Idade da Terra.

Brilliant but embarrassing, a figure vaguely admired, feared or scorned in the Brazilian intellectual landscape, a public figure who was hard to manipulate, even for the military, whose merits he had noisily praised (as a tactic?) but without it being clear how he could become their hostage or official film maker. Too crazy. So Glauber Rocha laid a lot of false trails, wore out a lot of friends, spouted a full complement of horrors. In Venice in 1980 he behaved very badly, insulting Louis Malle, whose Atlantic City had just been honored. Everywhere he saw American imperialism, everywhere he saw the hand of Hollywood.

This was nothing new. In 1967 he stated – a banal enough idea at the time – that “the tools are Hollywood’s just as others belong to the Pentagon. No filmmaker is free enough”. It was the era of the tri-continental dream: “For the tricontinental filmmaker the moment of choice comes when the light strikes, I mean when the camera opens up on the Thirld World, an occupied territory. In the street, in the desert, in the forest and the city, choice has to be made, and even though the material is neutral, the editing speaks. As a discourse which can be inprecise and vague, wild and irrational, but whose every resistance is significant.” Watching A Idade da Terra fourteen years on, I told myself that Glauber hadn’t changed on this point. A film in the image of Brazil, “a verbose, loquacious, energetic, sterile and hysterical people” (still the words of G.R.).

In this film in which he didn’t deal with anyone anymore, left all alone with his delirium, Glauber made us recall a forgotten dream, the dream of an other cinema, something other than what is “made in USA”. For there had been various times when this existed – this idea that filmmakers of every continent could assemble images differently, offer the cinema something other than its bad televisation or its sinister musealisation. A cinema of montage, physical and dissonant, an opera-cinema to convert us from the American operetta. It had once existed.

As I re-read old interviews with Glauber in Cahiers, the image of the unrelenting and dubious prophet, with which in the end he had merged, becomes dimmed. It’s true, more than anyone else he had been the petit-bourgeois artist which all orthodoxies throw up, the eternal sorcerer’s apprentice of politics, the inconstant provocateur, etc. He was even the subject of Terre en Transe, a brilliant masochistic film: which dictator will the poet serve? Yet what’s striking in these interviews is Glauber’s prodigious knowledge: his intimate acquaintance with movies (American ones included), the revendication of ‘Brazilian-ness’ and at the same time the idea that everywhere, beneath the garb of the official saints, are the idols of the dominated. Behind which they sometimes rise up. Glauber’s films are westerns where cangaceiro killers, peasant mysticism and political manipulations create a single scenario. When it came to “folklore” he had a lot to teach us. As someone with a Protestant upbringing, he was fascinated by Catholic rituals, finding African gods behind them, and behind Saint George deities named Oxosse or Ogun, behind the Church the Candomble.

Be aware: for him there are no true or false gods, there are (as Deleuze and Guattari would say) “rhizome” gods, there are images sliding ones beneath the others, all of them true or all of them false. What matters is not the Earth but the Age. If the word culture has any meaning nowadays, where but in Brazil? A filmmaker plugged into the flux of images, the languages of the whole world, who but Glauber? It’s a bit like the reproach he made to Pasolini in the Cahiers du cinéma office: PPP was perverse when what was needed was subversiveness; worse still he dreamt of an Oedipus-Christ when what was needed was a black and naked Christ *.

No wonder Glauber Rocha constantly referred to Eisenstein. In the ruins of our cine-clubs the director of Potemkin has today become a remote and virtually incomprehensible glory. We forget that every filmmaker starting out in that part of the world which is itself starting out (the part we call “Third”) meets him along the way. There’s nothing political about this. Eisenstein brings back the cabaret and the circus, transvestism and gay paranoia, a fondness for forms and their metamorphoses, for the great and the small, the macro and the micro. Encyclopaedic learning and the Samba in front of idols. Bringing forth the impure, mongrel beauty of things. For Glauber there is no end to the dialogue with Eisenstein. “Even for Eisenstein, the project of aestheticizing the New World was the same as taking the word of God (and the interests of the conquistadors) to the Indians” he said. In the age of video, zoom lenses and over-saturated sound, A Idade da Terra is to some extent an answer to S.M.E., the third part of Ivan the Terrible.

He disconcerted, invented, shocked, disappointed. He gave up nothing of his desire. Stubbornly, he never ceased asking a question which, I fear, has become obsolete: what sort of cinema might there be that owed nothing to the USA? It is maybe asking too much. But who will answer?



* See also Glauber Rocha’s speech at the end of A Idade da Terra:

“On the day when Pasolini, the great Italian poet, was murdered, I thought about filming the life of Christ in the Third World. Pasolini filmed the life of Christ at the same period as Pope John XXIII broke the ideological imobilism of the Catholic Church in relation to the problems of the underdeveloped peoples of the Third World and also in relation to the European labour class. It was a rebirthing: the ressurection of a Christ that was not adored on the cross, but a Christ that was worshipped, revived, revolutionized in an ecstasy of ressurrection.

Over Pasolini’s dead body, I thought that the Christ was a new, primitive phenomenum, in a new, very new civilization. (…)
There have been five hundred years of white, Portuguese, European civilization, blended with indigenous and blacks, and there have been thousands of years beyond the arithmetic times or the mathematic craziness, along which no one has ever even known where the nebula of chaos came from, whithin the nothingness. That is, God or nothing. Either you believe in God or you believe in nothing. If nothing is God…

So, history is very fast. It is a history with a fantastic velocity, it is a lysergic despair. (…)
Here, for instance, in Brasília, on this fantastic stage in the heart of the Brazilian highlands, strong irradiation, light of the Third World, a metaphor that doesn’t come true in history, but meets a feeling of greatness, the vision of paradise, that pyramid, this pyramid that is the dramatic geometry of the social state: above, the power; below, the bases; and then, the intricated labyrinths of the mediations.

All this ideology of love would be concentrated in Christianity, which is a beautiful religion of the African, Asian, Latin-American peoples, of the total peoples, a Christianity that doesn’t happen solely inside the Catholic Church, but in all religions that find their deepest, most recondite, most eternal, most subterranean, most lost symbols in the figure of Christ, a Christ that is not dead, but alive, spreading love and creativity. The search for eternity and the victory over death, because death is a structuring determined by a fatalist code, perhaps with sexual or genetic origins, quien lo sabe, pero death can be beaten. ”

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