Black God White Devil (Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol) Review

Manuel (Geraldo Del Rey) is a cowhand in the Sertão, an arid region in north-eastern Brazil. One day, unable to take any more, he kills his abusive boss and flees with his wife Rosa (Yoná Magalhães). Manuel joins up with a strange priest (João Gama), who preaches a gospel of violence. Gradually, Manuel drifts into a life of crime, and eventually joins the gang of legendary outlaw Antonio das Mortes (Maurício do Valle)...

Cinema history is never static. Certain films seem impervious to time and critical fashion: the Citizen Kane and La règle du jeu seem permanent fixtures in All-Time Top Ten lists, but who’s to say they’ll always be there? On the other hand, other films and their directors go into fashion and out again, and what seemed new and exciting slips into obscurity a decade or so later. As I’ve said before, the reason is often availability. Before Second Run admirably started reissuing his 60s classics, who in the UK, save those old enough to have been adults in that decade, had seen any of Miklós Jáncsó’s films? Now that we have had a chance to, I’m sure the reputation of that still-living Hungarian master will increase. Now Mr Bongo seem to be doing the same to his deceased Brazilian contemporary Glauber Rocha, with the DVD release of this film, and Terra em transe and Antonio das Mortes to follow. As far as I’m aware, the last and only chance I had to see one of Rocha’s films was back in November 1982, when Channel 4 in its first month of broadcasting showed Antonio das Mortes. Sadly, with it being late at night and school the next day, I wasn’t able to take the opportunity. Still, now I have had another chance.

In world cinema terms, countries can be happening as well as directors. Often it’s the work of two or three directors that puts the spotlight on a country’s output. Recently, Brazil has spawned Walter Salles, Fernando Meireilles and others. A couple of decades earlier, Hector Babenco and Bruno Barreto made films which attracted international audiences. But back in the mid 60s, it was the Cinema Novo movement, with its political themes often centred around Brazilian poverty, its key directors including Rocha and Ruy Guerra amongst others, which attracted the attentions of cineastes worldwide.

Black God White Devil (the Portuguese title translates as God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun) is a startling film, which must have hit filmgoers between the eyes on its release. It’s a frequently violent film, enough to earn a rather too strict 18 certificate still. (I don’t know how widely released it was in the UK at the time – presumably without a BBFC certificate as there is no record of it being passed. I’d imagine it would have given the censor a few problems in its day.) What intrigues and at times frustrates is the mixture of forms and registers Rocha draws on. It certainly draws on the Hollywood western, amongst other things. In its turn it influenced the Spaghetti Western: Sergio Leone was an admirer of the film, and the character of Antonio das Mortes would not be out of place in the Dollars trilogy. Rocha throws in elements of folk ballad (with sung introductions to certain characters) and no doubt plenty of nuances and overtones that went over this non-Brazilian’s head. Stylistically the film is a mix of sophistication and primitivism: the bleached-out black and white photography (achieved by doing without filters) admirably conveying the harshness of the arid north-eastern Brazilian landscape. The soundtrack is worthy of note too, with its mix of Villa Lobos and Bach, and loudness alternating with silence.

This isn’t really an actor’s film, but the principal cast do make an impression. You have to admire Del Rey's physicality: he did the rock-carrying scene for real, to an extent that Rocha was worried for his safety. Not surprising, as the rock weighed some twenty kilos.

In 1967, Rocha made a semi-sequel, Antonio das Mortes, reusing the character of that name. He died in 1981, aged only forty-two.


Mr Bongo’s release of Black God White Devil is in the PAL format and encoded for all regions.

The transfer is 4:3, and that would seem to be the original aspect ratio. There is some minor print damage, but this is a more than acceptable picture, though there is some ghosting on movement. The high contrast in some scenes I take to be intentional.

The soundtrack is the original mono, which copes well with the unusually high dynamic range of the soundtrack, compared to mono-optical soundtracks of its era. The back of the case claims that there is a 5.1 remix (why?) on the disc and subtitles available in Portuguese, French and Spanish, but this is not correct: the only soundtrack option is 2.0 and the only subtitles available are optional English.

There are no extras on this DVD. As I’ve said before this is one of several films that Mr Bongo are releasing on DVD which would benefit from some context-setting: just a text essay would do.

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