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The Sophist Antonio das Mortes at Lowell House, 8 and 10 tonight

By Mike Prokosch

-Glauber Rocha, director of Antonio das Mortes, describing the style of William Faulkner.

TO GET you to see this film, which is a true breakthrough for cinema, I probably should begin by saying that it is filled with the savage folk poetry of the Brazilian northland (cousin to the American Wild West), it is colorful and violent, it deals in myths of recent times which are inherently Christian and Marxist. What I saw, however, was the first dialectical cinema in film history.

Like Victorian theater and early film, Antonio das Mortes (1969) is staged exclusively in two flat planes: one straight across the frame, the other straight into it. The figure in the left of the frame is opposed to the figure in the right, and the actors in the foreground fight the crowds toward the back. In this closed form of thesis/antithesis, Rocha's open form occurs when he transforms one opposition into another. Rocha's shots are set, closed, until he brings in a new term of antithesis: he pans roughly till the camera picks up a new character on one side, causes a new figure to enter the shot, or cuts away to transform the dialectic of the shot.

THE THIRD sequence of Antonio sets a crowd of ragged, vivid revolutionaries dancing into town and into the camera, which tracks back before their leaders yet holds the frame full of the singing masses. The procession comes to a halt; their leader, the cangaceiro ("popular champion," "bandit," "dragon-killer"), comes out before them and says to the camera: "Vengeance has two faces, love and hate."

Rocha cuts to a shot of a government-sponsored parade that is the mirror-image of the revolutionaries': uniformed children ordered in rank and file march stiffly away from the camera, part of a declining historical movement. In the background we see Antonio das Mortes, an old hired killer of cangaceiros, standing detached and pushed back from the ruling class's social order-the mirror of his counterpart the cangaceiro, he is pushed away from the camera instead of into it. A rich landowner's emissary, Dr. Matos, comes up to Antonio and with great difficulty (personal dialectical relationship) induces him to move out of the background and into the line of march (changing Antonio's relation to the foreground parade from one of detachment to one of passive participation).

They enter a bar: the two men sit in flat two-shot, separated and complementary (Antonio in dark grey sitting higher, the doctor in white below and slightly to the front); but this personal relation is transformed by a slow zoom into Antonio, who is speaking to the audience about Lampeiro, the greatest of all cangaceiros, whom Antonio killed in 1938. "Lampeiro was my mirror," declares Antonio: "in him I saw myself." This speech exactly balances the cangaceiro's from the preceding sequence, just as the parades mirror each other; even the two men's speeches say the same thing.

Thus the level and the nature of the dialectic evolve continuously as the terms of the dialectic change. Rocha's dialectical method is a perfect dramatic form: it moves fluidly from the personal to the collective level to the mythic, and back.

ROCHA's dialectic ranges over all levels of film reality. In one sequence the old landowner's whore Laura stands in the center of a mid-shot, leaning on a balustrade with one plant in left frame balanced by one plant in right; close in back of her a flat wall, close in front of her the screen. Behind her Dr. Matos paces from the left frame edge to the right and back. She talks, and we start with the conventional assumption that she is talking to the other person depicted in the frame. Then we notice that she is facing straight forward and that her remarks apply very well to us: the direction of the scene must be didactic, she must be addressing the audience. But at last we see that the two opposite directions of her speech balance each other, that she is speaking fictionally and didactically at the same time-and indeed the whole film is balanced between narrative and polemic. But all that we can say is concretely happening is the action in the exact center of this dialectic between naturalism and didacticism, the action that is the dialectic's crux: that there is a woman in center frame delivering a speech.

Through Antonio das Mortes the dialectic keeps balancing and leaving its crux, in center frame, to be the truth of the image and of the film at this instant. Sometimes a symbolic figure occupies the center between the cangaceiro and his opponent; sometimes there is just the space between foreground and background masses. In each case Rocha's dialectical construction tells us the precise nature of their relationship. As elsewhere, dialectic shows itself to be the best way of understanding events, of laying them open to us. The central fact about this film, the root of its success, is that its method is perfectly in accord with our understanding: dialectic may or may not be the way material reality functions, but it's certainly the way our conscious reasoning and our dramatic imagination work.

THIS goes way beyond Eisenstein's theories of cinema dialectics because it is anti-static. It doesn't conceive of thesis as separate from antithesis and resolved in a third shot which represents the synthesis. It accomplishes every scene in very long takes wherein antithesis appears, enters the frame, to oppose a thesis. The concrete relation between these two generates a provisional synthesis, which changes as one term becomes more powerful, and then changes into a new synthesis (a new order of the moment) as a new term enters the frame. To the truth of each image Rocha does not oppose an antithetical truth-instead he adds an element that transforms this total truth into a new relationship on a new level.

This is definitely a cinema of ideas, the clearest such cinema there's ever been, greatly superior in comprehensibility to anything Godard's ever done; indeed, it solves all the problems Godard's been worrying about recently. It's self-critical cinema which assumes the reality of nothing except the event actually taking place on the screen. It's popular cinema that works, yet is rigorously intellectual; it incorporates fiction and polemic without falling prey to either, instead placing its reality exactly in the balance between the two.

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