Review: Bahia

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Bahia both is and isn’t the kind of film you’d expect from the maker of Black Orpheus. Like the earlier film, it was made in Brazil and focuses on a society of New World blacks; it is intimately bound up with music and with the joyous dance of life; it boasts sharp National Geographic–style color photography, and a loving sensitivity to the beauty of nature and of the human face; at every turn it stresses rebirth and affirmation, emphasizing the universal human values that are implicit in its amalgam of Christian and Bahian myth. But unlike Black Orpheus, Camus’s newest film is almost structureless, more a freewheeling anthology of vignettes involving the same group of characters than a singleminded narrative film.

In Bahia, too, life is comic rather than tragic myth. A buffoon of a policeman named Manuel Cigar—very much a Dogberry type—menaces the happiness of the shantytown dwellers of Bahia’s Mata Gato, but knows enough not to push too far: “Do you want a revolution on our hands?” he incredulously asks a subordinate who has effected the burning of the poor folks’ shacks on Mata Gato. He fires an occasional shot into the air, but is really only there to provide a nemesis and comic butt for the backlash of the poor folk. Crises develop but, as in Shakespearean comedy, are averted before they gain much ground. Bahia never has about it the sense of mythic inevitability that haunts even the most joyous moments of Black Orpheus. Rather, it is unpredictability that is the film’s strong suit, and comic reversal figures heavily in the built-up expectations of a couple of supremely funny sequences. Rarely concerned with linear narrative, this ambling, episodic film is bound together with rituals: a Christian baptism, a Candomble exorcism, an extreme unction that turns into a wedding, and—always—singing and the dance. Camus’s sharp, usually deep-focus photography enables him to emphasize with clarity of color and line the small tokens that are emblematic of his ethnics’ simple way of life: a humble rag doll, a dress, a gift necklace, a knife used both to cut fruit and mislead our expectations in a delightful confrontation scene. The characters, too, are economically and sharply drawn, and despite their large number and the economy of their introductions, surprisingly few of them remain types; rather they become, as a group, a most interesting, enjoyable, and lovable assortment of real people. Never as dark as Black Orpheus, and without that film’s ambivalence and imagistic unity, Bahia may seem to lack a center, but it never lacks a heart.

© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow

BAHIA
Direction: Marcel Camus. Screenplay: Camus and Jorge Amado, after Amado’s Shepherds of the Night. Cinematography: André Domage. Editing: André Feix.
The players: Mira Fonseca, Zeni Pereira, Maria Vaina, Massu, Jofre Soares, Emmanuel Cavalcanti.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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