Review: Macunaíma

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

The allegedly quintessential Brazilian film begins solemnly, from the absence of color. The screen is black. No sound, no music, nothing. Finally, in white letters, something to lip-read: a preamble heavy and hackneyed as the baritone of the late, great Lowell Thomas…. In the depths of the Brazilian jungle, bla bla bla … all is utter silence, bla bla bla … except … An ungodly shriek rends the air and the audience’s eardrums. Sudden extreme closeup of ancient hag—ugh, what a mug on this old party! Medium shot: the crone (wait, maybe it’s a man, outlandish drag)—she—he—bends clumsily. W-a-a-a-a-w! Grande Otelo (an adult actor), fullgrown and black as the ace of spades, thuds bawling onto the turf; and Macunaíma, with a cry of comical outrage, is born.

It’s quite a while before the pace slackens. Grande Otelo gives a joyous, all-stops-out performance as the outback family’s spindly, lecherous baby picaro. He’s one bigger-than-life baby: he kicks, he screams, he cackles; when he pouts, he pouts from ear to ear. Mostly, though, he dedicates himself to copping feels off big brother’s voluptuous young wife (Joana Fomm). De Andrade kicks it along at a breathless, gag-filled tempo. Baby Otelo making a beeline for the family communal-bathing pond, stripping as he runs, diving in and gleefully upending himself, time after time, for quick nips at sis-in-law’s bare hindquarters. Baby Otelo, sleepy but still ogling her from his top half of a double-decker hammock, while big brother, down below, unemotionally unfurls a protective umbrella and settles down for the night. The family tearing apart a succulent, freshly barbecued animal and at long last awarding the impatient baby, oversized but still powerless, a string of steaming tripes.

Comes the big juju—black actor Grande Otelo’s metamorphosis into a ridiculously dressed Prince Charming of a young white man (Paulo Joseph Jardiel) and the movie shifts surrealistic gears. The likely young white lad sets off on a Quest, which leads him to Rio, where he meets up immediately with the formidable Ci, a guerrillera on the lam from a bank robbery (Dina Sfat). When a whole armed carload of Establishment pursuers overtakes Ci, she opens their car door, steps coolly inside and, with her little submachine gun, in a cartoonish Godardian sequence of enormous brio, wipes out every last one of ’em. Andrade follows this with an even more exhilarating and spectacularly well-edited sequence in a parking garage, where the beauteous guerrillera first manhandles our hero, then makes fierce love to him on an elevator platform that whips up and down, throughout the scene, at hair-raising speeds.

Much, much else happens in Rio, episodically of course, and usually with a strong flavor of fairy tale or folk tale. A couple of hoary off-color “bôbo” stories, even, get thrown into the mix: the one where the sucker buys a duck that appears to shit gold pieces; the one where the sucker smashes his own testicles because he misconstrues the import of a “gourmet” dish described by a chance acquaintance. And there’s the ogreish red-bearded man who slices a piece of fresh meat from his own leg and gives it to the famished hero, then murderously wants it back. But the motif Andrade sticks with longest, and most productively, is the hero’s stalking and killing of The Evil Giant—a multimillionaire decked out with a thick black phony moustache and bushy eyebrows à la Groucho Marx and played in the broad farcical style of a wicked grapeworkers’ boss à la Teatro Campesino. A couple of months after seeing the movie, I find myself still replaying with delight three gaudily stylized scenes dominated by this dippy Id figure:

(1) He’s a black-suited Warbucks rushing along against a solid black backdrop of piled-up coal slag. A gaggle of interviewers struggles respectfully to stay abreast and ask questions. Whenever one catches up, Warbucks shoves or hits him, and the interviewer takes a pratfall.

(2) He’s a Felliniesque Fatty who waits slavering, in a mauve, purple and pink lounge-robe-over-striped-undershorts ensemble, for a new victim to enter his love nest. “She” arrives—it’s our hero again, actually, in outrageous pink and purple drag, hoping to heist the Giant’s precious Brazilian-soul charm stone—and the odd couple tangos up and down a grotesquely decorated boudoir.

(3) Climactically, he’s the jolly pinstriped, plutocratic host and father-of-the-bride who presides at a lavish backyard fête revealed unemphatically at first and mostly in longshot—as purest grand Guignol, and culminating in the Giant’s own gruesome comeuppance. This last sequence is dazzling, a tour de force of editing and camerawork. And yet … it seemed to me to go on just a bit too long.

Nor was it the first time I felt that during Macunaíma. For all its unflagging energy, its bright colors, exuberant acting, fresh use of music and song, the movie has its longueurs. Too many “down” periods occur in the hero’s fluctuating fortunes, when the story seems to lose momentum. Granted, a quest tale is by nature episodic, and digressions are integral to the taleteller’s art. Still, Macunaíma flunked the acid test at the Mexico City theater where I saw it. The audience was an apparent mixture of capital intelligentsia and average moviegoers, including some Brazilians, the latter probably innocent of the movie’s art-film rep. I think they felt—as I did—for one thing that the white actor who takes front and center after “Baby” Otelo’s transformation proves to be a hell of a lot less lively protagonist than Otelo. And some of de Andrade’s subsequent episodes are conceived, or paced, a lot better than others. After the élan of the first scene where the hero meets and couples with the guerrillera Ci, for example, de Andrade draws out interminably a very tired joke involving the hero’s sexual exhaustion in the face of female insatiability. Granted, again, that joke is rooted in popular mythology; it becomes, nevertheless, tedious and quite offensive. The film, in short, has more imperfections than its rapturous reviews had led me to expect. Yet I suspect that a second viewing, now that I’ve jettisoned these expectations, might reveal a host of new felicities in compensation. Even now it remains an extraordinarily witty and inventive film.

Copyright © 1974 Ken Eisler

MACUNAÍMA
Direction: Joaquim Pedro de Andrade. Screenplay: Andrade, after the novel by Mario de Andrade. Cinematography: Guido Cosulich.
The Players: Grande Otelo, Paulo Joseph Jardiel, Dina Sfat, Pedro José, Milton Gonçalves, Joani Fomm.


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