An Interview with Marcelo Gomes
Sometime in the 1780s, a low-ranked soldier of the Portuguese crown in Brazil named Joaquim José da Silva Xavier began a gradual process of political awakening. Later known as Tiradentes (“tooth-puller”), a derogatory term that referred to his past as an amateur dentist, he organized a group of citizens in a rebellion called the Inconfidência Mineira against the colonial Portuguese. When the revolt was put down, he was executed, and is now considered a Brazilian national hero.
Tiradentes is the subject of a new film, “Joaquim,” by the director Marcelo Gomes. The movie, which ran at this year’s Berlinale, shows the process of Tiradentes’ increasing awareness of the injustice around him in sensual impressions, rather than in a discrete story or through historical facts. The viewer is alone with the protagonist and his existence. At times, music is the characters’ only method of communication.
VAN: At what point in the filmmaking process do you start thinking about music?
Marcelo Gomes: It depends. In my films “Cinema” and “Aspirinas e Urubus,” [“Aspirins and Vultures”], the main characters spend a fair amount of time sitting in the car, just listening to the radio. So what I did was just choose 10 songs that were on the radio a lot in 1942, the year that the films take place, so that it would sound natural. I don’t like film music that comes out of nowhere, from God so to speak, and that directors use to try to induce specific feelings. I prefer when the music develops organically out of the dramaturgy or atmosphere of the film. In “Joaquim” there is one exception, though—Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin.
The piece is played during a decisive scene. How did you end up settling on this music?
The first time I heard the piece was a long time ago and I didn’t know much about it. I heard the lamenting violin and thought that it had to be some sort of Requiem. I had the feeling that the music was someone’s way of announcing his or her impending death. And this idea stuck with me. When I watched the footage we had shot of Joaquim (Júlio Machado) eating with his men, it reminded me of the Last Supper. And all of a sudden it became obvious that the Chaconne was the right music for the scene.
The film also features music-making by the protagonists themselves: the indigenous people are shown singing, the slave Zua (Isabél Zuaa) imitates the melody of a caged bird, there’s a Baroque song from the 18th century…
We used an original 12-string guitar for that. And the insurance was $8,000. The instrument was worth more than the entire budget of the movie [laughs]. We couldn’t stop worrying about that guitar.
How would you define musicality in the film?
When gold was first discovered in Minas Gerais [the Brazilian province where Tiradentes lived], the Portuguese and Spanish rushed in to make their fortunes. There were also indigenous people who already lived there, and slaves from different parts of Africa. Minas Gerais became a cultural melting pot, everybody spoke different languages and dialects. So I asked myself how these people were able to communicate with each other—which they needed to do in order to survive. No one knew anyone else’s language. In the film there’s a scene where a member of an indigenous tribe is leading an exhibition, and he calls out, “Tivi, Tivi!,” which means “Puma.” And the slave who’s walking behind him doesn’t know what he’s saying, but he does know that something’s going on. Then he sees the animal; a Portuguese man asks what it is; and he answers, “A Sussuarana.” “What’s that?” “A kind of onça [jaguar].” “What’s an onça?” “An animal that eats people.” And so on.
So maybe that’s how people in that situation began to find ways to communicate with one another. But I also imagine that the first conversations between indigenous peoples and those who were brought to Brazil as slaves happened through music. Brazil’s most important contribution to world culture is music, more so than literature, film, or pop culture. Everything in Brazil comes down to musicality.
In one scene, the slave João (Welket Bungué), and Inhambupé, who is from an indigenous tribe, suddenly start making music together. They can’t communicate in speech, but the music is an expression of their human dignity and resistance.
Yes. I think it’s possible that Joaquim witnessed the birth of Brazil as a nation in that sense: a black slave and an indigenous person making a sort of 18th-century version of hip-hop together. After seeing that, Joaquim holds his head underwater, and he wonders who he is: “I’m not Portuguese, not African, not indigenous—who am I?”
What it means to be Brazilian is a central question in “Joaquim”—the nation was born both of diversity and injustice. Reactions to the film in Europe were mixed, with Jay Weissberg in Variety praising Gomes’s ability to “find truth in concepts and details,” instead of linear story, while other critics, particularly in Germany, were frustrated by the historical unfamiliarity and lack of narrative. The film is about intercultural understanding; and while the details of Tiradentes’ life are known to most Brazilians, critics from other countries admitted to a similar kind of incomprehension that the work depicts.
Initial reactions to the film varied widely. It seemed hard for people to process cultural difference and unknown history when there were no stereotypes to hold on to. Do you think you pushed people further than they were willing to go?
Maybe it’s just a lack of curiosity. Or maybe they were expecting a more stereotypical hero. But it is amusing, because the film is about very universal things: impossible love, deceit, greed.
And dreams. Each protagonist has them, and they give the film its beauty and a certain lightness, despite all the frustration and physical depredation. In one scene, the slave Zua says to Joaquim, “You’re not even asleep and yet you’re dreaming.” He’s a naïve dreamer…
That’s the beauty of his character. And that’s why he loses his mind. Brazil in the 18th century was a highly amoral society where indigenous people were exterminated, Africans enslaved, anyone executed for the slightest infraction—how can someone break out of that, stop being a Portuguese soldier and become a revolutionary? An explanation that makes sense to me is that Joaquim fell in love with a woman who had experienced the worst of colonialism in her own body, a slave who was abused and raped. And by being in love with her, he experienced the pain of the Other in this society. Then he had his own personal frustrations, he was refused promotions because of his birth, and he couldn’t find the gold that would have freed him of those constraints. When the woman he loved rejected him—her private revolution was that no white man would ever touch her again—hate became part of the equation.
After the film’s premiere, Gomes read aloud from a manifesto signed by over 300 Brazilian filmmakers that declared the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff (read our coverage of musicians’ protests) a constitutional crisis and the current President, Michel Temer, illegitimate. Temer’s cost-cutting policies have lead many in the country to worry that funding for cultural production will disappear, with a disproportionate effect on independent art. “We must resist this illegitimate government,” Gomes said after the film had screened, and several Brazilians in the audience responded with calls of “Fora Temer” (“Out with Temer”).
In your speech after the premiere, you mentioned that some aspects of 18th-century colonialism have left traces in Brazilian society today. Which ones did you mean?
Brazil today is still a country where the “right” people get jobs that are both well-paid and involve little to no responsibility. You have to be the child of a “somebody” to get anywhere. And if you’re just normal, you get nothing, no matter how much you apply yourself. I think it’s important to work every day to deal with the social aftereffects of European and American colonialism in Brazil, the rest of South America, Africa, and Asia. Colonialism increases the reach of a cruel and untamed capitalism that in turn creates both great wealth and great poverty. Brazil is still a place where the elite is unchecked in its power and privilege, which it doesn’t want to share with the rest of the population. Under Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva], we made real progress in healthcare and education, but the wealthy elite is turning all that back. ¶