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Brazzil - Culture - July 2004

Brazilian Movies and the Joy of Killing

Films which make a spectacle of violence make difficult the
discussion which they intend to stimulate. In Brazil, in addition
to the influence of the American film, we have the influence
of the "Globo standard of quality" for 30 years. Both have
made the public extremely demanding in terms of realism.

Maria Rita Kehl


Picture I must begin with a categorical statement: every image has a potential for violence. Now I will try to explain. An image has an extraordinary power to communicate. If every sign is a placeholder for something absent, an image is what is closest to the thing itself.

The more mimetic the image, the greater its power in this regard. If this is already the case for representational painting and photography, what can be said of the power of cinematographic images to represent the real?

We are looking at living people, acting and speaking like we do, in environments which, depending on the intention of the director, can be identical to those we are familiar with.

The critic can—or rather, ought to—problematize the pretensions of naturalism in the cinema; but one cannot minimize the impact of these films on the spectator. The cinematographic image which is presented from a realist perspective is that which most resembles, for those who are watching it, an exact translation of aspects of life.

What is the violence of this impact? The violence which pertains to all the formations of the imagination. The imagination is the psychic terrain of stable significations. The image translates the thing as if it were the expression of its truth.

The imagination, as Freud writes in a text about the unconscious, is the field of the "primary and true object relations". It is formed before human contact with the real is mediated by the word. If the real invades us in a traumatic way, imaginary representations are our most primitive resources for dealing with this invasion.

They supply us with a matrix of "understanding" (the quotes are necessary) which is prior to thought; for the rest of our lives, when we see familiar images, we feel comfortably relieved of the responsibility of thinking.

As if they presented us with the plenitude of the real, relieved of both its mystery and its traumatic effect; the real translated into its own image. The imagination, in this sense, relieves of our lack. Our lack of the thing and our lack of truth. It is a field of certainty and of totalizing illusions.

We don't have to go far to understand that the imagination is the field upon which we construct the protective fortress of narcissism. It is the field of the identities which sustain the mirage of being. The field in which all human identifications are produced through a mirroring effect.

We cannot do without the imagination. One cannot live in the world without believing, most of the time, that things "are the way they are", i.e., they are as they present themselves to us in our imagination.

One cannot live in the absence of meaning, in the significant's discretion, in the pure symbolic dimensions—which by the way is the fundamental dimension of thought. The imagination is essential to the functioning of the psyche. On the other hand, it is also not possible to live completely dominated by its totalizing effect.

Image and Violence

This is because the comforting power of the image is directly proportional to its violence. Since in the terrain in which things "are the way they are", all that humans can do is adjust to them.

In the terrain in which thinking can be dispensed with, Hannah Arendt would say, humans can be dispensed with as well; and where humans are dispensable, violence easily dominates social links.

I am referring to gratuitous violence, violence as the predominating way in which one reacts to the presence of the other, in facing the disagreements and conflicts which the other brings to us. If the imagination is the field which structures the fortress of narcissism of the ego, the relation to the other in terms of the imagination will inevitably be one of paranoia.

In a narcissistic society, the other always represents a threat of invasion. I want to emphasize this fundamental aspect: in a society predominantly organized by the logic of images, the relation to the other is marked by paranoia.

The other aspect of the violence of the imagination is that of violence as the expression of a feeling of impotence, of the futility of men confronting a reality which is presented as totalitarian through the force of the image.

The facility with which the image presents us with a version of the real is directly proportional to the oppression that this imagined real, void of contradiction, produces in us.

I wrote that it is not possible to live completely dominated by the totalizing effect of the image. If all dimensions of social life were presented to us as accomplished facts, from the point of view of "that is the way it is", the resulting conformism would be so crushing, so oppressive, that it would make human creativity obsolete.

Continuing a little farther down the path opened by Arendt, man is different from nature because of his infinite capacity for creation, of "giving rise to that which does not exist", of producing something new. Nature conserves, reproduces, perpetuates; man, unnaturally, invents, begins anew. In a world stabilized by the force of the image, there is no where to begin anew.

And so, in all societies, power makes use of spectacle to consolidate its places in the hearts of its subjects. Spectacle is much more efficient in stabilizing power than force of arms. It is capable of endowing power with visibility, making it convincing, consisting, necessary.

Power as Drama

From the Roman emperors to the absolute monarchs, from Hitler to Stalin, from Bush to Lula, power has always depended on a healthy dose of theater, a great effort of imagination in order to become stabilized, in spite of the incompatibility between the fascination of publicity and the aridity of political negotiation, Or perhaps precisely for this reason.

In all periods, power projected itself by images; but our period is the only one capable of producing images on an industrial scale, with the possibility of distributing them around the planet. The only one capable of producing images in all areas of social life, images simultaneous with events, translations of the real published and transmitted so quickly that image and reality, trauma and meaning become confused in the perceptions of the spectator.

In all periods power is translated into images, but our epoch is the only one in which the central axis of power, which is no longer politics, but capital, is concentrated above all in the places where images are produced and distributed.

The image is capable of supplying to poor humans forsaken in the arbitrary realm of language at least two modalities of enjoyment. The enjoyment of meaning, which takes place at the moment that the wandering signifier stops to meet the image of the thing.

The enjoyment of meaning explains why dream and fantasy have, in psychoanalysis, the task of realizing desires. Desire is not realized in meeting a real object, but in meeting its representation.

The representation of a desire by its signifiers would already be sufficient for its realization; but the encounter with the image potentializes this little pleasure, gives it the consistency of a thing, an appearance of reality that is comforting and extremely pleasing. "That's it!" the subject of the desire says upon meeting its imaginary representation.

The other type of enjoyment provided by the image, which is an unfolding of the first, is the enjoyment of identification. I wrote immediately above that the imagination is the field where illusions of identity are constructed, which are formed by means of identifications.

Identity is an illusion that sustains us. No one is "identical" to himself, nor to the group of meanings that represent him—name, profession, gender etc.—but the creation of a stable field of identifications resolves, even if precariously, our questions about who we are.

The imagination is the field of these identifications. The presence of the body of the other, of the look, of the expressions of the other has more impact for the psyche than our own existence. The image of the other has more "existence" for me than I do myself.

This is why it causes jealousy, writes Lacan, an "existential" jealousy, which is not to be confused with the jealousy which we feel when faced with the loss of a love object. Jealousy for our own image, overshadowed by the presence of the image of the other. What follows, and repairs this loss, is identification. "That is what I am!", is what the poor ego feels, destabilized in the face of the force of the image of the other.

If this takes place in our daily interactions with our peers, what can be said about the fulgurating images produced by the cultural industry. Images from the cinema, from television, from billboards, present themselves to us dressed in another kind of "aura" which is not to be confused with the aura which emanates from works of art.

At the axis of production, the industrialized image is merchandise, clad with the shine of the fetish, beneath which is hidden the excess value, the time expropriated from the men who worked to produced it. At the point of consumption, the aura of the objects from the cultural industry is produced by the thousands and millions of looks which these objects attract.

Unlike the solitary experience which an encounter with a work of art, in its strange singularity, can supply, the encounter with an object of the industrialized culture brings us directly to the space where "they all" are. The value of an image is directly proportional to this effect of social covalidation of its power of truth.

To see the film that "they all" are going to see, to watch the TV series with the highest rating, are not only way of including the anonymous dweller in the mass society in the imaginary terms which rule social life. They are also the means by which elements are produced for the identifications which subjectively homogenize society.

The identification with the industrialized image is a broadened form of the same phallic enjoyment which takes place in other processes of identification. Broadened, because the image which attracts the eyes of "them all", functions as the face of power. It is our eyes, multiplied by the thousands, which create the aura of the industrialized image. It fascinates us to the exact degree by which it reproduces our alienation.

Cinema and Industrialized Image

Before directly addressing the question of Brazilian cinema, a caveat: not all industrialized images work in the same way. Let us take the cinema of Godard, for example: he works with his images based on a different logic.

In Godard, the esthetic enjoyment produced by the cinematographic image is not on the same order as the production of identifications; he seems, moreover, to work on purpose against the game of mirrors which makes identification possible, above all in his films produced at the end of the nineties and the beginning of the twenty-first century.

His refusal to present the actors in close-up, the scant illumination of most of the scenes, the way in which the dialogue and the images are at cross purposes, which prevents us from knowing "who says what", are resources which work against the mechanisms by which the public identifies with the characters. And after all, who are the "characters" in Godard's most recent films?

I dare to say that for Godard images are not composed according to laws of full visibility, of the production of meaning, of realistic effect, which govern the imagination; in Godard images have a symbolic function. They are like signifiers which combine so as to produce, not signification, but mystery. Godard's films are closer to abstract than to figurative painting.

Another ethics of the image is possible in the cinema—as Glauber Rocha also proved as well. But this ethics is certainly not that of the major movie industry, the ethics of the "happy meeting" between art and capital.

The Brazilian cinema of the beginning of the twentieth century is perhaps the most powerful ever produced in Brazil, not only in terms of the potency of the images but also in terms of its impact on society.

They are films which deal with wretchedness, urban violence, exclusion, the corruption of the elites, injustice, abuses of power, the lack of the most elementary human rights, etc.

Films which seek, whether with humor or drama, to alert society to these problems. Or which seek, at a minimum, to contribute to making it possible to think about them, to put the violence of poverty on the imaginary map of Brazil of the elites—that is, the elites which go to the cinema.

The greater part of these films have made a strong impact nationally and internationally. I don't mean to minimize them by labeling them as "cinema de denúncia (cinema of accusation)", nor do I like the expression "cosmética da fome (cosmetic of hunger)", coined by Ivana Bentes, because the artistic quality of this harvest of films surpasses these clichés—the best of them do not represent misery with make up.

Perhaps they even emphasize the horror too much. What I would like to discuss is the problematical effect of discussing violence by means of images of violence.

Need for Realism

I fear that the films which make a spectacle of violence make difficult the discussion which they intend to stimulate. In Brazil, in addition to the strong influence of the American film industry, we have been under the influence of the "Globo standard of quality" for thirty years.

Both have made the public extremely demanding as far as the "realism" of the production is concerned, and the result is to dissuade film directors from seeking other experimental possibilities in dealing with the image.

"Reality", in contemporary cinema, must pass everything through the strainer of visibility. Following this logic of spectacle we would say (thinking of Guy Débord), that only that which can be fully visible exists, is part of the "real".

Human reality is always the result of the language which we use in order to approach it. "Reality is a convention of light" was the title of an article which I wrote on the film "Lúcio Flávio, passageiro da agonia", by Hector Babenco, for a master's level course which I did with com Ismail Xavier, in 1980.

The danger of abuse of explicitly violent images is that it includes violence among the terms of the language which constructs society's sense of what is normal and everyday reality.

Since the eighties, it was necessary for Brazilian cinema to blot out all traces of the esthetics of the Cinema Novo—which also had proposed a different ethics for the relationship between image and social violence—so that it might finally become a cinema for the masses.

Another problem of violence as spectacle, which is increased by the realistic treatment of the image, is that it undoes a large part of the ethical effect of these films, thus producing some important "side effects".

The most obvious is the raising of our level of emotional tolerance as far as violence is concerned. The continual exposure of our sensibility to scenes of horror, to the sight of the suffering of our fellow human beings, to the contemplation of bodies which are mistreated, wounded, shattered, ends by leaving us relatively indifferent.

A vicious circle is created: to the degree that we become accustomed to darker scenes, the film industry calls on even more violent and frightening special effects.

It is clear that any sort of "consciousness-raising against violence", if such a thing ever existed, has already been replaced by the enjoyment of the violence which the film intends to decry.

And moreover, these images invite the spectator to enjoy the violence; in a society governed by the pleasure imperative, as contemporary market-driven societies are, the enjoyment of violence is the most immediate response to the violence of the imperative of enjoyment.

The Charm of Violence

Secondly, the public comes to identify with the violent characters themselves, as well as having an unconscious fascination with the acts of violence, which are associated in these narratives with characteristics of power, boldness, force, courage, in contexts in which it is only when they are translated into violent acts that these human qualities are able of producing any kind of transformation.

It would be unfair to say that cinema or television produce the social violence which torments Brazilian life. I think it is more appropriate to say they participate in the same logic that produces this violence. The economic coercion which is at the base of production for cinema and television impedes, or at least makes it difficult for another logic to replace it.

I would need to turn the screw a few more times to show that the logic of violence, in the end, is the same as the logic of the concentration of capital. For the moment I do not have all the means necessary to execute this theoretical pirouette.

In conclusion, I want to mention quickly some films produced in the last two years which, in spite of the fact that they cannot avoid the problems mentioned above, show some attempts to develop en ethics of approaching the problem of social violence.

O Invasor, by Beto Brant (2001), relativizes the impact of violence through the use of irony. In addition to this, it dislocates the focus of the narrative, finding the origin of violence not in the underworld from where it is commonly believed to originate, but in the ferocious competition and corruption of the elites.

Brant's film throws out some bait to catch the uncautious viewer. As soon as we see the trailer we think we know where the violence will be coming from: Anísio, the hired killer played by Paulo Miklos, appears in quick and menacing cuts, with an evil glare, the hard lines of his face lit so as to make them look even harder, a cruel smile, the imaginary "parabelo" pointed at the camera (read: the public): cláclá!

Back to Normal Life

But our expectations about the cruelty of the hired killer are not confirmed. Once he has done the "job" for which he was hired, Anísio invades the life of his bourgeois partners, who are hoping to return to normalcy after the crime.

As if having an irksome partner killed was a sort of temporary fix, an exceptional thing for difficult moments, after which one can return, unstained, to the democratic institutions of life: family, clubs, school, business.

It is just that there is no longer normality to return to: the invader does not invade the life of his accomplices to make them hellish, but because he wants to be bourgeois like them. Like Hegel's slave, Anísio returns in order to teach the entrepreneurs (his masters) who they truly are.

An inglorious task, like all teaching. The entrepreneurs/killers do not want to see themselves in the killer they hired. The killer, for his part, discovers that the entrepreneurs' life fits him like a glove. He conquers the heart of the adolescent daughter of the victim.

He appears at the company, and pretends that he works there. He enters, he stays. We, in the audience, expect that the violence will continue to escalate. When will Anisio get tougher? When will heads begin to roll?

But this is not an American film. It is not Cape Fear. Not Fatal Attraction. This film will not satiate our desire to see Ivan (Marco Ricca), the businessman who regrets what he has done, blow Anísio's brains out, nor will it try to morally justify our murderous impulses.

Very reluctantly, we begin to understand that the invader is not the most violent character in the film. He is only the ugliest character. He is only the poorest.

The roots of the violence: they are where they have always been, with the elites. In the lack of scruples justified by the logic of capital. In impunity. In greed.

And moreover: violence is, principally, to be found in the yearnings of everyone, adolescents, adults, poor, rich for unlimited, unending enjoyment, pleasure. We see no shots in the film, no blood, no beatings, no clubbings.

The most violent and disturbing scenes are the parties to which the rich adolescent brings her new boyfriend. There, high on Ecstasy, the young people from the Jardins excitedly act out the sound and the fury of the city, which the security guards hired by their parents are working hard to keep outside.

State Violence

Already in City of God (2002) by Fernando Meirelles, the matrix of the violence was the action of the state which removed by force the favelados from Zona Sul of Rio de Janeiro, in the sixties, in order to drop them into shacks constructed in a hurry on an arid piece of land, unsupplied with the minimal conditions of city life, far from the workplaces of the residents, without paved roads, electricity, sanitation, transport.

The state invented Cidade de Deus and radicalized the marginality of its inhabitants, moved there, like undesirable trash. Social violence has its origin in segregation, which is already denounced at the opening of the film.

It is just that the speed of the images, a speed more violent than its content (and it is for this reason that the film captivated Brazilian adolescents raised on television) makes us forget this essential link.

In City of God, as in the film by Beto Brant, the majority of murders take place off screen. But one does not need to see mutilated bodies to experience the horror.

The fear on the character's faces, the limitless cruelty of Zé Pequeno—whom we come to hate within minutes—the desperate crying of the child condemned to be shot, the nervous, terrorized pulse of the film—a film in accelerated flight, masterfully tense—all this includes the spectator in the violence which it intends to demonstrate.

The fight between the two groups of traffickers becomes so tense, so threatening, that by the end we are waiting for the climax of the death of the terrible Zé Pequeno. The spectator is swallowed by the logic of the violence. We want to explode with it. Only the execution of the criminal will redeem us.

Unlike O Invasor, which by force of irony prevents us from enjoying the violence, City of God calls us to participate in it in our imaginations. We are all the potential exterminators of Zé Pequeno. And so, I am forced to paraphrase Eugênio Bucci in his crônica for Jornal do Brasil: "what a magnificent film; what a revolting life".

Carandiru (2002), by Hector Babenco, continues the more conventional style of the director, following Lúcio Flávio and Pixote, from 1977 and 1980 respectively.

Faithful to the book by Dráuzio Varela, Carandiru offers us a critique of oppression tempered by comforting doses of cordiality. In flashbacks by the prisoners the institutional violence seems bearable, laden with affection, almost sweet, until the scenes of the massacre spoil our mood.

We could argue that the cordiality "humanizes" the characters, brings the prisoners closer to the public—which is true. It is more likely for the middle class viewer to identify with Babenco's bandits than with those of Meirelles. "Here everyone is innocent, doctor", says the veteran Seu Chico (Milton Gonçalves) to the recently arrived doctor.

In fact, it seems that the only agent of violence in Carandiru is the prison itself. At the end, after the scenes of the massacre, the horror is newly counterbalanced by the Olympian posture of the doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos), before the public has had time to weep for the dead.

Strangely, this film, which has the rare grandeur of a Brazilian epic, ends by placing a balm on the wound that it helped to open. "Patience, life is like this", the complacent smile of Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos seems to say as he leaves the prison, days after the massacre.

Frustrating Expectations

Finally, I want to mention a production from Pernambuco: this is Amarelo Manga (2003), by the novice Cláudio Assis. It is a film which, like O Invasor, does not fulfill its promise. It frustrates our expectations, forged by watching hundreds of similar films, that there will be violent outcomes for the various tense scenes which it presents us with.

I beg your pardon for having forgotten the names of the characters; I will refer to the actors instead. The first part of the film makes us thing that the jealous, grumpy butcher (Chico Diaz) is going to run someone through with his butcher knife: his unfaithful wife (Dira Paes), his lover, or the homosexual (Mathew Nachtergale) who is in love with him.

The conflict between the owner of the bar (Leona Cavali) and the necrophilic guest at the hotel (Jonas Bloch) also seems likely to end in bloodshed. The characters do not "follow through" on their threats. The anticlimax to which the film leads truly frustrates, in the psychoanalytic sense, our expectation of consummating the violence.

Amarelo Manga tries, perhaps a little timidly, to approach social violence with a different logic in mind, which eliminates the climax of the viewer watching traditional "action" scenes, the function of which is to relieve the tension produced by the narrative.

In this film, social barbarity is not presented by means of shootings and beatings, but in the form of a stagnation without the possibility of hope for the future, in which all of us, both characters and public, are immersed. This is not something condescending.

The fundamental violence in this film cannot be reduced to any temporizing; it is found in the poverty of the settings, the filth stuck to all the old walls, in the apathy, in the empty expressions of the Indians who eat crackers while watching television in the filthy lounge of the Texas Hotel.

It is in the lack of air for the characters. "First comes the day", says Leona Cavalli at the opening of the film, before, in a foul temper, opening the same filthy bar as always. "Then everything happens...it doesn't stop...and then night comes. That is the best part. Then another day, and it all begins again"....."...

Perhaps the difference between Amarelo Manga and the other three films which I have addressed is that the characters live in the historical center of Recife which, though it is falling to pieces, is still part of the neural circuit of the city.

City as Character

Unlike the favelados of City of God, the inhabitants of the periphery of São Paulo in O Invasor and the prison inmates in Carandiru, the characters in Amarelo Manga belong to the city; they have a territory. The center of Recife, moreover, is the great character in the film.

We see its colors, its food, the talk on the sidewalks, we hear the sonic mix of dozens of radios tuned to different stations—we can almost sense the half-rotten smell of the city, coming from the garbage on the street mixed with the exhalations of the swamp.

In the midst of the debris of the decaying city, the characters preserve a shred of dignity: they belong to the city and the city belongs to them. The contrast between Amarelo Manga and the preceding films make us ask whether the most unbearable and cruelest violence is not that of segregation.

But this is not an effect of the film itself: it is the effect of the comparison between it and the others. In closing, a suggestion for the next article: it would be worth doing a comparative analysis of Ônibus 174 and O Bandido da Luz Vermelha, emphasizing the role of journalistic narrative—television in the 2002 film, police programs on the radio in the 1968 film—in the structuring of the "reception" of the crimes which actually happened and were fictionally reconstructed by José Padilha in 2002 and Rogério Sganzerla in 1968.

It is true that in Ônibus 174 the television reportage contributes to the realistic treatment of the narrative, while the radio commentary in Sganzerla's Bandido is more than ironic: it is the central element in the construction of the debauched language of the film.

But the comparison is justified because both films bring into question the participation of the cultural industry in the dissemination of violence by making it not a newsworthy "happening", but a style of approaching reality.

Maria Rita Kehl is a psychoanalyst, writer and poet, the author of three books of poetry and the books of essays A mínima diferença—o masculino e o feminino na cultura. She was born in Campinas, São Paulo state, in 1951 and is a doctor of clinical psychology. You can reach her emailing mritak@uol.com.br.
Translated from the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language and culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. Comments welcome at querflote@hotmail.com.

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