Brazil’s national anthem plays over the opening credits before cutting to a shot of a decrepit old woman played by the film’s lead, Paulo José, in shoddy drag and clay-like old age makeup, giving birth to Macunaíma, or himself, but played by black-skinned Grande Otelo. This all may sound very confusing. On paper, it is. However, through Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s colorful and free-spirited directorial style, all of those magical realist absurdities take on a surprisingly palatable logic. People give birth to grown adults in this movie, and those grown adults change skin color. There, now you get it! Maybe.
Macunaíma makes an impression and certainly earns its place among South American avant garde films, but the metaphors might be a little too dense to easily read into, thematically. One caveat, though, remains. I’m not Brazilian, and Macunaíma very much is. The story doesn’t even originate from 1969, the year of the film’s release. Andade bases it off of a novel of the same name published way back in 1929 that apparently stands as a pillar of Brazilian literature. And so it’s surmisable that one must have a certain amount of familiarity with Brazil’s history and, in particular, identity politics for the film to completely resonate. Fret not, though, if you can’t acquire such knowledge, because Macunaíma refuses to lose your attention. I dare you to watch it and look away.
After Macunaíma’s bizarre and miraculous birth, we follow him through a series of folkloric mishaps and comic sexual predicaments throughout the Amazon. When his mother abruptly dies, he ventures to Rio de Janeiro with his two brothers (one white and one black, while he’s now white, full time) to see what civilization has to offer. He comes in contact with a sexy guerilla-renegade woman who impregnates him, and he gives birth to a son played by the black version of himself. His wife and son inexplicably die in an offscreen explosion, so he then sets out to reclaim a good-luck charm that belonged to the woman, now possessed by a greedy, homicidal businessman in a fatsuit and fake villain’s mustache.
The one clear figurative element here would be race and ethnicity. The characters represent Black, European, and native Brazilians, and Macunaíma, perhaps, stands for a certain interchangeability within Brazil’s kaleidoscopic identity. The novel, written by Mário de Andrade, incorporates a great deal of storytelling, music, and and language borrowed from the indigenous people, but also attempts to illustrate the quintessential “Brazilian personality” through its main character. In the film, there also seems to be an added awareness of Brazil’s then-recent military coup, as evidenced by the fleeting terroristic presence (seen when Macunaíma first arrives in the city) and expounded upon via Andade’s other films which feature on the release. Most notably, Andade filmed a feature-length reenactment of the uprising, and this acts as the disc’s lengthiest and most relevant extra.
By all means, have some fun and give Macunaíma a chance. I can admit to not being totally in the know when it comes to the film’s significance in the country’s literature and film movements, but I certainly found it to be a great jumping off point. We’ve always had Alejandro Jodorowsky from Chile, and now we have Joaquim Pedro de Andade from Brazil. Another door has opened. | Nic Champion