Originally published as part of a weekly quarantine column at Cinema Tropical in July 2020.
As Brazil once again is put face-to-face with an administration that is hostile to the arts and to the environment, the country’s decisive turn to the past (which, paradoxically, aims to destroy any memory we might have of it) has made a brilliant movie from 1976 prescient once again: Jorge Bodanzky and Orlando Senna’s masterpiece, Iracema – Uma Transa Amazônica. Shot vérité-style on 16mm in 1974, as a co-production between Brazil and Germany, Iracema is a road movie following the BR-230, also known as the Trans-Amazonian Highway. An undertaking exemplary of the nationalistic developmental project of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, the Trans-Amazonian is a highway connecting the coast of the Northeast (starting in Cabedelo, in the state of Paraíba) and the inner Amazon. Built between 1969 and 1974, the highway remains unfinished: originally designed to be 3,500 miles long, the construction stopped when it reached around 2,650 miles, including sections that were never properly finished.
Far from a celebratory propaganda, Iracema was only released in Brazil in 1979, after being censored by the military government. Crossing locations and lives impoverished by decay and extraction, the film takes a highly experimental approach in its critique: instead of a clear-cut documentary about deforestation, Iracema is an ambiguous fabulation around the network of (economic, emotional, religious, sexual, and also cinematic) transactions created by the highway. The film focuses on the relationship between Tião Brasil Grande (yes, Tião Great Brazil) – a truck driver played with great versatility and charisma by one of Brazil’s most skillful actors, Paulo César Peréio—and Iracema (a name borrowed from José de Alencar’s mythical archetype for the country) – a 15-year old woman who makes a living as a prostitute in the truck stops down the road, played by non-professional indigenous actor Edna de Cássia, in her only role.
Much of the power of the film comes from its internal asymmetries: the wild performances by Peréio and Conceição Senna – who passed away this past May – clashes with the beautifully-crafted earnestness of Edna de Cássia, as well as with locals that ended up interacting with the actors unaware that they were playing fictional characters – a process that could only have been possible before the popularization of television across the country. This formal device powerfully conjures up the chaotic process of Brazilian development, violently throwing different ways of being against each other, generating something both violent and beautiful in its unpredictability.
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