Imagine going to a screening of a two and a half hour film by a fiercely independent-minded avant-garde Brazilian filmmaker renowned for having brought a new cinematic language, headlining a “Third World” cinematic movement called Cinema Novo. The film’s frenetic sexual energy, wild camera angles, histrionic acting, hypnotic music, and impassioned discourses on the Brazilian nation and culture leave you stunned and confounded. So you return the next evening to catch another viewing in hopes of getting a better understanding of the film. But the film’s sequences are in a completely different order. You start doubting your own sanity, and you ask yourself if all the illicit substances from a wayward youth have come home to roost in a psychological meltdown….
Had Glauber Rocha lived to oversee the screenings of his final film and magnum opus The Age of the Earth, the above paragraph might have come to describe many a cinephile’s experience back in 1980. Rocha made The Age of the Earth in 16 distinct segments, and had intended for the projectionists to show the 16 reels in any random order. And that would have been the final coup de grace to any efforts at trying to ascribe any kind of conventional explanation to the film.
Unfortunately Rocha, who once boldly but correctly proclaimed “I am Cinema Novo”, died at the age of 43, and his intention of having the film’s 16 segments screened on big screen in a random order never materialized. But the deliberate chaos and contradictions that he infused into what is easily his most personal film—and one of the most intensely personal feature length films made by anyone—stand as apt metaphors for what he saw as the inherent chaos and contradictions of Brazilian culture. Even though the film’s title is The Age of the Earth, the film is really a long cinematic poem, an ode dedicated to the multi-hued culture and heritage of Brazil.
The film begins with a shot of an intensely bright Brazilian sunrise, accompanied by soulful chants and percussions which seem to have sprung from the depths of the sun itself. For four minutes, shades of orange saturate the screen, the music builds to a crescendo, and the exposure of the sunlight blinds the viewer… And then, Rocha transports the viewer into the land of his feverish tropical cinematic dream, in which bright colors burst forth from the screen. It is both a consummate cinematic exposition of the nation of Brazil as well as a psychedelic trip into its heart and soul.
Throughout the film, Rocha lives up to his reputation as a cinematic pugilist, confronting the viewer with reel-long handheld takes, overacted improvisations, multilayered dissonant music tracks, and not just one, but four messianic figures of various shades. Rocha incorporates all the various and contradictory elements that infuse the collective consciousness of the Brazilian people. In one visually stunning example, he shoots a group of nuns dancing with a red satin sheet, culminating in shots that look like the vaginal flowers of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. The nation of Brazil has somehow managed to form a culture in which both an intense Catholicism and an unrepentant sensuality thrive, and Rocha’s film captures this and other similar conundrums with an intentionally frenetic mix of images and sounds.
Cinema can be an exercise in dream, agitprop, drama, pure visuals, aural trance, dance, anthropology, and ethnography. The German composer Richard Wagner once proposed his operas as an embodiment of “gesamtkunstwerk”, or total artwork Many believe that cinema has become that gesamtkunstwerk, the most encompassing of all art forms. And if that is indeed the case, Rocha’s film is one of those very rare films that truly push the boundaries of what cinema can achieve.