Monday, January 6, 2014

A Story of Love, Fury, and Justice

In June 2013, a few days before the Confederations Cup, one year from the FIFA World Cup, a storm took Brazil. The‘Vinegar Uprising’ made millions march on the streets in dozens of cities, revealing a fracture in society. Much like the Spanish ‘Indignados,’ the Occupy movement, the Turkey strikes and similar protests all over the world, young people were demanding to be heard, refusing an unequal system supported by the governments and the large corporations.

Just a few weeks before, this same rebellious spirit had been on the screens. "Rio 2096 - A Story of Love and Fury" premiered on April 5th and had a total attendance of 30,000 in theatres. It was a modest number, even for a domestic adult animation, usually hard to sell. But, after the June protests, a small cult gathered around the story of the immortal Indian warrior Abeguar and his 600-year fight against oppression. The film won critical applause and collected awards around the world, including Best Feature Film in Annecy and Strasbourg, and it is now in the running for an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Picture.

Winning prizes for himself, though, doesn't seem to be a goal for director and screenwriter Luiz Bolognesi. "Rio 2096," as he frequently remarks, is part of a larger project, in which he tries to amplify the underground voices; he also penned the book My heroes did not turn into statues (a line from his script) and directed the series of documentary shorts "Lutas.doc" ("Lutas", portuguese for "Fights," was the picture's working title), both aimed to shed light on little known freedom fighters.

For his main feature, though, Bolognesi opted for a fantasy setting. The movie begins in a dystopian 2096, with a chase scene interrupted by a warning. “To live without knowing the past is to walk in the dark,” says the narrator. Here's the film trailer:

We're then taken back to 1566, by the Guanabara Bay, where the city of Rio de Janeiro would grow. There we find that same narrator as Abeguar, a Tupinamba (one of the native Brazilian nations) warrior, who is blessed by the god Munhã with the gift of immortality and the ability to transform into a bird.

Abeguar is reluctant nevertheless. Though a shaman tells him that his gifts were meant to be used against the demon Anhanga, he tries to escape conflict. It's his lover, Janaina, with her passion and bravery, who turns him into an actual fighter. The same thing happens again and again across the centuries, as he finds new incarnations of her. She is always in the eye of the storm, rebelling against oppression, giving him the courage to embrace his destiny.

Every time, the real battle is against his eternal foe Anhanga, always present in the guise of whatever tyrant is present. The old demon reappears as the young Duke of Caxias, crushing the Balaiada rebellion in 1865; the torturers of the military dictatorship in 1968; and the moguls who control the scarce supplies of drinking water in 2096. Only then, after his fourth meeting with Janaina, is Abeguar finally able to see himself under the light of history, and to understand why he needs to fight. Not just for love, but for justice.

The film delivers the message, not without a few problems. Complex historical and political issues are often reduced to a simple war of good against evil. I felt this particularly awkward in the romanticized depiction of the relationship between the urban guerrilla from the 1960’s and the criminal organizations that would grow in the following decades. Also, Janaina deserved a better development, instead of being simply the protagonist's muse. Abeguar himself lacks some depth. This happens probably because the real story being told is not that of the immortal warrior and his lover. They only find meaning by being part of the big picture, the long and neverending conflict between the rulers and the oppressed. This is the past that must be brought to light, so we don't walk in the dark anymore.

 An anti-anti-hero

In his own quest to tell this story, Bolognesi didn't want to walk in the dark either. Instead, he modeled his protagonist after a founding myth of Brazilian culture -- the title role in Mario de Andrade's book Macunaíma (1928). Bolognesi himself would probably reject the comparison. Macunaíma, after all, is a trickster, defined by Andrade himself as "a hero without (moral) character." He's lazy, a liar, a thief, a cheat. Abeguar, on the other hand, is a warrior, and a trustworthy man. He may lack initiative, but certainly not courage and never a sense of justice.

But the similarities are stronger. Son of an old Indian woman, Macunaíma is born “black as night” and bathes in a magic fountain to become white. Abeguar begins his journey as a Tupinamba, becomes an African-Brazilian, then a white man, and blond in the film epilogue (also, there's a social change: from communal worker to artisan to middle-class student to high-class journalist). So they both represent the ethnic fusion that gave birth to Brazilian people, celebrated by Andrade, Cassiano Ricardo and other modernist authors. Also, both heroes are shapeshifters, with a strong connection to birds (Mario de Andrade allegedly heard the story of Macunaima from a parakeet, to whom the hero had told it). They fight powerful enemies. They are ageless. They cross the country in greater-than-life quests. And, as stated above, they provide an answer to the question of what Brazil really is as a nation.

Here, I believe, lies the main difference between the two characters. Macunaíma is a myth of origins. Abeguar seems to have been conceived as a myth of ends. While Andrade tried to explain the present by looking into a mythological past, Bolognesi points to a fantasy future in order to change reality. His protagonist is an anti-Macunaíma, born to lead the protests in the streets and demand a just society.

By Marcos Faria