Slavery has been a dark chapter for many nations throughout history (especially in the United States). Brazil was another country that had a huge slavery problem. In fact, Brazil was the last nation to abolish slavery (in 1888, although some slavery has continued in one form or another in Brazil going into the 21st century). Historically, runaway African slaves in Brazil would form self-governing settlements called quilombos. Quilombos usually didn’t last long, as they were targeted and destroyed by colonial slave owners. Palmares was the most famous of the quilombos, created in the 17th century and lasting roughly 90 years. During that time, it amassed a population of approximately 30,000, and its warriors had mastered capoeira (a combination of dance and martial arts) in order to defend themselves due to repeated attacks by the Portuguese colonists. Ganga Zumba and Zumbi were the two most well-known warrior-leaders of Palmares. The rise and fall of Palmares was the subject of a Brazilian film called Quilombo, which was directed by Carlos Diegues. I had gotten a chance to see the film at the Museum of the Moving Image 10 years ago as part of the Havana Film Festival, and it was quite an interesting film to experience. This review of Quilombo not only celebrates the film’s 30th anniversary but is also my entry in the 1984-A-Thon blogathon hosted by Forgotten Films (as noted by the logo at the top).
1984’s Quilombo chronicles the rise of Palmares after a group of slaves revolt against their Portuguese masters and flee to an isolated part of northeastern Brazil. Other escaped slaves and even disenfranchised whites join them and eventually, under the leadership of Ganga Zumba, create a free society for themselves. The film also chronicles the fall of Palmares as their warriors eventually become no match for Portuguese artillery after years of conflict and a change in leadership from Ganga Zumba to his nephew Zumbi. Diegues’ film is derived from both history and legend, as he presents Palmares as a kind of racially democratic utopia. It is also evidenced by the production and costume designs by Luiz Carlos Ripper, who did a fantastic job (the warrior costumes were visually striking). At times his production design is exotic and otherworldly, utilizing leaves, roots, and other things you’d find in a forest (the fort made from red mud was really impressive).
The cinematography by Lauro Escorel is almost dreamlike at times, making use of vibrant tropical colors to create haunting images (the use of fog was well-done, the evening scenes were especially well-lit, and I was surprised at the use of purple in his visual palette). The performances in the film were terrific, especially Tony Tornado (as Ganga Zumba), Antonio Pompeo (as Zumbi), Zeze Motta (as Dandara), and Vera Fischer (as Ana De Ferro). The score by Gilberto Gil is energetic while balancing with the drama. Carlos Prieto did a phenomenal job with his makeup design, matching the intensity of Ripper’s costume designs. Diegues used the rise and fall of Palmares as an allegory to the then-current state of Brazil. The film carries a very strong anti-slavery message that manages to not be overbearing; the fight against oppression is always a noble one that must be fought until it has been defeated.
[There’s no trailer available, but below you can watch the full movie with English subtitles (the image is a bit stretched and the audio for this video isn’t the greatest; I still encourage everyone to seek out this film on DVD or a screening on the big screen).]