Film review – O Ritual dos Sádicos (O Despertar da Besta, The Awakening of the Beast) (1970)

My notes on O Ritual dos Sádicos (O Despertar da Besta, The Awakening of the Beast)

‘My world is strange, but it is worthy of all those willing to accept it, and never as corrupt as some would have it. My world, my friend, is made of strange people, but there are none as strange as you!’

Somewhere between exploitative sleaze and self-deconstructing art, this isn’t really a further installment in Jose Mojica Marins’s Zé do Caixão series, though the auteur does appear as his famous character (and as himself) in snippets which pop up throughout a picaresque ramble through 1960s Brazilian high/low life. In heavily shadowed framing sequences, Marins argues with a psychiatrist and some other worthies in what we eventually realise is a minimalist TV talk show. For half the film, these humourless stiffs rant about the dreadful state of late 1960s morals, providing a cue for vignettes which spotlight obvious and furthermore unappealing decadence – mostly topless dancing to Brazilian mutant beat music in nightclubs, with drug-taking and fetishist/s-m orgies (a naked girl sitting on a chamber pot ogled by a roomful of men, a young lass in school uniform being fingered by another crowd, a slim starlet surrendering to a gross producer, a hippie-look Jesus violating a woman with a tree-branch). Another TV talk show puts Marins on ‘trial’, with cinema novo director Glauber Rocha as a witness for the defence, and produces evidence of Zé’s permeation of Brazilian pop culture (posters, comics, a TV show, a visit to a cinema screening Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver/This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse, even a novelty samba record). It’s hard to tell whether Zé is part of the trends the film is at once exploiting and condemning or standing above it all pouring scorn on the hippies and junkies.

In the long climax, four characters we have seen throughout take part in an LSD experiment and agree to focus on Zé, which means that they pass out of the film’s black and white reality to enter his world, which is depicted in weird colours like the vision of hell in This Night. In this set-piece, Zé walks down human stairs, the faces of chattering grotesques turn out to be painted on bottoms, plenty more unclad women are whipped and Zé does a deal too much ranting about the nature of something or other. The ‘twist’ is that the psychologist admits he gave his subjects distilled water rather than LSD, so the visions came from their own psyches rather than the drugs. Written by pulpster Rubens F. Lucchetti, rather than Marins, it is significantly more pretentious than the earlier Zé films – Marins seems keen on being taken seriously – and sometimes feels as if the director were trying to deliver artier elements some had perceived in his rawer, more personal work. The last scene, as Marins watches a minor drama (a boy picks up a girl and drives off in a car, watched by her friend from the pavement) played out on the street, perhaps thinking of a story to be spun from a tiny incident, is like a clumsy conflation of the finishes of 8 ½ and L’Eclisse.

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told Marins that the hell scene of Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver was like an acid trip, and he decided to capitalise on the association – there’s nothing here that really suggests deep thought about drugs (or, indeed, anything else). It rambles, with moments of amazement buried in longeurs, but has distinction as an odd mix of Godard’s Tout Va Bien (Rocha’s other ‘acting’ credit) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. The earlier Zé films were rural gothics concerned with a man set against belief; this moves to the bustle of Sao Paolo, where Zé himself is practically overwhelmed by the rush of stuff.


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