Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Given Word

The Given Word (O Pagador de Promessas)
YouTube viewing

Last month I wrote about the movie Black Orpheus, a popular and beloved movie known around the world. I think it's terrific. It's superbly filmed, with a fine cast featuring people of color in a remarkable reinterpretation of the Orpheus myth that showcases the beauty of Rio de Janeiro, and I would happily recommend it to anyone. But it never occurred to me how actual Brazilians regard it.

You've seen me write about Le for quite awhile; for one so young, she is incredibly knowledgeable about film. The impression I got when she commented on my post is that the film has become a kind of shorthand for Brazil in general and Carnaval in particular, and not necessarily in a good way:
...As for Black Orpheus, it passes the image all foreigners have of Brazil: a land where there is no sin during Carnaval, and relationships mean nothing during the party. But it's interesting!
Granted, she's just one person, but I'm inclined to give her words some weight, given how much she knows about movies, and that she is an actual Brazilian. When I asked her about other Brazilian movies, she recommended this one: The Given Word, a former Palme D'Or winner at Cannes released only a few years after Orpheus that may not be as glamorous, but is every bit as compelling.

It's Dogma meets Ace in the Hole: to save the life of his dying pet donkey, a Catholic man promises St. Barbara to carry a cross to a church dedicated to her, far from his home, during a festival in her honor. He and his wife make the long pilgrimage, but the priest refuses to let him enter the church with the cross because the man, in his desperation, invoked a different incarnation of St. Barbara, one apparently rooted in witchcraft. The local media picks up the story, and the man quickly becomes a lightning rod for all sorts of opportunists within the community.

I've said it here before, but I believe there's a profound difference between faith and religion. Religion is what happens when faith is codified and given rules and traditions by those whose only purpose is to establish and maintain a hierarchy, one that gives them power over others. Theoretically, it should bring people together, but often times it encourages separation and otherness.

Witchcraft gets a bad rep from Christianity (even though many of its sacred holidays are ripoffs of pagan rituals), but I have known a few people who identify as Wiccans, and they have no interest in turning you into frogs or anything like that. In the film, the word they use is candomble, which is a religion native to Brazil, originally brought over by enslaved Africans. Interestingly, its practitioners used Catholic saints to hide their own deities, which would explain how St. Barbara could have an analogue in candomble traditions. Ze, the main character, says to the priest that he doesn't see any distinction between St. Barbara as she's worshiped in candomble or in Catholicism, though he also insists that he himself is Catholic.

Ze does come across as naive at times. Rosa, his wife, is not exactly thrilled at being part of this journey, and as a result, she does something that she later regrets. Ze should pick up on this, but he doesn't. His single-minded nature makes him look like a kind of holy fool, an innocent Don Quixote-like crusader for a lost cause, but he comes across much better in comparison to everyone else around him.

I couldn't help but be reminded of Andi and her similar pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Spain four years ago. She didn't have to carry a cross, but I imagine the backpack she hefted along the way must have felt almost as heavy. Like Ze, she's not tied down to a single faith, though where Ze turned to candomble because he didn't have a choice, Andi chooses to "double dip," as she puts it - and she's happy this way. Ze, however, is tormented, because despite what he did, he still wants to be a good Catholic and honor St. Barbara. He doesn't see what he did as "cheating" or being unfaithful, but there's no room for such shades of gray within the hierarchy.

Word is a very thought-provoking movie, one that should make religious people reexamine their own beliefs and ask themselves whether they are, in fact, served by them or not. I told you Le knows her stuff!


  1. How did you find this movie, Rich? I'm not in the movie-buying budget mode right now -- I wonder if it is on Hulu Plus or Netflix or Youtube or something. Actually, I just realized I'm rambling, thinking to myself and writing it out to you! I could check that myself! LOL! Anyway, what was your method?

    1. YouTube. Simple as that. (And I totally didn't even expect to see it there!)

  2. Thanks for your very kind words and I'm very happy you enjoyed this movie.
    A nice thing is that two viewers never have the same things to point out: in Black Orpheus, you talk about the beauty of the story and the scenery, I talk about the careless way our Carnival is portrayed. In The Given Word, you talk about religion and faith, an intelligent and necessary discussion here, and I think about how Ze was treated by all the people around him: he was seen as a fool, a sinner, a crazy man and a way of making profit. This is a movie I can see De Sica or Rossellini directing!

  3. Well, I did mention how naive I thought he came across, so that aspect didn't slip by me. I liked how everyone saw something different in Ze depending on who they were and what their station was in life, but he remained pretty much the same. This movie definitely has plenty to say about human nature. And yeah, it feels very much like an Italian Neo-realist movie, you're absolutely right about that.

    Thanks again for recommending this.


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