Actor and director Wagner Moura, 45, calls himself “marighellista since always”. A feeling that, he says, dates back to the times when, as a public school student in Rodelas (a city in the interior of Bahia where he grew up), he heard a professor explain the military coup of 1964 as a necessary “revolution” to save the country from a “ communist dictatorship”. The scene of the boy listening to the teacher defend the “1964 Revolution” in the classroom is in marighella, a film that Moura directs and that opens in Brazilian cinemas on the 4th, two years late. The pandemic was one of the reasons that delayed the premiere. Another reason was the actions of the National Cinema Agency (Ancine), which the director describes as an attempt at censorship under the government of Jair Bolsonaro. Bureaucratic procedures contributed to delaying the release of the film, which portrays a character opposed to the defenders of the dictatorship, such as the ultra-right president.
Marighella was born in Salvador (from Bahia as Moura), the son of an Italian worker and a black woman who was the daughter of slaves — descendant of Malês, as Muslim Africans were called, she was born in May 1888, nine days after the Golden Law. The portion of Marighella’s life recounted in the film covers the last few years of an impressive trajectory of militancy, which led to prison and political persecution in the Vargas era (1930-1945). A character forged by circumstances of his time and his personal history, as journalist Mário Magalhães, author of Marighella: the guerrilla who set the world on fire, book released in 2012 that served as the basis for the screenplay by Moura and Felipe Braga. “Marighella is the result of Bahia’s black culture, of observation and sensitivity about the country’s social inequality, of access to an extremely high-quality education, synthesized in his years in the former [colégio] Ginásio da Bahia, from the profound influence that his black Catholic mother and Italian father exerted on him and, finally, on the political and social environment of Brazil in the thirties″, explains the biographer.
These were times of repression and authoritarianism under a convulsive government like that of Getúlio Vargas. The world was experiencing the winds of fascist authoritarianism that also arrived here. There was persecution of opponents, communists, Jews… Marighella opposed the hard line of Vargas, and then the military regime of 1964. Her resistance fascinated Moura. With Seu Jorge in the role of writer, politician and communist guerrilla Carlos Marighella, the film follows the story of its protagonist between 1964 —when he begins to articulate resistance to the newly established dictatorship— and 1969, the year he is assassinated in an ambush that involved at least 29 police officers who shot him unarmed at the age of 57.
“I can summarize what I call the marighellism as my admiration not only for those who fought against the dictatorship, but also for the resistance of the indigenous peoples against the Portuguese, Palmares, Canudos, the revolts of the Malês and the Alfaiates, both in Bahia…”, lists the Bahian Moura. “All these stories have always fascinated and angered me, especially because they were told from the point of view of power, of the oppressor. Marighella represents a lot of that, the characters who had their story silenced”.
Moura explains, however, that despite his marighellism, he was never interested in making the feature film a mere praise for the figure of Marighella. “The film is born out of my admiration for Marighella, of course. But I didn’t do a hagiography, the biography of a saint. My job is to make it more complex, to observe any character as a human being. I’m an actor, that’s what interests me”, he explains. “When I play Sergio Vieira de Mello (diplomat who incarnated in the film Sergio) I don’t want to make him a saint, just like when I make Pablo Escobar (who he lived in the series narcos) do not want to make a monster. Despite being a political film, the entrance door is the characters and their contradictions. Marighella is held in check by various characters all the time.”
The film establishes, in different ways, a dialogue with contemporary Brazil. “The biggest impact of the arrival of Wagner’s film in the cinema now is the fact that Marighella is the supreme antipode of Jair Bolsonaro”, evaluates Magalhães. The journalist continues: “The ideas and actions of the two clash in an irreconcilable way. Bolsonaro has publicly defended the use of torture as a legitimate instrument in combating political opponents. Marighella, on the other hand, was tortured for 21 consecutive days in 1936, and she always fought against the practice of torture”, says the writer. “Bolsonaro has also stated that femicide is ‘mimimi’, while Marighella defended the historic banners of the women’s movement. In the Constituent Assembly of 1946, for example, he proposed the introduction of divorce into Brazilian law, alleging that the ones who were most punished with the non-existence of the law were women”, he adds.
There are references that seem directly directed to Brazil today, as when Marighella confronts a party colleague who diverges on how to articulate the resistance. The interlocutor, played by Herson Capri, defends that one should wait “for the situation to be better defined” before acting. Marighella provokes: “With how many corpses does a situation define itself?”. The question echoes deeply in the country of more than 600,000 dead victims of covid-19, most of them under the responsibility of the federal government, according to the CPI of the Pandemic. Obviously, Marighella’s speech makes no reference to the pandemic or Bolsonaro, given that filming ended in February 2018, well before the elections, and the film was shown for the first time in 2019, at the Berlin Film Festival, a year before the first confirmed case of the disease in Brazil.
“I was always aware that talking about Marighella and those who, like him, resisted the dictatorship is to talk about those who resisted before him and those who are resisting in Brazil today,” says Moura. “Every time I see how social movements embraced the film, I feel like I got it right”, he says. For him, a film is the conjunction between what the director thought and how the audience will see it at a certain time. “When someone thinks of the pandemic when they watch the movie, it demonstrates its strength.”
The very choice of the cast points to Moura’s desire to symbolically extend the story beyond the sixties. Pastor Henrique Vieira (a reference in the scene of progressive Christianity in Brazil today) plays the role of a priest who supports the Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN), a group belonging to Marighella. Maria Marighella, the guerrilla’s granddaughter, is in the film as the mother of Carlinhos, the protagonist’s son. And, originally, rapper Mano Brown — who in many ways is in tune with Marighella’s causes and persona — would play the role that ended up with Seu Jorge.
The exchange of protagonists ended up generating controversy, as Seu Jorge was identified as “too black” to represent Marighella, who defined himself as “a mulatto from Bahia”. “The racial issue is very present in the film and in Marighella’s life”, says Moura, recalling the episode, told in Magalhães’ book, in which then-deputy Marighella makes an aside to a speech by a colleague and hears: “I don’t allow that elements of color such as Your Excellency intrude in my speech”. In every moment of the film when the guerrilla is attacked, the offenses pass through the color of his skin.
The director continues: “Marighella came from a black region and brought her experience and ancestry to her struggle. When Mano Brown left the project, he didn’t think much about whether Marighella had to be more or less black, he didn’t think about colorism. I just knew I needed a black actor. Today, after all the racist attacks suffered by Seu Jorge, I see that I got it right without meaning to. Because when I portray Marighella, I reaffirm her ancestry. And I go against the grain of the Brazilian audiovisual history, which practices the whitening of its characters.”
There is also a subtle reference to Dilma Rousseff in the character of actress Bella Camero, a young ALN guerrilla who even faces the camera (or the viewer) at a certain point in the film. The director confirms that it is a tribute to the ex-president, but not only to her: “Bella (the character is named after the actress, which occurs with many others in the film) is a tribute to Dilma, to Guiomar [da Silva Lopes, militante da ALN] and to the entire group of women who participated in the armed struggle. It is very significant that she appears in the film making a connection with the feminist movement today”. As for the moment she looks into the camera, Moura says: “She’s not suggesting that anyone take up arms, but it’s like asking, boldly, ‘That was my fight. And you there?’”.
marighella tells the story combining action and dramatic density, a lesson that Moura says he learned to a great extent from José Padilha, with whom he worked on both Elite squad is on narcos — and from those who distanced themselves in recent years due to political differences. “He taught me that you can make political cinema without leaving aside the popular, entertainment character.” Among his influences are also the Dardenne brothers (“I like how they film young people, my film is full of young people”), the work of Costa-Gavras and the battle of algiers, 1966 film about the struggle of Algerian rebels against French rule (“A reference for both me and Marighella, who loved the film”). In his debut as a director, Moura says he tried to film as he likes to be filmed, focusing on the actor. “In the action scenes, I distance myself from traditional action cinema, I don’t want to film the show, but what is happening with the characters there, in the middle of the shooting”.
It is from this perspective that he films the scene in which one of the guerrillas is savagely tortured. “It was a terribly violent time. And it’s important to remember this to those nostalgic for the dictatorship today, when we have as president a man who admires Brilhante Ustra, a son of a bitch who tortured people in the presence of their children. Even before the coup against Dilma, I already noticed some dangerous semantic changes, such as ‘dictabranda’, ‘1964 movement’… I wanted to face this torture scene with the greatest possible cruelty. The viewer’s discomfort with the scene was very important, because the reality was much worse than that, and people need to know what a dictatorship is”, explains Moura. The director sought maximum realism and, in order to define the details of the scene, he sought references in books and testimonies by former guerrillas. “People who were tortured were there on the day of the recording to tell them how it was, how the police asked the questions, how the wire was tied for the electric shock”, says Moura.
In addition to Ancine’s denials of requests from producers of marighella, which ended up involving the project in a bureaucratic web, the film struggled to get funding. The director says that producer O2, responsible for the feature film, received aggressive emails from companies denying sponsorship. “They made heavy references to both me and Marighella”, says the director. “We ended up not using a penny via the Rouanet Law”. Even with all the problems, Moura says that he never stopped believing he would debut in Brazilian cinemas: “It’s awesome to have the entire Federal Government against your film, it’s a rough game. But I was never afraid of that. I see a great moral superiority in people. In you, in the press, in us artists, in all Democrats, we cannot lower our heads”.
The director evokes the scene in the film in which one of the characters, on a stick, bloodied, hears from a police officer that his group had lost and replies: “No, you lost”. Moura develops: “All these movements, Malês, Tailors, Palmares, went down in history as defeated. But what would Brazil be without these men and women who did not bend? Our characters always impose themselves morally on repression. When that tied man says ‘you lost’ he is pointing to the future, to the seed of that fight, which is still alive. So, actually, Marighella was not defeated.”
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