Four Men on a Raft was part of the ill-fated, never completed Orson Welles documentary about Brazilian culture and politics, It’s All True. It is a reconstruction of the voyage on a sailing raft that four impoverished fishermen had made eight months earlier from Fortaleza to Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil’s capital, to present in person their grievances to President Getúlio Vargas. In the “feudal system” in place, owners of the rafts—jagandas—appropriated from such fishermen half of their catch, imposing poverty on the latter no matter how hard they worked, while at the same time, by law, these workers were denied the social service benefits available to other poor, union workers. Vargas initially renegged on his promise to remedy the situation but, perhaps pressured by Welles’s filming, extended by law all normal benefits to jangadeiros, including housing, and medical and retirement benefits. During filming, the leader of the four men, Manoel Olimpio Meira, nicknamed Jacaré (Alligator), died. Welles’s postscript haunts: “Jacaré and the others made their voyage by jaganda exactly as it is here filmed. They were sixty-one days in the open sea, without compass, and guided only by the stars. . . .”
The film is silent (given the equipment that RKO provided, it could not have been otherwise), although sound effects and music were later added. This punctuation only deepens the dreamy effect of the silence. The four men’s voyage is epic; they stop at various points along the way, mostly to interact with others (although in one scene they pray by themselves), affording the black-and-white cinematographer, George Fanto, opportunities to collaborate with Welles on gorgeously mysterious extreme long-shots of the four men walking across sandy land, on the horizon or towards the camera, which is to say, us. The film, of course, is just as mysterious on water; a man will suddenly appear as a shade behind the sail.
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