To date, O Pagador de Promessas—literally, The Payer of Promises but a.k.a. The Given Word—is the only film by a South American to have won the top prize at Cannes. From the play by Dias Gomes, it is a decent piece of work from Brazil. Anselmo Duarte, the director, properly working with black and white, filmed on actual urban streets and arranged for pulsating activity, and he has decorated his shots with camera angles and movements that enhance the dynamic quality he is after—a godsend, given how talky the film is. Ridiculously, the film won at Cannes in competition with great works of art: Antonioni’s Eclipse, Satyajit Ray’s The Goddess, Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, Bresson’s Trial of Joan of Arc. In the same decade, likewise part of the cinema nôvo movement, much better films also emerged from Brazil: Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Barren Lives, which has made my list of the 25 greatest films of all time, and Black God, White Devil, Land in Anguish and Antônio das Mortes, all by Gláuber Rocha. Duarte, workmanlike, is not in their league.
Accompanied by his wife, Rosa, Zé, a simple peasant, has left his farm to lug a huge cross to the altar of an urban church, to keep his promise to Saint Bárbara in exchange for the recovery of his ailing beloved donkey. The priest at Saint Bárbara’s Church, however, bars his entry, charging him with two offenses: idolatry; prideful identification with Jesus. Because Zé plans also on giving away his land, the local media covering his attempts to enter the church brand him a Communist. Eventually the priest instigates the crowd in the street to abandon their support of Zé, and they kill him. Returned to their senses, “the people” lay his corpse on top of the crucifix and bring Zé inside the church at last.
Duarte is expert at angling his shots to convey the arduous heft of the cross that digs into Zé’s shoulder; the volatile nature of “the people,” and the degree to which institutionalized religion manipulates this for better or ill, enrich the film’s political parable. This is not, then, a stupid film. Also in its favor is the density of dance in the streets, which lulls us into a kind of upbeat complacency that deepens the horror of the crowd’s becoming a Furies-like mob. All in all, it is a better film than the studied, oh-so-sensitive Sundays and Cybèle, which won the year’s foreign-language film Oscar, for which it, too, was nominated.
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