Besouro (2009) is the true story of ‘Besouro’ Manuel Henrique Pereira, who rose to fame in Brazil as a freedom fighter and a master of Capoeira.
The action takes place in the 1920s in the Bahia region of Brazil. While slavery has been abolished for 40 years, conditions remain unchanged for the black population who are still effectively slaves. When Master Alipio, an elder on the Venancio Plantation, is discovered teaching capoeira to the gifted Besouro and other black workers, he is gunned down in broad daylight.
Such was the Portuguese landowners fear of the inherent magic and power of capoeira that to practice it carried the very real threat of torture and death.
Following the cowardly murder of Alipio, Besouro has an exchange with Exu (The powerful Yoruba deity of the crossroads). He subsequently emerges as a revolutionary leader, a hero who will lead his people to revolt against the brutal oppression of the Europeans.
The film is shot beautifully, with fight scenes choreographed by the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon/Matrix team and a soundtrack set to the traditional rhythm of the berimbau capoeira instrument. The action is infused with the mysticism of the Candomble belief system with frequent appearances from Yoruba deities such as the aforementioned Exu (Eshu, Esu) and Oxum (Oshun, Osun) the Goddess of fresh waters.
The Yoruba pantheon of deities has been likened to the infamous Greek gods. The Orisha’s certainly provide as rich a source for epic tales of magic, wonder and adventure as their Olympian counterparts.
The Orishas remain the foundational element for much in traditional Cuban and Brazilian cultural forms, many of which have been marketed successfully across the globe. Their presence is also found in many recognizable North-American traditions. For instance the centrality of the devil at the crossroads in the blues can be traced to the belief in Esu (or Elegba as he’s also known) his association with the crossroads and his regular misinterpretation as the devil in western Christian traditions. Yet despite the popularity of many of these forms, their African antecedents, such as the Orisha themselves, often remain unknown or unacknowledged throughout much of wider western mainstream culture.
So it was wonderful to see the Orisha making it onto the big screen! Their continued worship throughout the Americas reveals an incredible story of the bravery and resilience of our ancestors. Despite African religious practice being outlawed by the European authorities (often on pain of death), despite the fact that these traditions were oral and existed in languages no longer spoken by slaves forced to speak the various European languages of their captors, the Orisha could not be vanquished.
Besouro goes some way in bringing this fascinating history to wider audiences and I’m particularly excited by the potential to use these characters more frequently in film.
I couldn’t help but compare the hero Besouro to Django, with the latter comparing most unfavorably. Besouro doesn’t rely on a white savior for his liberation. Motivated by a sense of social justice he is a far better role model than the individualistic Django. Dinorá, his lover, played by Jessica Barbosa, is an incalculably better female lead than Kerry Washington’s pretty prop Broomhilda. Dinorá is herself a skilled capoeira fighter, more than capable of defending herself. She is certainly not waiting around for her man to come and rescue her.
Turning to the representation of women on a more visual level, Besouro once again trumps Django. I was really disappointed by Broomhilda’s hair in the Tarantino feature. Unsurprisingly, she sported the infantilized, non-threatening ringlets that appear to be the only hairstyle deemed appropriate by casting directors on the rare occasions we see black women with natural hair. Besouro’s Dinorá wears an afro – outside of the Blaxploitation genre this is something that one never sees in cinema – and I really appreciated this detail.
Besouro is beautiful, captivating and timely. It is also amazingly available to watch on Youtube with English subtitles. Catch the inspirational action here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVJDQRmlCSM