Antonio das Mortes (Maurício do Valle) made a name for himself some time ago as a killer of Brazilian outlaws known as cangaceiros, distinguishable from other, less principled criminals for being on the side of the poor against the rich in a quasi-Robin Hood fashion. He killed the last of these, or so he thought, which is why he is proud to be asked by the Coronel (Joffre Soares), the blind and wealthy landowner who holds the region in his vice-like grip, to see what he can do about another cangaceiro who has sprung up belatedly and is causing trouble for him, threatening the Coronel's monopoly on the property in the area as well as the food distribution. This bandit is Coirana (Lorival Pariz), and he has something to say about that...
In the nineteen-sixties in Brazil, inspired by the European film new waves occuring across the Atlantic, a group of filmmakers, often politically motivated, decided to rebel against the tacky and anodyne product of their nation's cinematic efforts and really try and shake things up. Often this meant adding sex and violence, but it wasn't trash they were creating, it was a genuinely energised movement of art as rebellion known as the Cinema Novo (which basically meant New Wave in Portuguese) and at the forefront of that was Glauber Rocha, a rabble rouser who led the way to a different method of telling stories; his best known film would be Black God White Devil, to which this was a sort of sequel.
Now working in glorious colour, Rocha had not mellowed by 1969, and if this was any evidence to go by he had seen a bunch of Sergio Leone Westerns and thought, yeah, I could do that too. Thus it turned out Antonio das Mortes, or O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro as its longwinded title originally was, had that Spaghetti Western look about it, and a similar tone into the bargain, even if it was more steeped in the politics of Brazil which to the outsider would be baffling at best, not having the cultural touchstones Brazilians had on watching this. Coupled with an aggressive demeanour, this was a work which was extremely confrontational even if you didn't quite grasp what it was confronting you with, you knew it had something to get off its chest.
This could have gone a bit wrong, resembling being shouted at by a man in the street incoherently worse the wear for drink for an hour and a half, and it was true there were sequences here meaning most to its director, yet you were never tempted to just let him get on with it, Rocha was a young man when he made his most celebrated films (not that he would get much older, dying prematurely in his early forties) and that youthful enthusiasm to get any kind of reaction at all no matter what the results were provided compulsive viewing, especially when he was concocting such violently impressive visuals. Yet nothing here came across as realistic, exactly, with Rocha encouraging his cast to address the camera, bring in crowds of musical acts, and keep it all very stylised.
And political, always political. The title character manages to bump off the latest, last cangaceiro, a man who was trying to start a revolution against the injustices of his society in a very sixties way, in spite of this ostensibly being set twenty years or so before, and somehow that rubs off on Antonio who begins to kick back himself. Cutting a striking figure, the rotund and bearded do Valle would not be at all out of place in a Western from Italy (he even has the poncho and wide-brimmed hat), though since everyone here gets their chance to voice an opinion, and what loud voices they are, he does tend to be rather lost in the cacophony of differing views and descents into armed struggle Rocha appeared to believe was inevitable if there was going to be any change, which was perhaps ironic considering the year this was released his home nation suffered a military coup which saw a totalitarian junta in place over the Brazilian political landscape. And with that, the Cinema Novo was gradually wound down, leaving us with wild, often extravagant curiosities such as this. Music by Marlos Nobre.