The Cangaco -- or Cangaceiro -- films of Brazil could be seen as spiritual cousins to both the Narcotraficante films that were popular in Mexico during the 80s and the Dacoit and “Daku” films that the regional film industries of India continue to churn out to this very day. All three genres seek to romanticize the mythology surrounding a real and very culturally specific breed of outlaw, while playing up that outlaw’s violent exploits for sensational effect. In fact, you could even add Hong Kong’s Triad, Japan’s pre-70s Yakuza, and most American Mafia movies to that list, as well.
The Cangaceiros were tribes of nomadic bandits who roamed the inhospitable and arid Northeastern territories of Brazil during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Primarily members of the peasant class, many of them took to the outlaw life as a reaction against the depredations of corrupt government officials and members of the land owning class. While they could be brutal in dealing with those who stood in their way (they didn’t carry those long fish-gutting knives solely for decoration), they could also be generous to those among the populace who gave them support in the form of shelter, protection, or material aid. Because of this, they were seen as Robin Hood-like figures by many among the region’s poor. And the Cangaceiros, with their distinctive headwear and flamboyant leather outfits, ornamented with coins and bits of scrap metal hand-stitched into them, presented an image that was ripe for mythologizing.
The most famous of the Cangaceiros was Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, who came to be known as “Lampião”, a Portuguese word meaning “oil lamp” or “lantern”. Lampião’s turn toward the outlaw life was precipitated by his father’s murder at the hands of police, and he proved himself to be particularly ruthless in exacting revenge against those he deemed responsible. He was famously joined in his exploits by his lover Maria Dea, who herself came to be known as “Maria Bonita”, the two of them having a long run that ended only when they were killed by police in 1938.
In the years since, the pair have become folk heroes, celebrated in every iteration of their nation’s popular culture, including books, songs, television soap operas, and, of course, feature films. These latter sometimes came in the form of fictionalized recountings of the adventures of Lampião himself, but were just as likely to be celebrations of the Cangaceiro lifestyle as a whole, often drawing upon thinly veiled elements of the famous bandit’s story for their content.
I’ve been unable to find information on any Cangaceiro film made prior to director Lima Barreto’s 1953 O Cangaceiro. But, whether or not O Cangaceiro was the first Cangaco film, it was certainly the first to put the genre on the map. After winning the prize for best adventure film at Cannes in 1953, the film went on to gain international distribution through Columbia Pictures, and saw release in the U.S. in the summer of 1954. Though its impact seems to have faded over the years, it made enough of a sensation abroad to merit hit versions of its theme song -- retitled “The Bandit” -- being released by English speaking artists as diverse as Percy Faith and Tex Ritter. It is also the likely inspiration for the 1969 Italian film O Cangaceiro -- aka Viva Cangaceiro -- which, while not a remake of the 1953 film, did see Spaghetti Western mainstay Thomas Milian riding the hostile plains of Brazil’s Northeast in full Cangaceiro regalia.
Although the highbrow accolades it received might lead you to expect otherwise, O Cangaceiro, while artfully made, falls squarely within the realm of popular entertainment, and shows no small influence of the classic Hollywood Westerns. At the same time, it sacrifices none of its cultural distinctiveness. It’s also interesting to note that the film makes no attempt to soft pedal the brutality of the Cangaceiros, but instead contrasts it against the actions of a sympathetic member of the gang who, as a result those actions, finds himself at odds with the rest.
The film begins with the looting of a small town by a band of Cangaceiros lead by the fearsome and brutish Captain Galdino (Milton Ribeiro). Among the spoils taken back to the gang’s encampment is the captive schoolteacher Olivia (Marisa Prado). We’ve already seen how the bandits treat their female prisoners –- a woman in the town is branded with a hot iron bearing the gang’s insignia, and another woman in the camp, whose face bears the same disfiguring mark, appears to have been driven mad by her experiences -- so the outlook for this newest hostage isn’t a bright one. Fortunately, Galdino’s soulful young lieutenant Teodoro (Alberto Ruschel) is moved by Olivia’s beauty and stoic dignity, and decides to personally escort her to safety.
From this point on, O Cangaceiro chronicles Teodoro and Olivia’s flight across the desert, pursued all the while by the enraged Galdino and the rest of his gang, who, in turn, must fend off the heavily ordnanced government militia that is now on their tail. Teodoro and Olivia find time for fleeting moments of romance, but ultimately theirs is a doomed love. Sending her off alone, Teodoro returns to face his pursuers, and singlehandedly holds off the entire band in a grim standoff that lasts through the night and into the following morning. Of course, no criminal underclass worth mythologizing on film is complete without its own peculiar code of honor, and Teodoro’s finally drives him to surrender and meet the tragic yet noble fate that awaits him.
As one might expect -- or hope -- from a Brazilian film, music is central to O Cangaceiro. One of its highpoints, in fact, occurs at a moment of respite from the otherwise driving narrative, during a campfire scene in which a trio of stirring traditional sounding songs are performed by the Cangaceiros -- first by the group, and then, for a more mournful number, by one of the gang’s female members. The instrumental score by Gabriel Migliori, which was singled out for special mention at Cannes, is also a pleasure to the ears, being both lively and impressively varied. Taken all together, the rich, sensuous, and unmistakably Brazilian textures of this music are a fitting compliment to first-time feature director Barreto’s sumptuous visual style, which -- whether involving a disarmingly intimate close-up on an actor’s face, or a wide shot capturing the alien beauty of the Northeastern terrain -- is notable for the seductive depth of its black and white compositions.
O Cangaceiro was one of the last productions from Brazil’s Vera Cruz Studios, who spared little expense in insuring that it would be competitive with the products of other, more developed national cinemas. And it is indeed a film that is both beautiful in appearance and assured in construction. It is also marked by a number of strong performances, among them that of Milton Ribeiro, who could easily have settled for making his Captain Galindo little more than a fearsome caricature, but instead chose to lend him an air of defiant dignity as a counterbalance to his ferociousness. As a result of his outstanding work here, Ribeiro secured himself fairly steady employment in what would come to be, over the coming decades, a staple genre of Brazilian cinema.