(versão em português aqui)
Jose Mojica Marins passed last week and learning the news one of the scenes that come to mind was the opening of The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe, a film in which he plays dual roles as the filmmaker Mojica and Coffin Joe, there’s a press conference and a journalist asks the question that animates the film: what matters most creator or creature? The filmmaker-character harshly makes clear that the filmmaker comes first. The film itself produces some frictions on this duality, but remains on the filmmakers point of view. I mention this scene because in front of José Mojica Marins image sometimes the creator comes after the creature, and that is a shame because Mojica didn’t only create Coffin Joe, but was one of our cinema most original voices. The man who promote a break with the world and let every kind of contradiction devour itself in the margins.
Mojica was the total genius as critic/filmmaker Jairo Ferreira liked to say. There was never a lack of those who gave him attention, but Joe shadows remained over him. The truth is that around the ten most creative years of Brazilian cinema (1964-1974), Mojica was always there in the first line of invention and resistance: At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, The Strange World of Coffin Joe, Awakening of the Beast, Finis Hominis, The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe (and other lesser but still very valuable films like his gypsy western D’Jagão Mata para Vingar). It is not that his cinema come out of nothing with At Midnight, there’s a lot to dazzle in his debut feature Adventurer’s Fate, a brutalist western of countryside cruelty. I remember my irritation when rereading Jean Claude Bernardet’s Brasil em Tempo de Cinema [translation note: the first major critical study of Cinema Novo published in the mid-60s] at finding a contemptuous reference to it as the kind of bad popular Brazilian cinema that would soon be overcome by the younger filmmakers. A reminder that certain left-leaning intellectual difficulties at processing Brazilian popular imagination. That was true in the 60s and remain true in 2020. There is a reason why Jairo Ferreira in his major film-essay on Brazilian film Horror Palace Hotel (1978), organized it through a meeting between Mojica and Rogério Sganzerla.
Adventurer’s Fate already offered a first draft of Mojica’s cinema with its outlaw moved by social discontent and lost at fissure between anarchy and moralism. In a way, Coffin Joe’s genius comes from this same place, of this impossible position between people’s boogeyman and figure of resistance. He is the mad scientist Brazil allows, but he is a doctor Frankenstein haunted by very different feelings than those of Shelley and Hammer’s enlightenment. A cruel creature, grotesque in his dedication to expose his own sense of superiority (a proto-Nietzschean figure as Glauber Rocha said), but that is counter balanced by an egocentrism that has few parallels in Brazilian film. Because Mojica was our auteur-actor by excellence. His art has as much to do with Chaplin than Shelley. If Coffin Joe is a tolerable figure to follow, it is also because Mojica Is in love with his own image. So Coffin Joe is a monster, but also a resistance figure. His philosophy of life scary, but his vomit against order seductive. Joe is the grotesque but seductive reaction against current situation. It is worth remembering that in This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse , he is the one who kidnaps and kills women in name of a pseudoscientific ideal, but also the only voice in town against the big farmer who runs it and that Mojica always films with contempt. On Mojica films one always suspect figures of power.
It is an ambivalence that will follow through all those movies. It is not very far from the mix of attack against church and fascination with its iconography and moral that will follow him beyond the early Coffin Joe films. It is worth pointing out that none of this would be possible without the filmmaking to back him up. Because Mojica is a star performer with a taste for sadism and another for sentimentality, but this performance always exists inside a very expressive frame. He wasn’t a man with a foot in the theatre like Chaplin, but one who always believe and go beyond the stage. The constant of Mojica’s cinema wasn’t that there was a need to capture reality, but to find a way to break from it. It all culminates in that hell scene from This Night when one moves from black and white to color and have a unique cold and terrible vision of hell. Through Mojica’s films this visions of horror become usual: sadist hells full of torture, marked by conflicts of self, a constant uncertainty, the turmoil of a fragile reality.
Between At Midnight and This Night, there’s a leap of confidence. The earlier film is robust and the large is larger, around an extra half hour, many and more elaborate sets, a bigger number of victims and antagonists, more articulation around Coffin Joe’s figure, the aforementioned trip to hell sequence. There is a strong narrative movement throughout the film. In At Midnight one stages the turmoil of contradictions while in This Night moves towards meeting with its impossibility. After the arrival at hell, reality isn’t possible anymore. Mojica rarely looked back, embraced frontal and lysergic cinema.
From that point, Mojica will start a creative partnership with writer Rubens Luchetti and his films will become more self-conscious. The lysergic elements get moved upfront, the sadistic violence more pronounced. With Luchetti, Coffin Joe’s mythological aspects becomes the films’ subject. It is often said that Mojica is a primitive in that usual condescending way, I don’t think either At Midnight or This Night are primitive or poor movies (they are crass which is something else and abrasiveness is a rich form of expression), but such affirmations become specially foolish in the later films. Awakening of the Beast, The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe, the last episode of The Strange World of Coffin Joe are explorations of the images and self-mythology that Mojica had already established. Coffin Joe becomes less a figure than subject matter, all the fears of Brazilian reality in a body and idea. Mojica’s images manage to give form to this contradiction, the filmmaker needs to go beyond the creature, but finds a good deal of pleasure with the horrors its image produces. Awakening of the Beast is Brazilian Cinema’s Limelight, the confrontation with the fascination and limitations of the filmmaker’s own image, only in Mojica’s way, this image arrives at the fears and hallucinations of a group of junkies. In Bloody Exorcism the confrontation and the duality creator/creature becomes text, more explicit, but no less articulated through images.
I wrote a lot here about the Chaplin connection because it seems to me underexplored. Maybe because we don’t think much about the inherent violence behind Chaplin’s sentimentalism, a little because it becomes more explicit in the less discussed later films (it isn’t hard to imagine Mojica remaking Monsieur Verdoux). Mojica reverse the equation, with sadism dominant and sentimentalism remaining buried deeper. My favorite Mojica film, the most inventive and the maddest is Finis Hominis in which he played a messiah who arrives at Earth and moves through devastated landscape mediated by television. There’s a strong humanist desire as counterpoint to the usual violent revolt. It is not a horror film, but an unclassifiable object full of strong sometimes terrible images, some that disarm us by how direct they are. There’s a lot of absurdum in it, but no cynicism. Mojica believes in what he films, imagines himself in the figure of savior, but understands his own impossibility. Finis Hominis is another prophet of hunger. His final destination is marginality.
In the end, José Mojica Marins biggest contribution to Brazilian film is in how frontal his images are. Horror is a rich genre because it allows to imagine symbolic violence in multiple manners and to give them a body in diverse ways. Mojica was always direct. He goes to the point. He films all contradictions in all their violence. Finds a physical form to express them. One might think on the second episode of The Strange World of Coffin Joe when the beggar finally manages to achieve his desires by possessing the corpse of the model he previously stalked. In his films there’s no escapes, no way to domesticize such violence. He filmed our cannibal orgy as he saw it; A society devouring itself. His only way out shattering reality.