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The Emperor is Calm:
Eduardo Coutinho and Theodorico, Emperor of the Interior (1978)

Victor Bruno



To begin at the end: Eduardo Coutinho died on February 2, 2014, in the most tragic circumstances. He was a necessary filmmaker for Brazil, because his way of working set him apart from any other Brazilian filmmaker – he did not have any connection to particular political movements, and he systematically rejected publicity. His cinema was open and embracing, overflowing with questions and investigations. He took nothing for granted; he preferred the journey. His true objective was to discover, in each interview and in each face, the brute substance of Brazilian identity. What really interested him was the simple question: what sets this Brazilian identity apart from others identities of the world? Was it the mixing of cultures? The unique religiosity? The music? All of that? He was ‘anti’, because he had no interest in theories and formulae that only make sense – and are only useful – to lazy intellectuals fascinated by their own erudition (in a talk at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, PUC-SP, Coutinho said he liked to watch popular TV shows while reading Immanuel Kant). At any rate, he did not like to convince the already convinced. ‘Militant cinema is a tragedy’, he said. (1)

His last film was The Songs (As Canções, 2011). A music film (rather than ‘a musical’) in which, through key songs, Coutinho tried to reach the heart of his interviewee. In 2010 he directed his ‘forbidden film’, Um Dia na Vida (A Day in the Life). An anti-film; a ninety minute collage, at random, of loose pieces of Brazil’s mythic public TV. Coutinho spent his life searching for the soul of the Brazilian citizen, through his life experience and his dialogue with the world. He made films in which silence is forbidden, except for the deafening silence that foretells the tears; but it was here in Um Dia na Vida that he finally reached the abstract. I mean, what else can be more abstract than watching a TV channel that sells jewellery 24 hours a day? It is a pity, then, that this film will never be commercially available because of copyright issues.




1. Matheus Magenta, ‘“Filme militante é uma tragédia”, diz Eduardo Coutinho’, Folha de S.Paulo (30 October 2013).

Coutinho’s final two films, in their thematics, already synthesize his career-long search: films that speak, through the mystique of their sound, the ethereality of music and the violence of desire that together construct Brazilian identity. Does this mean that his cinema is alienating for the rest of the world? Of course not. Because even if his films are about the ‘Brazilian experience’ and the possibility of contact, they are also about universal themes (love, hate, desire, misery). They are so close to the Brazilian body that they are universally open. Maybe there is a layer here that repels other cultures, but once this obstacle is conquered (and, frankly, it is not even an obstacle, just the laziness and cultural limitation of a certain kind of viewer), Coutinho is an open door.

But where does this desire to record identity through purely cultural aspects come from? Playing (Jogo de Cena, 2007): the mimesis between the actor and interviewee. Moscow (2009): the theatrical art. The Mighty Spirit (Santo Forte, 1999): this singular Brazilian religiosity, an incredible mix of three or more religions, all of them working in perfect synchronicity (probably Coutinho’s most perfect film, in a thematic sense). The End and the Beginning (O Fim e o Princípio, 2005): memories of a city chosen at random (again the theme of the things that arrive by chance) in the interior of Paraíba, a state located in Northeast Brazil. Coutinho goes there with the camera, and that’s about it: a native of the backcountry tells his story.

The Northeast meant a lot to this filmmaker. It was there, at two distinct moments, that something was revealed to Coutinho. It was in the Northeast that Twenty Years Later (1984) was found, catapulting him to the rank of Brazil’s greatest documentarist. But before that, in 1978, he had also found there the way to tell his stories. The film in question is Theodorico, Emperor of the Interior.


The Boss

To Coutinho there is nothing more precious than the voice. The voice, the sound, the music, the manners, the tone. Coutinho’s cinema is set apart from virtually all other filmmakers – fiction or documentary – because the sonic structure has as many or more layers than the visual architecture (or his visual architecture has only one layer, but is very dense). Is it absurd to compare this to what Carl Dreyer was attempting with Gertrud (1964)? I do not think so. It is not that the image is unimportant to Coutinho: the image identifies what can be magnetically attracted by the eye of the camera (more on this later), but it is through sound that the memory of a people (or precisely this people) is told in an objective way. The image is important to Coutinho because it captures the signs, colours, country and culture; it is in the image that dance and gestures unfold. But the sound is where the signs and codes are unveiled – or rather, veiled, changed and destroyed.

The association of the voice with the Northeast is clear. The Northeast has a high illiteracy rate and, in comparison with the South or Southeast of the country, is ‘late’ to elements we might label ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’. Currently, there is an intense generational clash, with the younger generation winning; but, in 1978, things were different. But, both yesterday and today, the voice is the primary Northeasterner’s way of communicating . Their way of speaking – with a singsong lilt, stronger, more intense: a passion for sound – is notable. It works like a song in itself. This stereotype must have attracted Coutinho.

There is an enclosure in the Northeasterner. He is someone who time and progress have forgotten. In Theodorico, Emperor of the Interior, this enclosure is featured twice: (1) The enclosure of the Northeast and all it means, and (2) The enclosure of the Interior citizen as subservient to Major Theodorico Bezerra.

Theodorico is a walking contradiction. He is a ‘Major’, but not: he won the title as a reward from the Federal Government. He is a farmer who likes ‘simplicity’, but flies in his own helicopter to the State capital and has direct contact with the President. He is loved, but his love is forged out of fear. He painted on the façade of his home ‘thoughts’ (on the surface, yes; inside, these thoughts are severe rules) such as ‘Life is for those who wake up early, talk little and walk fast to not waste time’ – but he himself walks slowly and talks too much, enchanted with Coutinho’s camera and the sound of his own voice.


Theodorico was not made as a one-off film, but as part of a weekly show, Globo Repórter, aired on Rede Globo (think of the films Ken Russell directed for BBC’s Omnibus as a comparison). So there were rules to produce the films. These rules, however, were being slowly whittled away, or destroyed. There was a process of signification running through the structure of Brazilian television – the objective was to unmake a perception of misery that Left-wing cultural producers had attributed to Brazil (2) — and Coutinho, in large part, helped create this new way of producing TV.

But, more than that, in Theodorico we find the starting point for Coutinho’s cinematic calligraphy. While his cinema is, indeed, a eulogy to sound, there is also a direct confrontation of images and signs. There is something brutal about it. If, in later films, Coutinho opens the embrace of the camera and its subject (it does not make judgments, point to conditions nor laugh at whomever is speaking; it will simply be the recorder of the images, an impossible eye), this happens only because, in Theodorico, Coutinho did not judge the ‘Emperor of the Interior’. It is not Coutinho’s role to judge them. People are what they are. Some rule, some do not.

  2. Cf.Gilberto Alexandre Sobrinho, ‘Sobre televisão experimental: Teodorico, O Imperador do Sertão, de Eduardo Coutinho, e o Globo Repórter’, Revista Eco-Pós, n. 2, vol. 13 (2010), pp. 6784.




Right at the beginning of the film, we see Coutinho’s redemptive transformation. The camera is far, far away from Theodorico. We hear his soft and patriarchal voice, and then, lo and behold, a zoom (just a second: it is worth saying that, before this shot occurs, we see a plantation, Dib Lutfi’s handheld camerawork, and the music of Luiz Gonzaga, a symbol of the Northeast, blasting on the background). A long zoom (one is reminded of Robert Altman) and then we are arrive at Theodorico Bezerra. By this time, he is talking about why he has accepted to be interviewed: ‘They came to televise me. I like because they are televising out of simplicity. Televising the cattle, the agriculture, the villagers […]. And there isn’t anyone who doesn’t like attention. There is no one who doesn’t like pleasure’.

Why is it redemptive? Because it is from here on that Coutinho will reject both publicity and affectation, preferring a simple cinema, brute and direct. There is no need for elaborate or hysterical framing; what is necessary to him is only the confrontation with the character and his sign.

Hasty viewers like to point that in any film about the modus vivendi and operandi of an authoritarian figure, either irony intervenes immediately, or the film subverts all other films complicit with such authoritarianism. I believe that to approach a film like Theodorico in that way is very risky. Words like ‘expose’ or ‘investigate’ pop up. Investigate, maybe, but exposé is hardly the case. On the contrary. Theodorico is, above all, a film about costumes and mechanisms. To investigate something usually means churning the situation up but then putting it back in place again at the end: to simply attack the subject, whether in a cynical or a passive-aggressive treatment of the interviewee, and find out nothing about who they really are, is not Coutinho’s style.

The Big Parade

In Master: A Building in Copacabana (2002) there is already an iconic scene: a man, a room, a sound system in the background. He sings Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. Cut. ‘And more/Much more than this/I did it my way’. He raises his arms with closed fists in a victorious gesture.

In Theodorico, Emperor of the Interior, the subject organises a party and stages a parade. Who is being rejoiced in this parade? Theodorico Bezerra and his immense ownership. And by ownership I mean cattle, land, harvest and the very villagers on his farm. Blinded by the spotlight, Theodorico goes forth, in typical Northeastern clothes. Much music and fanfare accompany him.

What sets these two sequences apart? The intimism of one, the hysteria of the other? To me, there is almost no difference. In both sequences, Coutinho is interested in forms and representations. If, in one, a sound system is the object of importance – this man’s proudest possession — in the other, what exists is the parade of the forms in all their meaning. The sound space that ‘My Way’ occupies – although it cannot be swapped for any other piece of music, because in the sequence it has a strong, emotional charge – is just a symbol, not far from the fanfare in the Theodorico sequence.

However, the sequence of the parade is an exception. In the rest of Coutinho’s filmography, the open space – and the wide lens – will be used only to curiously underline what was said in the close-up (another aspect of the anti-method I mentioned early: contrary to 99% of filmmakers, Coutinho does not uses close-ups to underline). I return to The Mighty Spirit: in that film, Coutinho used invisible shots, because their function, once someone had told a story of a supernatural type (involving the visit from a saint, payback from some Candomblé entity, etc.), was to make the public see and feel the power of the supernatural – as if Coutinho was patiently awaiting some divine manifestation. The last shot of The Mighty Spirit is one of the most haunting things I ever have seen.

Therefore, Coutinho at this point begins his tendency to make the interviewees’ bodies float in an anti-space. But his anti-space is completely different from other anti-spaces. Where others, out of laziness, search for the (hypothetical) ‘beauty’ of the rack focus, Coutinho concentrates his focus in what is right there: matter. The wrinkles of a face, the mutilation of a hand. The marks on a wall. The photos of a family, an arm reaching out for something in the middle of a dance. Theodorico visits a bungalow where he takes a rest, and it is revealed (actually, he never hides anything from Coutinho) that he keeps women’s photos from pornographic magazines. Coutinho turns his camera to the walls, shows the naked women, while Theodorico describes why he likes the pictures. The curves of the young bodies contrast with his elderly face; there is a contact of matter and form. There is, also, a eulogy of the camera’s distance and the proximity of the zoom: a shy, tactful proximity, like an open arm gesture.

There is little or no haste in Coutinho. Proximity and distance, respect and inquisitiveness. There is aesthetic tranquillity. Time floats along with people, like a street on a sunny day. No judgments are made at all. People are what they are. Matter and fibre are simply there. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody has their own systems: that is the principle.


from Issue 5: Shows


© Victor Bruno and LOLA July 2014.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.