Mordant historical revisionism, ‘Bastards’ turns on members of a black slave battalion during the Paraguay War
PANAMA CITY – Brazil’s Vicente Ferraz (“I Am Cuba, The Siberian Mammoth,” “Road 47”), one of the country’s most singular and ambitious directors, has set as his next film, “Bastards,” about a slave battalion in the Paraguay War.
Fought over 1864-70, so overlapping with the American Civil War, the Paraguay War pitched Paraguay on one side, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, quite possibly encouraged by British authorities, on the other. Always an unequal battle, it was the bloodiest and most Dantesque of modern history, accounting for the death of 95% of Paraguay’s male population, by one account, Ferraz said at the Panama Festival, which he attended for the world premiere of Annie Canavaggio’s “Breaking the Wave,” where he served as cinematographer.
An “intimist historical tale” set in 1869 at the end of the Paraguay War, Ferraz said – and also a mordant act of historical revisionism – “Bastards” begins with Rafael, the bastard son of Rio’s biggest slave trader being sent by his father to Paraguay to find his legitimate half-brother, who has disappeared in battle. Doing so, Rafael hopes to be recognized as one of his father’s heirs.
Lost after the first skirmish, he happens at dawn upon three black soldiers, slaves who had enlisted in return for their freedom. Seasoned soldiers, they protect him, but treat him like a slave. They in turn are being used as cannon fodder. Discovering his father had really dispatching him to his death, Rafael ends up fighting side-by-side with the slaves.
“He assumes his condition as a bastard, sides with the black slaves, the other ‘bastards’ of the story,” Ferraz said.
Conventional history has it that the war hastened the end of slavery in Brazil. In fact, Ferraz argued, Brazil abolished slavery as late as 1888.
The Paraguay War, where 50,000 Brazilian soldiers died, certainly weakened its monarchy, hastening the creation of a Republic in 1889. But monarchists and the army put through that transition, Ferraz argued.
“All political processes are grand pacts made by elites. What defines Brazil most is slavery, the ghetto,” Ferraz concluded.
“Bastards” is currently set up at Tres Mundos Producoes, Ferraz’s Rio-based production house, run with partner Isabel Martinez.
Ferraz is currently writing “Bastards’” screenplay. A low-budget movie, “Bastards” will shoot in Portuguese and Guarani, one of Paraguay’s two official languages, Ferraz said.
Given the strength of Brazilian state aid – in December the government announced Brazil’s Fondo Setorial Audiovisual (FSA) would plough $170 million into film and TV funding in 2014 – much of “Bastards’” finance could be raised in Brazil, per Ferraz. But he would seek to structure “Bastards” as a Brazil-U.S. co-production, he said, casting an American actor in one role as the cultured slave of a monarchist writer who fought in the War, and wrote a chronicle.
Boasting – until the Paraguay War – an emerging industry sector more modern than Brazil’s and Argentina’s, Paraguay suffered irreparable destruction in favor of Argentine, a closer ally of Britain.
At the siege of Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital, which marked the conflict’s last battle, women and children donned false beards to make the enemy think they were fighting adult men.