Does Brazil need a film that openly advocates armed confrontation against its far-right government? That’s the first question that needs to be asked when discussing “Marighella,” actor Wagner Moura’s directorial debut focused on the final year in the life of left-wing insurrectionist Carlos Marighella during Brazil’s ruthless military dictatorship. For whatever one might think of the film’s merits as an adrenaline-filled shoot-‘em-up hagiographic biopic of a resistance-fighter/terrorist, the penultimate scene, in which a woman picks up a machine gun and looks directly at the camera, is unambiguous in its deeply troubling message. If there were doubts, Moura (“Elite Squad,” “Narcos”) doesn’t lose any opportunity to compare the current administration to its ideologically similar predecessor from the 1960s, thereby forcing viewers to judge the motivations of a film whose irresponsibility surpasses even its superficiality.
Of course the movie’s genesis began long before the fascist-leaning Jair Bolsonaro took office as president this year, but it’s disingenuous to claim that absolves the film, written by Moura and Felipe Braga, of eagerly playing up parallels in the two regimes. Although local distributors are already on board, there’s talk that the government may try to prevent release of the movie, which would gum up Globo TV’s plan to air a longer version divided into four parts once theatrical has run its course. Whatever the outcome, “Marighella” will become a lightning rod for debate within Brazil and among expat communities. Prospects for any kind of international release are uncertain, though Fernando Meirelles’ involvement as associate producer could add traction.
Marighella had been a Marxist activist clamoring for revolution long before the 1964 coup d’état ushered in 20 years of brutal dictatorship in Brazil. The film starts with a daring train robbery in 1968, when Marighella (Seu Jorge) and his band steal weapons while assuring passengers, Robin Hood style, that they’re defenders of the people. Opening with this sort of driving action sequence allows Moura to kick off the movie with a bang — our hero as warrior — while following things up with a flashback in which Marighella shows his tender side as caring parent of Carlinhos, safely isolated in Bahia from his father’s activities.
This duality becomes the film’s guiding blueprint, presenting Marighella as both a righteous guerilla fighter and a loving dad who turns to violence in order to make Brazil a better place for his child. There’s even something superhuman (and more than a little Jesus-like) about the man: Captured outside a cinema, he survives being pumped full of more lead than it would take to finish off Rasputin. His nemesis is chief inspector Lúcio (Bruno Gagliasso), a single-minded, sadistic enforcer of the dictatorship’s authority, who can’t bear to be humiliated by Marighella’s successes.
The American government makes an appearance in the form of a couple of crass CIA operatives in Brazil urging the military to use whatever means necessary to eliminate the communist threat. News of the guerilla cell’s campaign of robbery and assassination in the name of resistance and revolution isn’t getting out to the people, so Marighella and his band devise a way to take the airwaves, further infuriating Lúcio and causing the noose to tighten around everyone’s neck. By the time Bella (Bella Camero) is seen in that penultimate shot challenging the audience with her gaze to take up arms, most everyone has been tortured and/or killed, yet the dream of resistance lives on.
As if that message weren’t clear enough, the mantra “an eye for an eye” runs throughout the film, condoning tit-for-tat violence. Brazil’s dictatorship was a horrendous chapter in the nation’s history, its brutality second to none, yet the question must be raised whether kidnapping and murder was an effective response to the regime. “Marighella” isn’t interested in weighing ethics, preferring a testosterone-charged portrait of armed insurrection as a glorious pathway to martyrdom. Nonviolent resistance? Don’t even mention it.
At least Jorge gets to present two sides to Marighella — determined warrior and affectionate comrade — allowing the actor to make the most of his considerable screen presence. Yet Bruno Gagliasso’s Lúcio isn’t even given implied dimensionality, played in a one-note fury as predictable as it is ineffective. There’s just one stand-out moment when a genuine unforced emotion graces the screen; that’s when Marighella surprises his marginalized wife Clara (Adriana Esteves) at night on the street. She looks up into his eyes, her face registering love, sadness and the knowledge that he’s not long for this world. It’s a beautiful, subtle flash of profundity, expertly played by Esteves, but over and forgotten in a blink. Muscular camerawork by Adrian Teijido, combined with Lucas Gonzaga’s edgy editing, furthers the violence-as-heroics message.