MARIGHELLA – The political guerrilla, Carlos Marighella, against the military dictatorship in Brazil

MARIGHELLA, the film debut of Wagner Moura, ‘Out of Competition’ at the last Berlinale, is a political action movie and, perhaps, this is its real limitation. In an attempt to ring the alarm bells on the risks of new authoritarian direction that the election of Jair Bolsonaro as President of Brazil, embodies, in his debut behind the camera, Wagner Moura, has fabricated a film that remains on the surface of the historical context of the events that have dramatically marked the history and identity of the country.

Brazil 1964. A coup toppled the legitimately elected government of João Goulart, about to nationalize the petroleum companies. On 15 April 1964, Marshal Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco became President of Brazil. The military dictatorship was to last 21 years, from 1964 to 1985, with the approval, and under the protection, of the United States, the true originators of South American political events during those years. Very quickly, resistance to the military oppression turned into an armed struggle. With the face and heart of Carlos Marighella, writer, politician and Marxist revolutionary.

Moura’s film is set in the early years of the military regime, between 1964 and 1968, and in the last years of Marighella’s life. The years when, all over South America – from Uruguay to Argentina, from Chile to Mexico – after the “revolutionary struggles” of the fifties, there spread the “Communist threat” and then the consequent actions taken by the United States, under the CIA, involving coups, military dictatorships, purges and torture. Born in Bahia of an Afro-Brazilian mother and Italian father, Carlos Marighella entered the Brazilian Communist Party in the thirties. After leaving it in 1961, he set up an autonomous guerrilla movement, Acao Libertadora Nacional, an organization with roots in university student movements committed to radicalizing the opposition to the dictatorship by taking up arms. His Mini Manual of the Urban Guerrilla was to become the Bible of young guerrillas all over South America.

The film opens in San Paolo with the first of a long series of action scenes. The robbery of a train carrying weapons. “We do not want to harm anybody” – reassures Marighella – “These arms are to liberate the people of Brazil”. Marighella being flushed out and arrested in a cinema. On his release from prison, he distanced himself from the party line, accused of being too cautious. Between the party and guerrilla, Marighella chose the latter.

“A guerrilla exists to shoot”.

The armed struggle against the state, the urban guerrillas, robberies, kidnappings, killings – the new strategy the resistance movements (Montoneros in Argentina, Tupamaros in Uruguay). However, there is something very human in Marighella. Almost paternal in his relationship with his young companions, devoted to his wife and little Carlitos, hidden away safely in Bahia Salvador, and to whom he left, in the likelihood of never seeing him again, two recorded tapes of his personal and political bequest. Marighella was a controversial figure, and there is no doubt that Wagner Moura, in recounting the last 18 months of the Marxist fighter’s life, chose a hagiographic style – an untiring hero, a noble fighter for the freedom of Brazilians against the neo-Fascists in power.

There are some final scenes when Marighella, aware of no escape, asks his closest comrades to step back, to return home, to their families, to their lives, as if, for all the violence over the years, he hadn’t carried any responsibility, politically or morally, as if it were possible to convince a dictatorship to leave its “dirty work” half finished.


However, the ideals of the struggle never reached the people, the censure of Marighella’s thinking and actions is total. Only at the end (of the film and his life) the guerrillas, by now disseminated, take over a radio station denouncing the tortures taking place, and the national press, thanks to his old friend Jorge, editor of the local newspaper, Tribuna do Sudeste, publishes (paying with his life), the movement’s manifesto, of which there emerge internal contradictions in many of the film’s dialogues.

However, the lack of the Brazilian population’s support cannot only be ascribed to the censorship, even if very apt in isolating the resistance. People were not convinced of the need for a revolt, and this is the most awkward issue that Moura’s film raises, calling to account the disturbing Brazil of today, “the worst period of the dictatorship”, as the director defines it. The fabric of Brazilian society ripped away more than fifty years ago, never mended. Brazil has simply set its past aside, masticating but never metabolizing it. For years, the military used, with impunity, violence in its most insidious form – torture.

The atrocities of the military dictatorship in Brazil, less known, but no less brutal than its neighboring countries, have never been the subject of public debate nor a trial, judicial or historical. Those responsible have remained unpunished. From Cardoso to Inacio Lula da Silva, there has been no political willingness to investigate the “twenty years”, to create an agreed upon national narration to finally put the past to rest for always. The amnesty law approved in 1979 bartered the freedom of the political opponents with the impunity of those responsible for the crimes committed during the dictatorship. The search for a political compromise prevailed. Neither Lula da Silva nor Dilma Rouseff (she herself a victim of torture) disputed it. No one wanted to oppose the military, for pragmatic reasons or the fear of reawakening the stirrings and tendencies never completely buried.

The tempo of the film slowly picks up as the chords around Marighella begin to tighten, following the brutal execution of an American diplomat killed before the eyes of his child, and the kidnapping of the American Ambassador, Charles Elbrick (released after 3 days in exchange for 15 political prisoners). Carlos Marighella becomes the number one national enemy against whom the secret police and the CIA move. The latter impatient to provide their ally with methods and men to uproot the “Communist terrorism”. Brazil, for its part, shows itself to be ready to accept American help.

“Don’t call him a revolutionary, fighter, guerrilla. He’s a terrorist. Does he want fame? We will give it to him”, the head inspector, Lucio, promises, merciless in embarking on a sadistic man hunt, making use of the best weapons, men and tools of repression of the South American military dictatorships. “Terrorist”, “Assassin”. Posters with the Afro-Brazilian’s face put up all over the country. Carlos Marighella escapes torture. His body is riddled with bullets inside a car. He was not armed when he was surrounded by Inspector Lucio’s men. Yet, in Moura’s reconstruction, a gun is placed in his hand.

An action film, a biopic, MARIGHELLA lacks the political depth that the complexity of the issue deserves. MARIGHELLA extols Marighella, while his political thinking, the metamorphosis from a national parliamentarian to a revolutionary guerrilla, his strategy for the struggle and his writings, all remain rather vague. Almost a fetish within the sheath of history. Equally irrefutable, is the fact that Moura’s film is very timely. Bolsonaro, who, as noted, declared on more than one occasion, before and after the elections, that the experience of the military dictatorship and its use of torture were warranted, strongly criticizing the film. “Marighella was a terrorist and not a hero”.

Wagner Moura tells of having faced many difficulties in finding the money to finance his film within the national film industry and, even more so, regarding its distribution in Brazil, where it’s not known if and when it will be released. The censorship, now, just as in the past, has begun to ring alarm bells once again.

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