Revolutionary biopic’s success a sign of Brazil’s coarsening debate

São Paulo Letter: Bolsonaro attempted to prevent Marighella reaching cinemas

Among the texts republican prisoners used to pore over while locked up in Long Kesh was the Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. Published in 1969, this short book made the international reputation of its Brazilian author Carlos Marighella.

His how-to guide for revolutionaries appeared just when radical left and left-nationalist groups were starting to cause havoc in cities across much of the western world. But the slide into obsolescence of the old-fashioned urban guerrilla method of the 1960s and 1970s, now largely replaced by those of self-immolating jihadis, has meant in recent decades Marighella – shot dead by police six months after his book appeared – was in the process of being forgotten by history, even in his native Brazil.

That started to change when a major biography by journalist Mário Magalhães was published in 2012. It had already run through multiple editions even before the release a few weeks ago of Marighella, a biopic that is the most watched film in Brazilian cinemas since the pandemic started.

For many Brazilians celebrating the film has become an act of defiance against a president nostalgic for the military dictatorship Marighella fought against

This success is something of a surprise. Despite boasting a heavyweight cast under the direction of Wagner Moura – probably best known to international audiences for his brilliant brooding interpretation of Pablo Escobar in Narcos – its 2½ hours often drag. The characters are hostages of a script that lurches between melodrama and agitprop. Moura said he wanted them to come alive on the screen or otherwise his film risked being a "political pamphlet". Yet that is what it felt like to this viewer at least.


But it also probably helps explain its box office success. Though the film has been in the works since 2013, a sinister serendipity sees it finally go on general release with Brazil's presidency occupied by the far-right would-be authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro. Whatever its artistic merits, Marighella's success should be heralded because Bolsonaro's administration worked to prevent it reaching cinema screens in another blatant example of its ideological and cultural intolerance.

For many Brazilians celebrating the film has become an act of defiance against a president nostalgic for the military dictatorship Marighella fought against and who publicly idolises its most notorious torturers, whose methods are unsparingly recreated on screen by Moura.

Marighella is nevertheless a curious hero for the times. Leave aside the ethical question about engaging in armed struggle. Brazil’s revolutionaries took up arms against a dictatorial regime after it started employing state terror following its overthrow of democracy in 1964.

It was just the decision to do so proved to be a total failure, as predicted by Marighella's comrades in the Brazilian Communist Party. Having a much better read on the Brazilian public, they expelled him for advocating a revolution they correctly assessed lacked the necessary conditions for success.

The film gets around this defeat by flying in the face of the historical record and simply affirming towards its end that the revolutionaries were somehow the real victors in their struggle with the military, canonising its hero in a film that while ostensibly about history flees from it lest its thesis be undermined. In reality, more influential in eventually forcing an end to the dictatorship in 1985 were those communists who rejected a futile lurch into armed struggle in favour of building a broad democratic front to resist the dictatorship.

Though their example is much more relevant to Brazil’s current political moment, a recent documentary about Giocondo Dias, an old party comrade of Marighella’s and one of the main articulators of this democratic strategy, received little attention.

Moura’s fetishisation of armed struggle – he totally ignores Marighella’s long political career before its doomed final chapter – is a dubious response to those such as Bolsonaro who not only defend the dictatorship but go out of their way to praise those who operated its torture chambers.

The film can be viewed as further evidence of how Brazil’s culture wars are coarsening public debate. It is probably best viewed as an angry scream against the country’s lurch towards the reactionary right, epitomised during the closing credits when several members of Marighella’s group give a deranged rendition of the national anthem.

The best evidence in support of this interpretation is a thought experiment. Imagine Bolsonaro did achieve his ambition and accelerated Brazil’s drift back towards authoritarianism. Who then really thinks Marighella and his minimanual would offer any sensible guidance on how to respond?