Crossing the sertões (Backlands) and the Promise of a Miguel Gomes Film

Crossing the sertões (Backlands) and the Promise of a Miguel Gomes Film

Since 2015, Portuguese director Miguel Gomes1 has been working on the film adaptation of the Brazilian literary classic Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands), written by Euclides da Cunha2 in 1902 - a must-see work whose potential has been expanded throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) brings us closer, little by little, to Canudos, a settlement in the interior of the Northeastern Sertão - located about 400 km from Salvador, in the state of Bahia - stage, at the end of the 19th century, of a fratricidal war between its inhabitants and the Brazilian army, which, after being defeated three times, invested a fourth time, with annihilating results. The destruction of the settlement cost the lives of some twenty thousand sertanejos (backwoodsmen) and five thousand soldiers.

Throughout time, the Canudos War has generated a dispute of narratives, some of them conflicting, which come both from representatives of those involved in the struggle and from those who sought to study and update it. Os Sertões is a common referent in all these discussions. Its existence has ensured that the conflict continues to echo today. Walnice Nogueira Galvão, a scholar of Euclides da Cunha’s work, says that the book “is an instigator of Brazilian memory that reminds us of what we have done and continue to do with the majority of our compatriots “3. By proposing its adaptation to the cinema, 125 years after the beginning of the conflict, Miguel Gomes offers us a new opportunity to reflect on the colonial past that concerns us, Portuguese, and Brazilians, and on Brazil today.

The power of this classic of Brazilian literature can impose itself on anyone who challenges it. The Angolan writer Ruy Duarte de Carvalho summed up, in his book Desmedida, crónicas do Brasil, what he found in Os Sertões: “fantasy and critical reason, poetry, and science, a dialectic between discovery and concealment, explanation and whispering, elucidation and illusion, space given to the immeasurable, the unmeasurable, the irrational, the horrific, the overwhelming, majestic, unspeakable, paradoxical. It is a magnetic book, where, ultimately, everything is a miracle.” (p.288) 

This miracle is also due in large part to the transformation that the impact of the violence and injustice exerted on the population of Canudos caused in Euclides da Cunha, which prompted him to write an avenging book, as he himself called it. For Ruy Duarte de Carvalho, the writer “took a turn” in Canudos, which made him “question the system.”(p.284)

This transmutation of the author is one of the great challenges that the cinematographic adaptation of Os Sertões poses, considering that Euclides da Cunha will be “the protagonist of the film, with his narrative presented in an off-screen voice”4. He will be the mediating figure of the diegesis, which offers us the possibility of seeing recreated his “fluctuating states of mind, which go from dramatic rapture to ironic dryness, from fury to fatigue” as identified by Miguel Gomes.5

Despite giving the lead role to Euclides, the director has already revealed that he “will not orthodoxly follow the words of the author” because such an option “would ignore the fact that more than a century has passed since the book was written; that the author of the film cannot be the author of the book; and that soon there will be a Portuguese (several in reality) walking through the Sertão. For Miguel Gomes, the film “will only make sense if its author can add his own impressions (true or illusory) to those of the author of the book.6

The title of the transposition of Os Sertões to cinema will be Selvajaria (savagery). The script is the result of the joint work of Miguel Gomes, Maureen Fazendeiro, Mariana Ricardo, and Telmo Churro. Although the writing of the script is still open, we already know that in the first year, they tried to elaborate a “version that would find equivalents to the mechanisms and structures of the book “7 and that in the following year, they rethought the film narrative in a more radical way. According to the director, “adding elements that were not part of the book, but that came to us through what we observed and experienced during the seven weeks spent in the Sertão. It became a golden rule for us: alter the backlands of 1902 from the Canudos of 2019.”8

What are the sensations or commotions that Miguel Gomes has already experienced in Canudos and will still experience? We cannot ignore his condition as a foreigner, once again a Portuguese, in a territory with deep colonialist marks that, in a way, still affect a large part of the current population living under severe economic and social inequalities. Could it be that, just as the writer was transmuted, we will witness an equivalent process in the director? 

What is certain is that Selvajaria will produce yet another representation of the Northeastern Sertão and its people through an external gaze, which requires judicious alterity. About the dialectic of looks, it is important to remember that Euclides da Cunha, coming from the Brazilian coast, also saw the Sertão from the same perspective, mentioning it at times as another country when compared to São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. On the other hand, more than a century later, “the sertanejos still talk as if Rio, São Paulo, or Brasília were in another world”, as Isabel Lucas refers in her report “Brasil, a crónica dos vencidos”.9

Miguel Gomes will arrive from another city, much farther away, and will take with him the European canons with which he doesn’t deal in a conventional way, as we can see by observing his cinematography and that, surely, he won’t do now in the face of a very rich opportunity to decentralize them.

The Northeastern Sertão, from literary territory to cinematographic landscape

To date, there is no film adaptation of Os Sertões as such, although the universe presented in the book is a reference for Brazilian cinema, which approached it mainly through the Canudense conflict and Antônio Conselheiro, the leader of the faithful gathered in the settlement. For essayist and cinema professor Sheila Schvarzman, who researched the influence of the themes in Os Sertões on Brazilian cinematography, “perhaps the book, being monumental, intimidates Brazilian filmmakers, who entered into it only with a bias”.10

Although Brazilian cinema has many documentaries about Canudos, the same does not happen regarding fiction - there is only the feature film by Brazilian director Sérgio Rezende, Guerra de Canudos (1997) as a cinematographic adaptation of the conflict, and the short film A Matadeira by filmmaker Jorge Furtado, who, in 1994, managed to summarize the main narrative of the book in fifteen minutes.

Video frame recorded by Maureen Fazendeiro in Canudos.Video frame recorded by Maureen Fazendeiro in Canudos.

The epic story of Canudos has become one of the most important identity representations of the cultural and sociological richness of the Northeastern Sertão, a place of arid and desert nature that writers such as João Guimarães Rosa Graciliano Ramos, Ariano Suassuna, and José Lins do Rego transmuted into the literary territory and, later, filmmakers such as Lima Barreto, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Glauber Rocha, and Ruy Guerra into the diegetic landscape of films that became classics of the first phase of the Brazilian Cinema Novo.      

Glauber Rocha - a native of Vitória da Conquista, in the interior of Bahia - understood that the aforementioned writers denounced misery from a social point of view and that, with the power of images, it was up to the cinema to show those conditions of misery from a perspective that would spark political debate. (Silva p.56) Under this premise, the representation of the countryside and its territory, in his films, was built around, almost invariably, the drought, the violence, the suffering of the people, the exacerbated faith, and the deaths and conflicts that resulted. These identity clippings were later too often stereotyped in other films and audiovisual productions over the years.

In the 21st century, other readings, and reinterpretations of the Sertão have emerged, many of them by the hand of filmmakers from the region or surrounding states. Marcelo Gomes, a filmmaker from Pernambuco, directed Cinemas Aspirins and Vultures in 2005, and later, in 2010, I Travel Because I Need to, I Come Back Because I Love You, with Ceará director Karim Aïnouz. Both films enter the countryside, as did, in 2006, the Minas Gerais directors Cao Guimarães and Pablo Lobato in the film Acidente. In 2019, Pernambuco filmmakers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles presented the most recent cinematic update of the sertanejo imaginary in the consecrated Bacurau.

In the text “Os Sertões do Cinema, Sheila Schvarzman speaks of “a new cinematographic Sertão” without “all the clichés that the South is used to receiving and creating about it. This new look, produced from the inside, does not try to value the sertanejo and his world, nor focus on the misery produced by the outside world (the South, the foreigner, imperialism…”. It is a Sertão, with its own voice, “where the old rudeness, machismo, even primitivism still coexists, with the post-modern varnish of motorcycles and cell phones…”11

Movies and books talk about the various backlands, usually summarized in the definition of the Northeastern Sertão. This plurality results from its vast territory, which extends across the Brazilian states of Alagoas, Bahia, Ceará, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Piauí, Rio Grande do Norte, and Sergipe. In the book, Grande Sertão:Veredas by Guimarães Rosa, Riobaldo, the protagonist, a hero who wanders through the Blacklands, left us some of the most beautiful definitions made about a territory that is difficult to synthesize: “The Sertão is the size of the world” (Rosa, p.73) “Sertão is this: you push back, but suddenly it comes back around you from the sides (…) The Sertão is without a place” (Rosa, p.354).

Land of colonels and other legacies of colonialism

Historically, the name Sertão (wilderness) is associated with this idea of a non-place and is generally attributed to vast and wild spaces, with few population settlements and no major roads to civilization. The name refers to the colonial era and to the unknown, uncharted areas of Brazil, considered to be zones to be cleared. In this sense, the use of this geographical term carries an implicit appropriation intention that, over time, has been objectified in various ways. 

In these territories, the colonizing waves tended to develop a process of transformation that sought the extinction of the Sertão as such, through its integration and occupation. “First was the great concessions of sesmarias (sesmarias law), defining the most durable feature of our narrow feudalism” (Cunha, 2000 p.83 ) writes Euclides in Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands), where he also adds that the region was the “theater of the missions”, “classic pastoralist land, the only one compatible with the economic and social situation of the colony (…) The bandeirante (slavers, explorers, adventurers, and fortune hunters in early Colonial Brazil), the Jesuit, and the cowboy (…), all on the same shores, battled for gold or slaves, uncovered unbridled lands that were not populated and left perhaps more deserted…” (p.75)

Euclides da Cunha also reports that the “countryside villages were formed from old Indian villages, snatched in 1758 from the priests’ power by Pombal’s severe policy”.12 They were, with rare exceptions, isolated villages, forgotten, poor, and poorly supplied. The wealth was concentrated in a few farms, generally belonging to the colonels, and landowners, where the rural production was concentrated, the fruit of the labor force of the poorest people: mestizos, former slaves, and indigenous people. The latter, according to Euclides wrote, were incorporated into national life by the “calculated solicitude of the Jesuit and the rare abnegation of the capuchins and franciscans.” (p.81)

In post-monarchy Brazil13 the large landowners maintained a dominant power in the national political sphere. The first Brazilian Republic, established in 1889, became known as the Old Republic, it was the Republic of the Colonels or the Republic of the Oligarchs, because as described in Os Sertões, the old colonial aggregate remained unchanged, which frustrated the expectations of those who longed to free themselves from Coronelism, a colonialist heritage very present in the Northeastern Sertão.

The new (Old) Republic brought, however, sketches of modernization, such as the arrival of the telegraph to the country’s interior, and new policies, some of them controversial such as the separation of State and Religion, the authorization of civil marriage and the expansion of tax collection. These measures were especially poorly received in the northeastern interior, where the population was mostly poor and religious. The resistance to these measures was an essential contribution to the Canudos War to happen.

 In view of this historical evolution, it is evident that Guimarães Rosa, in his Grande Sertão: Veredas says, once again through the voice of Riobaldo, that “in the Sertão is where those who are the strong rule, with their cunning…”(Rosa p.19). The incursions into the caatingas, cerrados, forests, and fields, taking different forms, definitions, and objectives, persisted, oblivious to the native populations, environmental diversity, and cultural wealth. Did Miguel Gomes observe this dynamic in today’s Canudos? What is “the apparently unchanging medieval reality “14 that he says he found during his visits to the territory? What is his perspective on the colonist heritage described in Os Sertões?

The beato Sebastião a character in the film  'Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol' Tempo Glauber archiveThe beato Sebastião a character in the film 'Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol' Tempo Glauber archive

Sebastianism in the land of messianic hopes

The “unknown”, “harsh”, and “inhospitable” land that Euclides describes in the first chapters of Os Sertões without much sparing, was also for Guimarães Rosa’s Riobaldo, a territory where “living is very dangerous”. Drought, exploitation, violence, and poverty have persisted cyclically for centuries. Maybe that is why “the Sertão is where the thought of the people is stronger than the power of the place” - still in Riobaldo’s words (Rosa p.25). If we understand this thought as spirituality, the sertanejo reveals himself to be especially mystical: beliefs, messianic hopes, and prophecies are possibilities for redemption and liberation.
Nurturing faith and congregating the faithful into groups of followers, all sorts of leaders emerged in the Sertão, often transmuting themselves in the process: from counselors to preachers, from priests to messiahs, from blessed to saints, all combinations were possible. When congregations took on contestations in political dimensions, they quickly came to be seen as a threat to the established order. For the authorities and representatives of official Catholicism, the religious leader then became an impostor, revolutionary, or bandit. The police or the army oversaw reducing the rebels - leader, and followers.
One of the necessary references to understand the messianic force in the Sertão - as elsewhere in Brazil - is another colonial heritage: Sebastianism. Euclides da Cunha states that Sebastianism persisted, at the end of the 19th century, in “a singularly impressive way, in the backlands of the north”. (p.110) The peninsular heritage was “extinguished on the seashore by the modifying influx of other beliefs and other races, in the Sertão it remained intact.” The populations that carried it inland, “came full of that fierce mysticism in which religious fervor reverberated to the strong cadence of the inquisitorial fires, plowing intensely in the Peninsula.” (p.109)
The dissemination of this mysticism was harshly criticized by Euclides, who described the “sertanejo” as a “primitive being carried away by the most absurd superstitions” and by “odd prophecies of insane messiahs” (pp. 108-109), although later in his book he recognizes in the Northeastern Sertão - in one of its many contradictions or transmutations - a framework of religiosity with very interesting aspects.
Some of the groupings of believers around a religious leader reached the level of apocalyptic and sacrificial fanaticism, which Euclides da Cunha classified as “brutal aberrations”. He was referring to the Sebastião manifestations that became known as the “Tragedy of the Rodeador”, in 1820, and that of “Pedra Bonita”, in 1837.15 Both ended up being placated by army interventions that caused hundreds of deaths, which were added to those resulting from rituals that induced human sacrifices. Both anticipated what was to be the great disaster of the War of Canudos.

These movements were crucial to the way the government of the Republic, the intellectuals, and journalists of the time framed the settlement of Antônio Conselheiro, whom they accused of instigating this type of fanaticism. Seen from the outside, the cult of the saint-king in the Sertão represented an atavism associated with monarchy and absolutism, and quickly configured itself as a political threat, first to the country’s Independence and then to the Republic. The newspaper O Jacobino, from Rio de Janeiro, maintained until 1897, the thesis that in Canudos there was a Sebastian gathering, therefore, of restorationist inspiration and product of the Portuguese superstitious heritage. However, we must bear in mind that many of these considerations served the political game of the time, and were not always faithful to the facts.
However, over the years, the various studies carried out on the essence of the Canudos settlement never proved its association with Sebastianism. The debate is still alive, with a resonant contribution by Agostinho da Silva16 who referred to Canudos as “the last Sebastian revolt”.
Today Sebastianism is part of the backland’s imagination. It has been attenuated but remains alive in the Brazilian identity as a messianic myth associated with a sociopolitical ideal. In Glauber Rocha’s 1964 film Deus e o Diabo na Terra (God and Devil on Earth), the beato who congregates the faithful, authoritarian leader or metaphysical rebel according to the perspective, is called Sebastião, and some of the words of his sermons are those of Antônio Conselheiro, author of the prophecy that “the hinterland will become a beach and the beach will become hinterland” as transcribed by Euclides in Os Sertões (p.132 ), and that became popular as “the Sertão will become the sea and the sea will become the Sertão”.

Antônio Conselheiro, messiah or revolutionary?

In Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands), several chapters deal with the life of Antônio Conselheiro. In the beginning, Euclides da Cunha positions him as a “living document of atavism” and ironizes: “the unfortunate man destined for the solicitude of physicians, came, impelled by a superior power, to beat against a civilization, going to History as he might have gone to the hospice.” The “great man inside out” was, however, a “natural representative of the milieu in which he was born” (pp.116-119), in the view of Euclides, who did not fail to recognize the force of his preaching and the power to attract and regiment the faithful, who followed him in his wanderings through backwoods lands until he settled in the settlement of Canudos.
The young Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel (later Antônio Conselheiro) had a rigorous education with the purpose of following an ecclesiastic career. Before dedicating himself to the pilgrimage, he had several professions in various towns or villages - from a clerk, clerk of the Justice of the Peace, and Solicitor in the Forum. Euclides points to these changes as a “slide into open vagrancy” (p. 124) which led him, after being abandoned by his companion, to a “formidable fall” that made him “struck with shame to seek the backwoods, unknown places, where they did not know his name; the shelter of absolute obscurity.” (p.125)
It is certain that at the beginning of his erratic wanderings, around 1860, no one knew his name, but they soon attributed him one, the one with which he went down in history, that of Conselheiro (Counselor), for having become “in a short time the unconditional arbiter of all disagreements or quarrels, the favorite counselor in all decisions.” (p.126)

 The evangelizing counselor was not initially opposed by the Church, which encouraged the existence of lay preachers who would make Catholicism reach where it had not yet reached if they respected the injunction not to celebrate masses or sacraments. Limitations that this preacher quickly ignored, going beyond his mission, and purifying his transformation into a messianic leader. His strength began to gather groups of the unfortunate, as he himself defined them, who joined him in pilgrimage mode, desperately fleeing from precarious lives. Wherever he went, Conselheiro summoned the faithful to build or rebuild cemeteries and churches, some of which are still standing today. In this way, he began to challenge the representatives of the Church and earned their distrust.
The demonization of Conselheiro began with the official accounts that were published at the time, expanded in a fanciful way by the main newspapers, at the orders of certain representatives of the Church and influential politicians. The dishonesty of some of these descriptions and connections - about Conselheiro and, later, about the War of Canudos - has parallels in what we know today as fake news, which, according to Walnice Nogueira Galvão, was a common practice of the press in the late 19th century.

Antônio Conselheiro by himself. 2018 EditionAntônio Conselheiro by himself. 2018 Edition

For much of the 20th century, the historical figure of Antônio Conselheiro continued to be constructed through the voice of the victors. His emerges, indirectly, through the study and publication of his manuscripts Apontamentos dos preceitos da Divina Lei de Nosso Senhor Jesus Christo para a salvação dos homens of 1895 and Tempestades que se levantam no Coração de Maria of 1897. The manuscripts were discovered after the end of the Canudos War, and it is not known that Euclides was aware of their existence at the time of the publication of Os Sertões.

The documents, which are now part of the archives of the Federal University of Bahia, have been scarcely studied. Noteworthy, however, are the recent works developed by Walnice Nogueira Galvão, Fernando da Rocha Peres17, Ataliba Nogueira18, and Pedro Lima Vasconcellos19.
Contradicting Euclides’ description, mimicked throughout the 20th century, some of these researchers have identified in the manuscript’s characteristics of a coherent discourse, with a revolutionary force that may also have driven the congregation of his faithful. These documents testify that the preacher considered the experiences lived by the sertanejos, and defended a form of a community organization that challenged the colonialist practices that were still in force. For Ariano Suassuna, it was a “Pre-Socialism that a prophetic Conselheiro established as the center and support point of Canudos’ social organization “20.

Today, however, there is still no consensus on the figure of Conselheiro. The historical revision of his personality, as well as his purposes, continues to be discussed by scholars and intellectuals. Miguel Gomes referred to this dispute, at the International Literary Festival of Paraty (2019), in the edition dedicated to Euclides da Cunha: “In talking to people, I realized that there is almost a division between Conselheiristas and Euclidianos, and they are not very friendly with each other.”
Returning to the Apontamentos, Antônio Conselheiro left nothing on record that pointed to political ambitions to defeat the Republic which, according to him, did not meet the demands of the poor population and was in opposition to the monarchical regime - divine in his view. Conselheiro was especially opposed to tax increases, civil marriage, and the separation of Church and State measures that he criticized - openly - in his sermons.
Euclides da Cunha also puts the regime transition into perspective as an excluding change: “Living four hundred years on the vast coast, where reflections of civilized life hovered, we suddenly had, as an unexpected inheritance, the Republic. We rose, suddenly, swept up in the flow of modern ideals, leaving a third of our people in the centuries-old penumbra in which they lie at the heart of the country” (p. 157). This is a surprising observation for the staunch republican that Euclides was, before his trip to Canudos, and it shows how the war dealt a heavy blow to his confidence in the new regime.
A considerable number of those “left in the shadows” followed Antônio Conselheiro to Canudos in 1893. The settlement grew so fast that it left some of the region’s villages uninhabited, becoming in four years the second largest community in the Sertão of Bahia. Such movement and popularity initially channeled the attention of regional elites and authorities, but soon became a national issue and was seen as a threat to the Republic, which it was urgent to destroy.

Canudos, the Belo Monte (Beautiful Mountain) 

Based on the analysis of the Apontamentos of Antônio Conselheiro, Pedro Lima Vasconcellos defends that Canudos was built so that “it would embody principles and values that would make possible the eternal salvation so longed for, the attention to the poorest and most abandoned, the support to the destitute people - (all) nourished by prayers and rules. “21 The settlement, which its inhabitants called Belo Monte, became a kind of promised land, where a more solidary organization would allow a better life, without taxes, with communal lands and production shared among all.
But for Euclides, the village had nothing of Belo Monte, “without the revealing whiteness of its whitewashed walls and plastered roofs, it was invisible from a distance. It was confused with the ground itself”. (p.143) In this description, the writer exposes, in a way, the condition of invisibility that was imposed on the settlement and its inhabitants, as well as his racist prejudices. What he saw or did not see in the place served him to immediately associate it with a “decrepitude of the race.” (p.142): “Decapitated by its prestige, the population had, engraved, all the conditions of the lower social stage.” (p.145)
And who was this population? According to Euclides, people of “all ages, all types, and colors. Describing the women, he pointed out that “the battered grenadines of the black Creole women; the straight, hard hair of the cabalas; the scandalous truffles of the African women; the brown and blond locks of the white women, without a ribbon, a hairpin, a flower or a headdress… “The men, on the other hand, showed “identical contrasts, rough and strong cowboys, exchanging, like fallen heroes, the beautiful leather armor for the cheap uniform of American denim (…) and less numerous, but more prominent, gandeiros of all shades, recidivists of all crimes. ” (p.153)
But this place, so cruelly described, also brought about conversions in Euclides da Cunha who, as he gets closer to their reality and witnesses the massacre perpetrated by the military, begins to understand the mystical and religious dimension of the Canudos inhabitants, recognizes their social condition of excluded people and dismisses the political threat to the Republic. Canudos ceases to be a speculative territory and configures itself through the design of Belo Monte.
Video frame recorded by Maureen Fazendeiro in CanudosVideo frame recorded by Maureen Fazendeiro in Canudos

The conversion of Euclides da Cunha makes him see other perspectives

In 1897, when Euclides da Cunha went to Canudos as a war correspondent for the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, he was still a young engineer, a military graduate of the Military School of Rio de Janeiro, with Jacobin influence, a follower of the ideals of the French Revolution, apologist for the Brazilian Republic. Ariano Suassuna wrote about this: “Euclides da Cunha - deformed by the Rua do Ouvidor and the Palace, which in his time was the Catete Palace as today is the Alvorada Palace - left São Paulo for the Northeast as a crusader for the positivist Republic and for the city, which then wanted to be French as today caricaturedly wants to be American. He left to help destroy that which, for him, was a menace, barbarism and backwoods fanaticism - and which, in fact, was the rough outline of our greatness, our justice, our future singular truth of nationhood”.22
But in his brief passage through the war scene, Euclides knew the force of the barbarity inflicted on the population of Canudos by Republican troops, in a victory that was, as he wrote, a triumph that disgusted, and embarrassed. (p.461) He left there, therefore, with the certainty that it was a crime of nationality. In his reflection on the government’s posture towards the events, Euclides indicates in his book that the principles of civilization that justified it “were European and not Brazilian”.
Throughout the book and his trip to Canudos, the writer’s outlook is transmuted, and his view of the other, the sertanejo, is broadened. He calls him brother/patriot and recognizes his legitimate values, leveraging an embryonic approach to what would become the Brazilian identity. “That rude society misunderstood and forgotten, was the vigorous core of our nationality.” (p.79) wrote Euclides formulating the great legacy left in Os Sertões (Rebellion in the The Backlands), which paved the way, in the 20th century, for the construction of a more plural perspective on Brazil, starting from its sociocultural singularities.

Observing the sertanejos, on the other side of the trench, Euclides da Cunha recognizes that they inverted the entire psychology of war: they were hardened by setbacks, made robust by hunger, stiffened by defeat”. (p.454). Without beating around the bush, he left written that the sertanejo is, first, “a strong man”. “They change, in a slow metamorphosis…”(p.34)
How to film this today? Miguel Gomes recognizes that this is his main challenge: “Is he [the sertanejo] today as he was described a hundred years ago? Sometimes I think so; sometimes I think not.”23 Independently of the metamorphoses operated, Miguel Gomes has already announced that the local inhabitants will be the protagonists of Selvajaria. “The film will not have professional actors, the cast will be formed by the population of Canudos “20, which may offer the locals the possibility of self-representation. 

In statements to BUALA, the director also pointed out the intention to propose to the population of Canudos to interpret the participants on both sides of the war, that is, the sertanejos conselheiristas and the army troops. Regarding the representation of the conflict, we already knew that Miguel Gomes intends to establish “a close collaboration with the descendants of those who lived through the war “24 and that the battle scenes should occupy approximately twenty minutes of the film, following the “comic-burlesque dimension that the book offers” and that particularly interests him25.

The war front

In the several chapters of Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) dedicated to the War of Canudos, Euclides gives a detailed account of the advances and retreats of the army troops and the counterattacks of the sertanejos. The latter was described in a tone of realism-fantasticism, which highlights how intangible the conselheiristas were to the government troops: “the jagunço began to appear as an entity apart, teratological and monstrous, half man and half gecko; violating biological laws, in stamping out inconceivable resistance; hurling himself, never seen, intangible, upon the adversary; slithering, invisible, through the caatinga, like snakes, slithering or tumbling over deep cliffs, like a specter; lighter than the rifle he dragged; and thin, dry, fantastic, diluting himself into a goblin, weighing less than a child, his tanned skin glued over his bones, rough like the epidermis of mummies…” (p.375)
These sophisticated guerrilla tactics disconcerted the government troops, who upon arriving in the Northeastern Sertão were faced with a hostile environment and, according to Euclides, experienced a violent transition. “They found themselves in a strange land. Other habits. Other pictures. Other people. Even another language, articulated in original picturesque slang. The exact feeling of going to a foreign war invaded them. The complete separation dilated the geographical distance; it created the nostalgic feeling of long distance from the homeland.” (pp.396-397)
Many of the soldiers deserted, those who remained withdrew, little by little, desolate in painful conditions, wounded. On their way back they found, as Euclides recorded, “pages of hellish protest written on the walls of the houses where they passed (…), they left on them, in charcoal scratches, a reflection of hardships (…) those rough chroniclers, left there, indelible, the real outline of the greatest scandal of our history….” (p. 402)
In the last phase of the struggle, after three defeated expeditions, the Republic reacts in desperation, attacked its brio, fearing that the conflict will spread to the rest of the country, and summons troops “from all points, from the far north and the far south, from Rio Grande to Amazonas…” (p. 189). “The Republic was in danger; the Republic had to be saved. This was the dominant cry over the general shaking” (p. 275) writes Euclides as he introduces the fourth military expedition that advances toward Canudos in late June 1897 to end a siege that had already lasted (except for brief periods of high fire) since November 1896.
During those months of conflict, “nonsensical versions and heroic lies” (p.279) as well as outdated and nationalistic information circulated in the main newspapers. Although the Canudos War had, for the first time, on-the-spot reporters and regularly updated news - thanks to the recent installation of the telegraph - this did not guarantee that a reliable account of events prevailed.
Narratives justifying the military defeats were disseminated. The theory that the sertanejos did not act in isolation was a war front from which they themselves could not defend themselves. It was insinuated that Conselheiro would be supported by local bosses who provided him with resources and that the sertanejos were an “educated, disciplined army.” (p. 279) The idea that war was the confirmation of the monarchists’ strength became widespread. With or without allies, the “sertanejos” counted on organic protection, which Euclides defined very precisely: “all of nature protects the “sertanejo”, it carves him as an Anteu, indomitable. It is a bronzed Titan making the march of armies falter.” (p. 187)
The last survivors of Canudos taken prisoner. Photo by Flávio de Barros (1897). The most famous photograph that Flávio de Barros took during the last days of the War of Canudos (September/October 1897) and whose originals are preserved in the Historical Archives of the Museum of the Republic, in Rio de Janeiro. The Canudos War was the first major internal conflict in the country recorded through the lens of a camera.
The last survivors of Canudos taken prisoner. Photo by Flávio de Barros (1897). The most famous photograph that Flávio de Barros took during the last days of the War of Canudos (September/October 1897) and whose originals are preserved in the Historical Archives of the Museum of the Republic, in Rio de Janeiro. The Canudos War was the first major internal conflict in the country recorded through the lens of a camera.

In the final reckoning, the army busied itself in beheading large numbers of prisoners on whom “they invariably imposed upon the victim a viva to the republic, which was seldom satisfied. It was the prologue of an invariable cruel scene.” (p. 430) One of the historical photos by Flávio de Barros, author of the only known images of the war, testifies to the state of the prisoners who survived. According to Euclides, they were “Three hundred women and children and half a dozen useless old men” (p. 461) who finally abandoned the camp that had grown to 25,000 inhabitants.
Antônio Conselheiro, who had died on August 22, was dug up. His head was cut off and taken to Bahia so that it could be studied, in the expectation that science would answer unfathomable questions. On September 10, the army set fire to Canudos. The Republic was consolidated, and the settlement was decimated.
At the end of his avenging book, Euclides recognizes the “fragility of the human word” to describe the details of the violence experienced and asks: “to whom do we owe precious clarifications under this dark phase of our history?” (p. 456) “Canudos had very appropriately, in a circle, a fence of mountains. It was a parenthesis, it was a hiatus. It was a vacuum. It did not exist. Once that cordon of mountains was crossed, no one sinned anymore.” (p. 435) “Moreover, there was no fear of the tremendous judgment of the future. History would not go that far. “And there, surely, the correction of the constituted powers would not arrive.” (p.434)
Over the ruins of Belo Monte a new Canudos was rebuilt, starting in 1909, which attracted some survivors of the war, but, sixty years later, the town was submerged by the Cocorobó dam, ordered built in the 1940s by President Getúlio Vargas. The traces of the historical facts were covered by water, thus preventing it from becoming a pilgrimage destination. Nearby, 20 km away, the third Canudos was built, which has existed since 1985. Miguel Gomes plans to build in 2023, with the region’s inhabitants, a fourth Canudos, the one that will be the setting for Selvajaria.
1. Director, among other films, of That Dear August (2008), Taboo (2012) and A Thousand and One Nights (2015). In 2021, he released Diaries of Otsoga co-directed with Maureen Fazendeiro. The shooting of the adaptation of Os Sertões was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The film’s budget was estimated in 2019 to be around five million euros. The film will be financed mainly by European public and private institutions. Selvajaria received the Campari Award at the 2020 Locarno Film Festival, awarded as part of The Films After Tomorrow program, which was intended to support productions that were suspended by the pandemic, thus contributing to their completion. In 2020, it also received support from Cineuropa’s cultural fund, Eurimagens. The production will be of O Som e a Fúria in co-production with RT Features (Brazil), and other production companies from France, Germany and Mexico. The film will be shot in 35 mm and in color.
2. Euclides da Cunha, writer, and journalist, born in Rio de Janeiro, lived from 1866 to 1909. He entered the War College and managed to become first lieutenant and bachelor in mathematics, Physical, and Natural Sciences. He was elected to the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1903.
3. In the text “Os Sertões para estrangeiros” - taken from the book Gatos de outro saco, by Walnice Nogueira Galvão. São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1981. W.N. Galvão is a professor emeritus at USP. Among her more than forty published books, twelve deal with the author’s work.

4. Miguel Gomes’ statements published in the article “Sertões à portuguesa” by Gian Amato in Piauí magazine, July 2019.

5. Statements by Miguel Gomes published in the article “Os Sertões por olhar de Miguel Gomes”. IstoÉ/Estadão, May 2019.

6. Text by Miguel Gomes published by Folha de São Paulo, on July 7, 2019.

7. Text by Miguel Gomes published by Folha de São Paulo, on July 7, 2019.

8. Text by Miguel Gomes published by Folha de São Paulo, July 2019. *Note: the date of 2019 refers to the date of writing the text, not to the shooting of the film, which was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The new date for the start of shooting is given as 2023/2024.

9. “Brasil, a crónica dos vencidos”  by Isabel Lucas (journalist and literary critic) was the first of 12 reports published in the Público/Ípsilon newspaper between 2019 and 2020, and which were recently collected in the book Viagem ao país do futuro. Companhia das Letras, September 2021.

10. “Os Sertões do cinema” - Anais do XXVI Simpósio Nacional de História - ANPUH. São Paulo, July 2011. Sheila Schvarzman is a professor of the Master in Communication at Anhembi Morumbi University.

11. “Os Sertões do cinema” - Anais do XXVI Simpósio Nacional de História - ANPUH. São Paulo, July 2011. Sheila Schvarzman is a professor of the Master in Communication at Anhembi Morumbi University.

12. On September 3, 1759 the “Law given for the proscription, denaturalization and expulsion of the regulars of the Society of Jesus” from Portugal and the colonized territories was promulgated. It happened during the reign of King Joseph I, under the guidance of his Secretary of State for Internal Affairs, the future Marquis of Pombal.

13. Brazil’s Independence dates back to 1822, and the abolition of slavery in the country took place in 1888, through the decree known as the Lei Áurea.

14. Statements by Miguel Gomes published in the article “Sertões à portuguesa” by Gian Amato in Piauí magazine, July 2019.

15. The events at Serra do Rodeador, Pernambuco Province, were the first collective sebastian manifestation in colonial Brazil. The historian Flávio Cabral wrote about it in his book Paraíso Terreal: A rebião sebastianista na Serra do Rodeador, Pernambuco - 1820. The Pedra Bonita movement is represented in the books: Romance d’A Pedra do Reino e o príncipe do sangue do vai-e-volta, a novel by Ariano Suassuna published in 1971; O Reino Encantado by Araripe Júnior, written in 1878; Pedra Bonita, and also Cangaceiros by José Lins do Rego, written in 1938 and 1953, respectively.

16. Agostinho da Silva (1906-1994) was a Portuguese philosopher, poet, and essayist. He lived part of his life in Brazil

17. Fernando Peres, Professor Emeritus of the Federal University of Bahia. In 2002, this researcher presented O Breviário de Antônio Conselheiro, through which the contents of his manuscript are partially known.

18. Ataliba Nogueira (1901 -1983) was a jurist, politician, and professor graduated from the Law School of the University of São Paulo. Based on the analysis of the manuscript, Ataliba Nogueira published Antônio Conselheiro e Canudos. Companhia Editora Nacional. Brasiliana Collection. São Paulo. 1974.

19. Pedro Lima Vasconcellos with a master’s degree in religious sciences is a professor in the Postgraduate Program in History at the Federal University of Alagoas (UFAL). He coordinated the publication of the Notes in the book Antônio Conselheiro by himself in 2018.

20. Ariano Suassuna (1927-2014) born in João Pessoa, Paraíba, was a playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet. A large part of his speech, at his inauguration into the Brazilian Academy of Letters on August 9, 1990, is dedicated to Euclides da Cunha and Os Sertões 

21. Pedro Lima Vasconcellos with a master’s degree in Religion Sciences is a professor in the Postgraduate Program in History at the Federal University of Alagoas (UFAL). He coordinated the publication of the Notes in the book Antônio Conselheiro by himself in 2018.

22. Ariano Suassuna (1927-2014), born in João Pessoa, Paraíba, was a playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet. A large part of his speech at the inauguration of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, on August 9, 1990, is dedicated to Euclides da Cunha and Os Sertões.

23. In the text “Os Sertões para estrangeiros” - taken from the book Gatos de outro saco, by Walnice Nogueira Galvão. São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1981. W.N. Galvão is professor emeritus at USP. Among her, more than forty published books, twelve deal with the author’s work.

24. According to Daniela Persico, of the selection committee for The Films After Tomorrow award at the 74th Locarno Festival

25. Miguel Gomes’ statements published in the article “Sertões à portuguesa” by Gian Amato in Piauí magazine, July 2019.

Translation:  Maria Dias

by Anabela Roque
Afroscreen | 21 March 2023 | Backlands, Brasil, Euclídes da Cunha, Miguel Gomes, Sertões