by Andy Piascik
Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 4, 57
It blends the personal and the political in a straightforward, principled way — this is perhaps the best way to describe THEY DON'T WEAR BLACK TIE. Set in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1981, Leon Hirzman's film (just released in 1983 in the United States) addresses many issues confronted by the Brazilian people. From beginning to end, we see the poor living conditions of the working class and the way in which poverty affects every aspect of their lives. We can almost feel the oppression as we watch the main characters moving about in their cramped homes.
Otavio (Gianfrancesco Guarnieri, who also co-authored the screenplay with Hirzman) and his son Tiao (Carlos Alberto Ricelli) are both workers at the same factory but have serious differences about how to improve their lives. Otavio is a veteran trade union militant who has spent time in prison in an earlier period of military dictatorship. He sees organizing and collective struggle as the only way forward for the Brazilian working class. When a possible strike looms at the factory, Otavio is among the union members who warn against a premature strike that will lock the workers out and benefit the bosses. But when a strike is called, he sets aside his reservations and throws himself into the struggle. On the picket line the first day of the strike, he is assaulted and arrested by the police. Otavio, with rugged determination, returns later that afternoon as if such things were all merely part of a day's work.
Tiao, on the other hand, has different ideas on how to escape the poverty and oppression he has lived with all his life. He mocks his father for his political beliefs, charging the father with being blind to the realities of the family's hard life. Tiao believes the way to a better life lies in cooperating with the capitalists, not in romantic dreams about organizing workers. Tiao has his eyes set on a managerial position that will make life with his pregnant fiancée Maria (Bete Mendes) more comfortable. Together with a friend who is also angling for a promotion, Tiao supplies management with information about a radical worker who is subsequently fired. When the strike breaks out, Tiao crosses the picket line and arrogantly encourages other workers to do as well. He quietly stands by and watches when the police throw his father into a paddy wagon. The physical separation of father and son in this sequence is significant in the way it represents their different political viewpoints and also because we later learn that the two of them, from this day on, will never see each other again.
As equally compelling as the relationship between Otavio and Tiao is the relationship between Tiao and Maria, who also works at the same factory. When we first see Maria, she is happily in love with Tiao and seemingly shares his aspirations for a better life. At the same time, she has an independence that will later crystallize and lead her to take a different stand against Tiao and his actions during the strike.
In the film's first sequence, while telling Tiao she is pregnant, Maria makes it clear to him that he is not obligated to her in any way. She does not see marriage as the only possibility and she wants Tiao to know they can consider other options. They do decide to get married but Maria's concern seems justified later, as Tiao on several occasions makes offhand remarks about the expected child being two years ahead of schedule.
The rift between Tiao and Maria emerges the night the strike is declared. Because she is committed to the strike, Maria becomes angry when Tiao tells her to stay away from the picket line. He realizes that his maneuvering with the bosses could be jeopardized by a fiancée who refuses to cross a picket line, so he orders her to avoid the strikers. She replies firmly, "I'll do what I think is right."
On the picket line, Maria is chased and attacked by hired thugs. Concerned friends take her to a hospital. All are relieved to learn she will not lose her baby. She and her friends go home, shaken but determined to continue.
It is at Otavio's house later that day that Otavio and Maria confront Tiao about his scabbing. Still convinced he has done nothing but try to make a better life for himself and his family-to-be, Tiao argues vehemently with both of them. At one point, he strikes Maria. She tells him their child will never have a father such as he and that she never wants to see him again. Otavio tells Tiao that Tiao must leave, that his house will never be the home to a strikebreaker. Claiming, "None of you can see straight," Tiao sets out to resettle in another part of the country. His good-bye to his mother takes place in a wooded, forest-like locale, giving a sharp contrast to the decidedly urban feel of the story thus far.
The subsequent action in the film shows us the determination of the main characters and of the other workers involved in the strike. Braulio (Milton Goncalves), a union activist and friend of Otavio, is killed on the picket line by an undercover policeman. In the concluding sequence, we see Otavio and Maria together with family and friends and thousands of others in a funeral procession, which represents the group's conscious step toward class solidarity and political maturation. The sunlit gathering has a tone not of grief and despair but of mutual support forged by a common goal.
THEY DON'T WEAR BLACK TIE depicts the characters' complex political and personal development in a popular, moving way. This is particularly true of Maria, who moves from seeming to be a girlfriend-in-the-background to a woman coming to terms with and acting upon the oppression surrounding her. In her relationship with Tiao, she refuses simply to subordinate her life to his. And as a worker, she comes to see standing up and acting in unity with others as the only way to dignity and a better life.
Tiao is a character more familiar to an advanced capitalist country like the United States than to Brazil. He is a worker whose religion is upward mobility. In the end he must part with those closest to him because he so strongly believes in making it on his own.
THEY DON'T WEAR BLACK TIE also hints at the hypocrisy of bourgeois democracy. Several references are made to the past military dictatorship in contrast to the current period of wider democracy. But what we see are workers at a factory having their most basic human rights trampled upon by a government that clearly acts in collusion with a rich minority. Bourgeois democracy may alter the degree of oppression but it does not change the fact of oppression. The working class still must bury its dead and wake up to poverty, struggling all the way. With THEY DON'T WEAR BLACK TIE, Leon Hirzman has given us a strong critique of capitalism while also bringing to life many of the complexities people face in their daily lives.