The Fall
Formal innovation and
radical critique

by Robert Stam

from Jump Cut, no. 22, May 1980, pp. 20-21
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

Rui Guerra and Nelson Xavier's THE FALL (released 1978), winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, combines energy and authenticity with searing political consciousness and dazzlingly original technique. A kind of sequel to Guerra's earlier film THE GUNS (1964), the film traces the subsequent careers of three characters from the earlier film — Pedro, Jose and Mario, the soldiers sent to "protect" rich landowners' food stores from possible seizure by hungry peasants.

One soldier, Pedro (Paulo Cesar Pereio), has remained with the army, because, as he says, "nowadays a man without a uniform is worth nothinq." The other two — Jose (Hugo Carvane) and Mario (Nelson Xavier) -have become hardhat construction workers building the Rio de Janeiro subway system. Jose falls to his death — whence the title — a tragedy which sets in motion the pivotal events of the film.

Mario tries to obtain justice for Jose's widow Lindalva (Maria Silva), but a corrupt and manipulative management refuses to grant her fair compensation or even acknowledge its own culpability in Jose's death. Mario's struggle precipitates a domestic crisis with his wife Laura (Isabel Ribeiro), whose father, Salatiel (Lima Duarte) is a foreman on the same construction site. Although Salatiel, as a worker, understands Mario's point of view, he also values his own career. He connives with the bosses in getting the company off the hook, a service for which he is duly rewarded in promotions and raises. The film's climax is neither simplistically upbeat, nor needlessly gloomy; rather, it is realistically hopeful about the possibilities of love between men and women and solidarity among workers.

This synopsis gives no inkling, however, of the highly original way the story is told, or better, of the four different ways in which it is told. The film opens with a pre-credit prologue. a kind of metaphorical Eisensteinian prelude, which presents four kinds of images. A building implodes and collapses. Famished people pick through the garbage for scraps of food. Oxen are put to death in a slaughterhouse, while the managers drink the blood of the slaughtered in an official ceremony. Planted as seeds in the spectators' minds, the meaning of these images comes to fruition only as the story unfolds:

  • that the society portrayed in the film is imploding from its own contradictions;
  • that the workers who constructed the building, and who will build the subway for which it presumably makes way, are the principal victims of this implosion (as the Brazilian working class has, in fact, been the principal victim of the contradictions generated by fourteen years of dictatorship);
  • that some people, even more destitute than the workers, survive on the scraps thrown out by the well-fed;
  • that the mechanisms of this society, as in the society characterized by an identical metaphor in Eisenstein's STRIKE, resemble those of a slaughterhouse, in which the workers are the slaughtered and the owners symbolically drink their blood.

The story is told, secondly, by a startlingly novel procedure — the quotation" of entire sentences from THE GUNS. [1] Paradoxically, this device both strengthens and subverts realism. The quoted passages reinforce realism by implying that the characters in THE FALL somehow preexisted in the film we are seeing, that they have a filmically available past, that their lives, in short, have a kind of fourth dimension — a temporal and experiential density. At the same time, the quoted sequences undercut illusionism by denaturalizing the filmic medium: the vivid color of THE FALL sets off the pale black-and-white footage of THE GUNS; the deliberate pacing of the earlier film, appropriate to the rural Northeast, contrasts strikingly with the quick nervous "urban" rhythms of the latter film. The quoted footage constitutes a personal, historical and cinematic flashback which triggers multiple reflexions in the mind of the spectator:

  • that the soldiers, manipulated oppressors in the service of the oligarchy in THE GUNS, have joined the ranks of the oppressed in THE FALL;
  • that the earlier film — and in this it is typical of the first phase Cinema Novo — is set in the Northeast, while the contemporary story takes place in the urban industrialized South;
  • that the army, in which the soldiers play a subordinate role in THE GUNS, has taken control of the Brazil of THE FALL;
  • and that the cinematic history and real history have been running along on their parallel tracks during the fourteen intervening years.

The third narrative strategy in THE FALL involves the utilization of LA JETÉE-like still photographs for the sequences in which management discusses its response to the crisis provoked by Jose's death. Thus the film de-psychologizes the capitalist class. It concentrates on their social function as a class rather than exploring the nuances of their private sensibilities or showing them in the spontaneity of their individual gestures. The film abstracts and depersonalizes them, not because Guerra and Xavier think they are less than human, but because it is not with them that the filmmakers' interest or solidarity lies. The film abstracts management for social-historical reasons, much as Goya depersonalizes Napoleonic soldiers in his paintings, or as Eisenstein depersonalizes the tsarist forces of repression in the Odessa Steps sequence of POTEMKIN. The workers, meanwhile, are shown in movement, suggesting that they are the dynamic class, the catalyst for movement and progressive change. The film also aurally contrasts workers and owners. The owners' voices are post-synched in a kind of echo-chamber effect, suggesting a protected, studio existence, while those of the workers must compete with well-nigh intolerable ambient noise.

The fourth and principal way the story is told, of course, is in color, with direct sound, in a manner reminiscent of documentary and cinema-verité. THE FALL was filmed in 16 millimeter — in line with Guerra's theory that light portable equipment facilitates, indeed virtually obliges, a closer, more epidermic contact with real social situations — and subsequently the film was blown up to 35 millimeter. The production was low-cost, independent, cooperative, and rapid (the film was shot in twenty-two days). Embrafilme entered only at the point of distribution. The film is not a well-made film with "high production values." It does not have a bourgeois appearance, that well-upholstered look which in itself often cradles bourgeois illusions while it softens and cushions apparently radical messages.

THE FALL shares with cinema-verité its frequently hand-held camera, its long takes and one-shot sequences, its reliance on ambient light (with no attempt to light even nightime sequences artificially) and its direct-to-camera interviews. The cinema-verité style is saved from the naive mushiness of cinema-verité ideology, however, by the rigorously dialectical structure of the film as a whole and by the formal contextualization and relativization of the verité style. Guerra, who has always been fond of pyrotechnically complex camera movements, literally places the camera at the side of the workers. It follows them through the mud of the construction site, it squeezes with them through the narrow corridor that circles the workplace, it ducks with them from low-hanging beams, it probes into the hidden corners of working-class life. When Jose plummets to his death, the camera seems to become anxious and restless with the workers. It suffers anthropomorphically, as if it were risking a good deal simply by putting itself in contact with life as lived by a substantial portion of humanity.

Brazilian cinema, it has been said with some justice, has neglected the working class. THE FALL compensates for that lack with a fiery political vengeance. THE FALL paints a brutal and unsentimental picture of the lives of workers in Brazil  — it catalogues, and more important, analyzes, the hidden and not-so-hidden injuries of class. Thrown into an equipment-strewn mudhole, clinging precariously to shaky scaffolding, subject to intolerable noise, without access to Law or Power, the Brazilian worker — embodied by Mario -is daily confronted with misery. Mario's trajectory is presented as typical. His migration from the drought-ridden Northeast to the industrialized South encapsulates the lives of millions of Brazilians, and specifically the lives of the Northeasterners who form the majority among construction workers in Rio and Sao Paulo.

Mario plays a bitter game of Class Struggle, and although neither he nor his class really win, he does at least learn in preparation for future struggle. Initially, he naively trusts bourgeois legality. His co-worker has died, he reasons, and the law assures his widow the right of compensation. But the construction firm could not care less about such legalisms. What for the worker is a question of life and death, is for management an exercise in adroit public relations. Involved in a competition for another contract, and therefore under pressure to finish the work rapidly, their overriding goal is to avoid scandal and maximize profits. The firm first of all attempts to buy off the widow, offering her a check in exchange for a signed statement exculpating the firm of all responsibility in her husband's death. When Mario involves himself in her defense, the firm tries to bribe him — via the good offices of Salatiel — and when that tactic fails, has him beaten up and, ultimately, fired.

But it is not Mario alone who suffers this intense pressure. The firm threatens to dock all those workers who dare attend Jose's funeral. While it threatens workers, it bribes lawyers and intimidates reporters. It also falsifies documents in order to transform Jose's work-related death into an automobile accident. The powerful have economic and political control, the film suggests, and the powerless are confronted with a choice — to sell themselves, to keep silent, to speak up and lose their jobs, or, and this alternative is only implied in the film, to organize as a class.

Mario's muddy worksite becomes a microcosm for Brazil as a whole, a springboard for a comprehensive and radical critique of capitalism in its proto-fascist sub-equatorial variant. The film demystifies the Brazilian model for development. What was loftily metaphorized as the Brazilian economic "miracle," the film suggests, was in fact a disaster, a fall — the fall of a free press and human rights, and the fall in living standards for the working class. The carrot-and-stick capitalism which typifies Mario's workplace, pervasive in all capitalist societies, takes especially grotesque and predatory forms in the Third World. For those not sufficiently motivated by its carrots — bonuses, bribes, consumer products — the system reserves its sticks — dismissal, brutality, imprisonment, death.

Rui Guerra has always excelled in exposing the mechanisms of power as they operate in everyday life, especially during moments of crisis. What most impresses in THE FALL is not its anger but its subtlety. No manicheanism pits haloed workers against diabolic bosses. Rather, the film highlights the contradictions which riddle all lives within capitalist societies, including those which rend the working class itself. Rather than choose a facile enemy — for example, the foreign capitalist — THE FALL concentrates on Brazilian capitalism and its contradictions. The film reveals an intricate hierarchy of corruption, with a large gray area between worker and boss. The system tries to grind out opportunistic workers as efficiently as it grinds out products.

Here Salatiel, the foreman, serves as a kind of negative exemplar. Having grown up a rural worker, he is astonished by the easy success that comes with betraying his class and collaborating with the bosses. He urges the same path on Mario, telling him to "think modern," (i.e., to forget about antiquated notions like friendship and loyalty to one's co-workers) and thus reap the rewards of complicity and acquiescence. Thus are friendship and solidarity drowned in the icy waters of selfish calculation. Salatiel inhabits that gray zone, the social no-person's-land, where labor and management appear to blur together, a zone of ambiguous loyalties where people of working-class origin sometimes become bourgeois in aspiration. People like Salatiel would like to cross a magical class line beyond which they will enjoy affluence and respect. But while Salatiel wins an apartment, a car, and some consumer goodies, he remains a tool in the hands of the real owners. He will never really cross that magical line, and he will never be free of a nagging feeling of class betrayal.

The contradictions of the workplace inevitably spill over into the domestic life of Salatiel, Mario, and Laura (Salatiel's daughter and Mario's wife). Laura, played with wrenching power by Isabel Ribeiro, suffers the domestic fall-out of Mario's oppression as a worker. At one point, Mario virtually rapes his own wife, and the rape is followed not by the sexist cliché of coy reluctance giving way to ecstatic abandon, but rather by visible bitterness on her part. At the same time, Mario is never characterized as a purely oppressive "heavy" in their relationship. Although Laura chafes under male-imposed strictures, and although she resents certain of Mario's actions, one senses a complex experiential bond, a desperate tenderness and anguished communication between them.

The most powerful sequence in the film involves Mario, Laura, Salatiel and sexual politics. The three of them, and their families, are celebrating Mario and Laura's acquisition of a new apartment, indirectly made possible by Salatiel's collaborationism. In response to Mario's questions, Salatiel whispers vague reassurances about how the apartment was obtained. Laura, overhearing snatches of the conversation, tries to find out more. Salatiel cuts her off. Laura insists angrily on her right to know about where their apartment came from, and to know anything that might affect her and her husband. After trying to silence her with paternalistic kisses, her father-foreman scolds her for not respecting her husband's authority and for not emulating the submissive example of her own saintly mother, who never meddled in affairs that did not concern her. He plants a kiss on the saintly mother, who turns away with irritation and embarrassment. Mario, meanwhile, paces around the apartment, transparently ill at ease. Laura then explodes with articulate rage, her voice crackling with emotion. Enraged by being treated like a retarded child, with no right to know about the inner workings of issues which touch her most closely, she articulates a woman's anger with rare power, even as the film, through her, highlights the political and sexual contradictions of everyday life.

This sequence, perhaps better than any other, exemplifies the synthesis of political consciousness and emotional force in THE FALL. Guerra and Xavier somehow fuse the visceral affectivity of a Cassavetes with the political cunning of a Brecht. The camera pursues the improvising actors, its gaze guided only by the tension in their voices. The performances have the gut-level immediacy one associates with films like FACES or A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, yet the political understanding of the emotions is immeasurably deeper. Isabel Ribeiro's performance turns into an eloquent outcry against patriarchal oppression, against her father's infantilization of her and against her husband's complicitous silence in the face of this infantilization. Yet the sequence fits into the overall logic of the film, which is a cry, but a well-reasoned cry, against all kinds of oppression — sexual, political and economic.

THE FALL as a whole, like the sequence just described, combines the emotional urgency of deeply-felt improvisational acting — obvious in the lack of a pre-established text, in the indecision of some of the gestures — with a cogent and well-thought-out overall structure. What saves the film from being merely phenomenological and descriptive is its way of socially generalizing its meanings. At one point, Mario, reflecting on Jose's death, tells Laura, "This is no way for a person to die." His remark is followed by a montage of shots of consumer stores and television images. The reality of his life contrasts starkly with the promises of consumerist bliss proffered by the media. Jose's death, the montage suggests, is a consequence of the choices inherent in the Brazilian economic model. A TV station logo forms the map of Brazil, and it is the system that tries to destroy them.

In conclusion, THE FALL is a rich, audacious, even poetic film, and a political work of rare insight and power.


1. The technique of self-quotation has been used in poetry, for example by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land, and the technique of retour des personnages has been employed in the novel, notably by Balzac. Although Godard "quotes" his earlier work (for example, TOUT VA BIEN cites dialogue from LE MÉPRIS), he does not use quoted footage to function both as subjective and historical flashback (showing the same actors at an earlier stage playing the same characters) as well as a clearly marked authorial intrusion.