Xica Da Silva
Sex, politics, and culture

by Randal Johnson

from Jump Cut, no. 22, May 1980, pp. 18-20
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

Carlos Diegues' sixth feature film, XICA DA SILVA (1976), is a high point of a line of thought that developed within Cinema Novo in the late 60s advocating the production of films that communicate easily with a broad public in order to wrest the internal Brazilian market from the multinational film companies (see introduction to this Special Section). According to one Rio de Janeiro critic, XICA and other recent films by original Cinema Novo participants attempt to transmit on an emotional level what earlier films had attempted to transmit on an intellectual level.

There is no doubt as to its popularity. It was reported that Rio de Janeiro audiences danced in the aisles to the strains of the theme song (composed and sung by Jorge Ben) at the film's end. In its first two and a half months of exhibition in Brazil it was seen by over 8,000,000 spectators, a remarkable accomplishment in a market long dominated by North American products. XICA's popularity has recently been surpassed by three other Brazilian films: DONA FLOR AND HER TWO HUSBANDS (Bruno Barreto, 1976), LUCIO FLAVIO (Hector Babenco, 1978), and THE LADY ON THE BUS (Neville d'Almeida, 1978), thus proving that the recent surge in national cinema is not limited to just one or two films. There is little doubt that Brazilian cinema is now close to holding its own against the foreign product in its own market. One must ask, however, to what extent this concern with audience appeal has stifled or modified the earlier critical vision of Cinema Novo? Or in Bob Stem's felicitous phrase, to what extent has the "esthetic of hunger" become an "esthetic of gluttony"? I will attempt to shed light on these questions through an analysis of Diegues' film.

XICA DA SILVA is a fictional re-creation of events which occurred in the state of Minas Gerais in 18th century colonial Brazil. Like Diegues' first feature, GANGA ZUMBA (1963), it deals with problems of slavery and freedom. In the second half of the 18th century, the Portuguese crown inaugurated a system of contracts for the extraction of diamonds and other precious stones from the rich mineral areas of Brazil's interior. Such contracts guaranteed a monopoly for a Portuguese capitalist of the King's choosing.

The most famous of the successive holders of contracts for diamond extraction was Joao Fernandes de Oliveira, who first obtained his contract in 1739. Joao Fernandes implanted modern, efficient (if corrupt) systems of extraction, discovered rich new beds of precious stones and accumulated a wealth which eventually came close to rivaling that of the crown itself. His wealth and consequent power was soon seen as threatening to the crown, and he was forced to return to Lisbon in 1773. While in Brazil, Joao Fernandes took as his lover the slave woman Francisca (Xica) da Silva, freed her and made her into one of the most powerful people in the state of Minas Gerais. For several years, until Joao Fernandes' downfall, Xica da Silva literally dominated the politics, economics and fashion of the region. Her rise to power and frequent extravagant and vindictive behavior — in retaliation for humiliations suffered while a slave — scandalized the diamond-mining region as well as the Portuguese court. Very little is known about Xica da Silva since after her fall the people of Diamantina (then Arraial de Tijuco) undertook a virtual exorcism, burning most documents concerning her.

The myths surrounding Xica and her love of freedom are the bases of Carlos Diegues' film. It was conceived by the director as an historical farce, in which fantasy and myth are as important as historical accuracy. If GANGA ZUMBA was a story of the love of freedom, XICA DA SILVA, according to the director, is about the possibility of freedom through love. It is a vibrant, colorful and fast-moving film. Diegues himself has described it as "a multicolored butterfly resting on the white wall of a colonial church."

It would be easy to dismiss XICA as simply an historical comedy were it not for the director's own history as a political filmmaker and for certain elements of the film itself. The film's first sequence is a rather unlikely bucolic scene in which Joao Fernandes, on his way to Tijuco to assume his position as Contractor, stops along the road and plays flute with a couple of itinerate musicians. The European music is strangely out of place in the rugged interior of Brazil, thus creating an opposition developed throughout the film: the incongruous refinement of European culture contrasted with the "primitive," yet authentic, vitality of things Brazilian. The musicians comment upon the economic and political situation of the region until they realize with whom they are speaking. One of them then looks directly at the camera and says, excusing himself: "Artists shouldn't be involved in politics, isn't that right?"

Such a statement is certainly reflective of the dominant ideology's position, here in the figure of Joao Fernandes, but is just as certainly not reflective of Carlos Diegues' position. Films in military-ruled Brazil do not have to be explicitly political like those of the initial phase of Cinema Novo production in order to be read by Brazilian audiences as political films. [l] Diegues himself, in response to an interviewer's question, has suggested that XICA DA SILVA is perhaps even more political than some of his earlier films (e.g., GANGA ZUMBA) since it is a reflection on the nature of power and how one enters the different arenas of power. The musician's statement is thus a warning to the audience that the film should be read as a political film, even though its humor may at first glance seem to dilute the political message. Diegues defends his use of humor when he observes in a recent article:

"An intellectual perversion places pleasure on the right and suffering on the left, celebrating failures and deploring victories. A more free and just society also means a more joyous society." [2]

The idyllic setting of the initial sequence is soon disrupted by the appearance of several members of Teodoro's gang. Teodoro, an important black figure in the film, is the most successful "outlaw" of the region. He is an outlaw because he is able to discover and mine rich diamond beds in violation of the crown's monopoly. Teodoro himself soon appears, "borrows" Joao Fernandes' horse (white of course) and leaves the Contractor with a small bag of uncut diamonds. Joao Fernandes eventually uses Teodoro, allowing him to find beds of precious stones, then using more modern techniques of extraction — especially building dams to hold back the water and extracting diamonds from the dry river beds — to find more than Teodoro had been able to with his primitive methods. Once again the local/foreign opposition is brought out in the film.

Xica da Silva, a slave belonging to Arraial de Tijuco's Master Sergeant, is introduced before Joao Fernandes' arrival in the town. She is first seen sitting on the ground of the courtyard of her master's house and is soon interrupted by the Sargeant's son, Jose, who later runs off to Vila Rica, the capital of the region, to join a rebellion against colonial rule. The rebellion, which is not seen but merely mentioned in XICA DA SILVA, is an obvious reference to the "Inconfidencia," an unsuccessful revolt which took place in the 18th century and was the subject of Joaquim Pedro de Andrade's superb but little seen film, OS INCONFIDENTES (THE CONSPIRATORS, 1971). Jose, like his father, takes sexual advantage of Xica. Their relationship reflects one of the most problematic aspects of the film. Xica is portrayed throughout as having certain unrevealed sexual abilities which make her unique in the region. Her rise to power is based precisely on her sexual prowess, which reveals a dismaying sexist and racist approach to the problems of black women in Brazilian society.

Jose is himself a problematic figure in the film. Although he is the only character to reflect any kind of "revolutionary" consciousness and is used to point out the contradictions in the power structure of the town and the region, his political ideas are not developed by the director. He is limited to statements like, "The Contractor takes from the people that which doesn't belong to him," and "We're going to piss on the king." Diegues' failure to develop Jose as a revolutionary character is another of the weaknesses of the film and one which undercuts its political effectiveness.

The rest of the film deals with Xica's rise to power, her vindictiveness and extravagance while in power and her subsequent fall from power. She is seen as an object of the desire of the most important men in the village, including the Intendent (the holder of civilian power) and, finally, the Contractor himself. She first attracts Joao Fernandes' attention, which leads to his purchase of her from the Master Sargeant, through the premeditated exposure of her body as the Contractor is meeting with the Intendent and the Master Sargeant.

Soon after buying Xica, Joao Fernandes' other slaves comment wryly that he has become her slave sexually. Diegues' apparent rationale in this characterization of Xica is that as a slave she has no possessions except her own body, and throughout most of the film she exercises control over it. Thus in addition to being an object of the desire of the most powerful men in the village, she is also an acting subject in relationship to them. There are many indications that she, not her partners, controls and determines the sexual relationships she maintains. Diegues seems to be saying that even though she has no economic, military or political power, she exercises the power of Eros, erotic power. There is, however, something fundamentally sexist about this characterization. The first time Xica is seen, Jose calls her as if she were an animal and insists that she have sex with him. As a slave, she is not free to say no, even though she does initially protest. She is used as a sexual object. Her unique sexual ability is her oppression.

Perhaps it is understandable, in military-ruled Brazil, for a filmmaker to use eroticism as a means for the achievement of liberation since all more specifically political avenues of action are closed through repression and censorship. And perhaps it is also understandable for the director to try to transmit to the Brazilian people the idea that they should use their oppression against their oppressors. It is still fundamentally sexist. Xica da Silva does not evolve beyond the level of a sexual creature in the film. The first time she is seen, she makes love with Jose. The same thing happens the last time she is seen. At no time does she reveal any political awareness whatsoever. Her rise to power is based on her sexual ability and on emotional reactions to events around her. After seeing Teodoro buy his lovers' freedom from Joao Fernandes, Xica decides that she wants to be a free person. Change comes from external sources, not from Xica herself. Once gaining her freedom, she becomes just as repressive as Joao Fernandes and takes pride in humiliating other slaves. She is capricious, vindictive and extravagant. When denied entrance to the church because of her race (a critique of the racism of that institution in Brazil) she asks Joao Fernandes to have it painted black. He tells her to forget about it and promises to build her a palace. Later, when she complains that she had never seen the sea, Joao Fernandes builds her a private lake complete with sailing ship.

As Xica ascends, rumors about her strange behavior abound, both in the mining district and in Lisbon. While she pretends to enjoy herself on her ship, we learn that Jose, who had earlier left for Vila Rica, has been accused of subversion against the colonial regime and is now hiding in a local convent for black monks. We also learn that a dam built by Joao Fernandes to aid in the extraction of diamonds has burst and killed many workers. The Contractor had been warned of such a danger earlier, but obviously preferred profit to safety and failed to heed such warnings. The Intendent's wife — a pale, whiny, petty woman (another unfortunate sexist stereotype) — begins to conspire against Xica out of jealousy and overt racism.

Shortly thereafter, a pompous revenue agent — with the equally pompous name Jose Luis de Menezes Abrantes Castelo Branco de Noronha, the Count of Valadares — arrives from Lisbon to inspect Joao Fernandes' management of the diamond extraction business and to investigate reports of Xica's behavior. He and Xica have an immediate, mutual dislike and distrust of each other. He makes racist jokes about her color saying that things should be cleared up (in Portuguese, the word for "clear," claro, also means "light colored"). Xica reacts by wearing white-face makeup to dinner and suggests that the Count not eat the chicken with "brown sauce." The Count, dressed in European finery and an absurd white wig, is totally out of place in tropical Brazil and constantly refers to the primitive and strange customs he witnesses. Yet as has been the case throughout Brazilian history, those who hold the most power over the local population have the least in common with that population.

Realizing the danger the Count represents to Joao Fernandes, Xica tries to enlist the bandit Teodoro in an effort to organize an army to protect the Contractor. This could have been her moment of redemption, her moment of revolt against colonial rule, but rather the sequence merely serves to reinforce her image as a weak person. As she goes out into the country toward Teodoro's camp, she is frightened, in several absolutely gratuitous shots, by insects and frogs. (These shots have been eliminated from the version distributed in the U.S.) Is Diegues trying to tell us that a woman who is ready to lead an armed revolt is frightened by insects? These shots merely emphasize the director's own ambivalence toward his subject matter. Rather than convincing Teodoro (through, of course, her sexual "favors") to organize an army, she instead unknowingly leads the Count's militia to his hiding place, and we soon see shots of him being tortured. When Joao Fernandes tries to stop the torture, the Count tells him that "you have to decide once and for all which side you're on." He decides to remain loyal to the colonial regime.

Xica makes one last attempt to convince the Count to go beck to Lisbon and leave the situation as it is; she prepares an exotic African banquet ("More picturesque-ness," responds the Count) and performs a sensual dance in order to seduce him. The seduction succeeds, but the scheme fails, and the next morning the Count publicly reads the decree that Joao Fernandes has been recalled to Lisbon. It is at this point that the true limits of Xica's erotic power are revealed. She in fact has no power at all. After Joao Fernandes rides off, the townspeople turn on her, and some of the boys begin to stone her.

There is, however, one last chance for Xica. She flees the town and goes to the convent where the rebel Jose has been hiding. She feels that her life is over and that she is once again nobody. Jose tries to convince her that she herself is life and that they together will show that

"this country is not made up only of weaklings. We're going to get out of this together and piss on the king and his followers."

Xica then begins to feel dizzy (a common occurrence when she becomes sexually excited) and chases Jose up the stairs of the convent to make love with him. Once again, her role is merely sexual. The film ends with a replay of shots of Xica going happily to the church carrying in her hand the papers granting her freedom.

The film thus ends on an optimistic note, in sharp contrast to many other Cinema Novo films made after the 1964 coup (e.g., THE CHALLENGE, 1965, and THE BRAVE WARRIOR, 1968, by Paulo Cesar Saraceni and Gustave Dahl, respectively — two starkly pessimistic films of the post-1964 period). XICA DA SILVA, according to some critics, represents a renewed faith, on the part of Carlos Diegues and other Brazilian filmmakers, in the vitality of the Brazilian people as an essential element in the process of liberation. Diegues himself explains the evolution of Cinema Novo from the beginnings to XICA when he says that

"we began the movement fascinated by the people, then we were disappointed. A period of frustration appeared and we took an aggressive position, as if the people were at fault. But, all of a sudden, we discover — perhaps a sign of maturity — that the only truly valid thing is love for the people. [3] That is what I try to transmit in my film." [4]

As I have already indicated, the popular reception of the film in Brazil was enormous, both on the part of journalistic critics and on the part of the public. Critics praise the film primarily because of its high level of technical quality and its broad popular appeal. More serious cultural critics, however, are deeply divided over the film. Filmmakers like Ruy Guerra, for example, says that despite Carlos Diegues' good intentions, the film is reactionary since it sees the people only as a festive phenomenon. Other critics have observed that the film deals in low-level cultural and racial stereotypes: the black woman with some sort of unspecified, yet extraordinary, sexual capabilities (an attitude similar to that expressed about black women by Mick Jagger in "Some Girls"); the slave who aspires to whiteness, imitating the values of the oppressor rather than struggling for liberation in terms of her own cultural background; the woman who reacts emotionally to people and events; the oppressed who, on becoming free, becomes an oppressor. Diegues and his film are criticized for romanticizing and mystifying cultural stereotypes which have held black Brazilians in bondage throughout the centuries. Xica da Silva is described as a "sexual opportunist."

And the film is criticized for not developing fully another ostensibly viable alternative for oppressed slaves in colonial Brazil: the quilombo, or communities developed by escaped slaves, the most famous of which was the Republic of Palmares, dealt with by the director in GANGA ZUMBA. Such an alternative is suggested in the figure of Teodoro, but in reality he is never described as an escaped slave. He is portrayed throughout as a free man who is successful in competing with Joao Fernandes, albeit illegally, in the extraction of diamonds. Finally, Diegues is accused of not being historically accurate, a strange accusation considering the dearth of historical material concerning his subject. [5]

While these criticisms are valid and point up the weaknesses and contradictions of the film, it cannot truthfully be said that Xica is portrayed only in a negative fashion. Although she does become a petty, vindictive tyrant who functions emotionally, she is also a dynamic, creative, personable and quick-witted woman who exudes a tremendous amount of vitality and energy. In this sense she is a very positive figure, even though the path she chooses for her own liberation is fraught with contradictions. By following her trajectory throughout the film, Diegues attempts to demystify her chosen path. The people will not achieve liberation by depending on the ruling classes, but rather must depend primarily on themselves alone.

On this level, then, the film is allegorical. Joao Fernandes can be seen as the so-called "enlightened bourgeoisie," which did in fact attempt, during the Kubitschek years and until the coup, to convince the working classes that development and liberation would be obtained through class cooperation rather than class struggle. Such liberation obviously did not take place. Like the bourgeoisie, Joao Fernandes is never interested in anything but his own well-being and fortune. In reality, he has more in common with the Count and the Portuguese aristocracy than with the Brazilian people. The same may be said of today's Brazilian bourgeoisie. When told to choose which side he is on, he sides with the oppressors. Xica's efforts are misdirected because she attempts a link with the ruling class — first in the person of the Sargeant, then with the Contractor. At the end of the film, her vitality links with alternative political forces in order to "piss on the king."

One cannot deny that the people's vitality is a potentially revolutionary force. Brazilian anthropologist Roberto da Matta, in an essentially accurate analysis (with certain problems that will be pointed out) entitled "The Hierarchy of Power of the Weak," suggests that relationships of power must be seen in relative terms. [6] The ruling classes attempt to find ways to control the masses and yet have them happy enough to avoid revolts, i.e., the masses are controlled through ideological conditioning. There are several levels of power evident in the film: military power (the Sargeant), civilian power (the Intendent), spiritual power (the priest) and economic power (Joao Fernandes and, later, the Count). Matta points out that it is exactly when the holder of economic power is asserting himself that Xica da Silva enters into action to change her situation in life. Through the premeditated exposure of her body, Xica manages to align herself with the most powerful man in the village, most powerful since he is closest to the seat of power, the Portuguese court. She is a slave who is aware of the value of her body, the only thing she possesses. Matta also points out that it is precisely Joao Fernandes who feels most strongly the contradiction between individual rights and authoritarianism since it is he who must reconcile the enrichment of the crown with his own enrichment. In his freedom of economic movement, in opposition to the desires of the crown, Joao Fernandes creates a link with the bandit Teodoro. The conflict comes to a head when he has to make a decision about whether or not to link with Teodoro in the formation of an army to fight the Count. Of course he rejects such a possibility.

Another opposition is developed in the film between local power (the Sargeant, the Intendent and the priest) and external, or royal, power (Joao Fernandes and the Count). He who arrives last exercises most power. The opposition between Joao Fernandes and the Count is an opposition between individual economic power and state economic power, or in terms of the allegory the film develops, between the "national" bourgeoisie and neo-colonialist powers. The Count is also a conservative, moralizing force, since he wants to put things in order and end the extravagances of Xica da Silva.

Xica herself does not enter the spheres of power through political knowledge and action, as does Jose, but rather through the use of her body. If Jose has an intellectual, political knowledge of Brazil, Xica has a practice of Brazil. Matta suggests that she is a repressed individual in political terms, but at the same time is remarkably free in terms of her own sensuality and sexuality. He goes on to say that Xica has "the power, in sum, of giving pleasure, joy and strength" to those with whom she relates (sic). That is her most powerful weapon. The politically powerful men she deals with exercise the power of the strong; Xica, the power of the weak. Her power is carnivalesque since it results in a leveling of social forces and hierarchies. By herself, however, she is unable to consolidate such an inversion and make it lasting. That is where Jose comes in.

The link between Jose and Xica is meant to show that Xica's "magic vitality" alone is not enough. Such vitality must be linked to the politics of revolution, which revolts not against people, as does Xica, but against the oppressive and mystifying institutions of colonial rule. It is Xica da Silva who shows us the road to practice, it is she who is victorious in the end. Liberation rests with the people, whose potentialities, according to Diegues, transcend any specific political circumstance.

While Matta's analysis of the film is essentially correct in saying that liberation rests with the people and that they must rebel against institutions and not the mere symbols of those institutions, he fails to recognize the sexism inherent in his own analysis as well as in the film (e.g., Xica's purpose is to give "pleasure, joy and strength" to men). Nor does he see any problem in the fact that Jose's politics are not spelled out in the film: Jose is almost always seen alone, thus giving the impression that his is an individual revolt. Diegues seems to see Jose, an enlightened member of the ruling class, as a model for the people to follow, a populist notion at best.

Although the portrayal of Xica as a sexual creature does have racist overtones, there is also, to Diegues' credit, a critique of racism throughout. Racism pervades the power structure pictured in the film, especially the church and the representative of the Portuguese crown. The Intendent's wife is perhaps the most petty incarnation of racism in the film. Lilywhite, she feels threatened by Xica's ascent and by her attractiveness to men. Part of the problem most critics have in dealing with the racial issues raised by the film stems, perhaps, from the director's comic treatment of slavery. And yet the careful observer will notice that as Joao Fernandes rides into town, he passes a slave in chains. When he rides out, the slave is still chained in the same position. That is the reality of, slavery in Brazil and elsewhere. Xica's link with the ruling classes has changed nothing. One slave (Xica herself) has been liberated. The film's ending, although offering no concrete solutions, opens the possibility of other forms of social and political transformation.

Another important aspect of the film is the evocation of political struggle through cultural struggle. There is throughout an opposition between the stodginess of alien European culture and the vitality of Brazilian popular culture. Diegues' valorization of popular culture is seen primarily through dance, music and cuisine. As Xica becomes more and more distanced from her former life as a slave, she becomes increasingly alienated from her own culture, even to the point of ordering other slaves to desist with the "noise" of their highly rhythmic, percussion-based music. In other words, she passes through the all-too-familiar process of deculturalization, a phenomenon to which most Third World cultures are subjected. The valorization of popular forms of expression is an attempt to break through the idea that "culture" is imported. Diegues himself has observed,

"When we show the people their own image they reject it… because they do not recognize themselves as producers of culture. The idea has been imposed on them that cinema is made of cowboys who speak English, blondes on the banks of the Seine, and the Beatles and their guitars." [7]

In this sense, then, XICA DA SILVA shares a common purpose — the affirmation of popular culture — with Nelson Pereira dos Santos' TENT OF MIRACLES, which deals with Afro-Brazilian religion as a form of resistance against race and class oppression.

Perhaps the most important and salutary aspect of XICA DA SILVA is the debate that it has helped spark concerning the nature and role of the "popular" in Brazilian cinema (see introduction to this Spatial Section). Not only has the responsibility of filmmakers vis-a-vis popular culture come into question, but also the role of film criticism has been fiercely debated. Diegues is opposed to what he calls the "ideological patrols," i.e., certain sectors of left criticism which reject any manifestation of artistic expression that does not follow narrow, orthodox ideological prescriptions. Diegues feels that Brazilian cinema will only be a strong cinema when filmmakers of all tendencies have the freedom to explore and develop myriad themes in a multiplicity of styles. In this sense, XICA DA SILVA, with its carnivalistic celebration of a heretofore little-known historical event, is indeed a landmark film for Brazilian cinema.


 1. J.R. Molotnik makes much of the same point in "MACUNAIMA: Revenge of the Jungle Freaks, JUMP CUT 12-13 (December 1976), 22-24.

2. "Entrevista com Carlos Diegues," Folha de Tao Paulo (Folhetim), 13 August 1978.

3. The character Pedro Archanjo, in Nelson Pereira dos Santos' TENT OF MRACLES, says much the same thing.

4. O Estado de Sao Paulo, 9 September 1976.

5. All of these critiques, except Guerra's, are from a series of articles published in Opiniao, 15 October 1976. Guerra's critique is in an interview published in Cine-Olho, No. 3 (December 1977).

6. Matta's article, also in Opiniao, 15 October 1976.

7. "Bresil: 39 Degres ou le Cinema Novo sera toujours nouveau," Positif, No. 116 (May 1970), pp.43-52.