Friday, May 13, 2011

Spotlight on José Mojica Marins

Before City of God came out in 2002, the only Brazilian films that were available for rent in my city were José Mojica Marins’ Coffin Joe films. I often picked up the eye-catching VHS covers with titles such as At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, or This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse but always put the videos back. Then after City of God was released, a slow influx of new Brazilian films starting appearing on DVDs. So Coffin Joe was no longer the only Brazilian choice available and I moved on. Yet, José Mojica Marins’ fictional character was never totally invisible from my eyes. Sometimes a clip from one of Coffin Joe’s films caught my eye on TV or some reference in a film magazine kept his name lingering around. Of course, his appearance was not easy to forget either -- the black top hat, the cape, the beard and those ultra long finger nails.
However, I had no desire to visit his work. All that changed when I came across Sight and Sound’s September 2010 Issue on Latin American Cinema.
In an insightful and wonderful article titled No Turning Back, Sergio Wolf talks about the Latin American cinema explosion in the last decade. The following lines stuck with me:

In Brazil, João Moreira Salles reinvented the international career of Eduardo Coutinho, who had been living in difficult circumstances and making television for many years until Moreira Salles helped him with the outstanding Edifício Master (2002). The documentary-maker Paulo Sacramento, meanwhile, rescued another Brazilian - José Mojica Marins, the John Carpenter of São Paulo - by producing Embodiment of Evil (Encarnação do Demônio, 2008) after Martins had endured almost ten years of inactivity.

If someone from a new generation of Brazilian cinema helped a filmmaker from another generation, then I just had to find out what was worth rescuing. So I decided it was time that I faced Coffin Joe in his full attire, nails and all.

This spotlight contains six films directed by Marins and one documentary on his work.

At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul (1964)
This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967)
Awakening of the Beast (1970)
End of Man (1971)
Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures (1975)
The Strange World of José Mojica Marins (2001, André Barcinski/Ivan Finotti)
Embodiment of Evil (2009)

The Coffin Joe Trilogy

At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse and Embodiment of Evil are the three films that constitute the Coffin Joe Trilogy. There are several other José Mojica Marins films where the director plays the Coffin Joe character but those other films features his character in different scenarios or limited roles where his character is mostly restricted to the opening credits to give speeches about the universe and purpose of life.

In the trilogy, the same character of Zé do Caixão (played by Marins) continues his obsessive search of finding the perfect woman to mate with so that he can have his perfect son. Zé wants a son because his believes he can achieve immortality by having his lineage continue through a heir. In his pursuit of that perfect woman, Zé rapes, tortures and kills many women, along with killing any men that stand in his way. His torture methods get more gruesome with each film and the body count of his victims increase. The extent of torture in the first two films is restricted mostly to having women in lingerie tormented by spiders and snakes. Such torture methods would not have sufficed for the third film because Embodiment of Evil was released in 2009 at a time when torture and gory films were no longer underground but openly shown in multiplexes, in 3D no less. So Embodiment of Evil is by far the most graphic of all three films and features naked bodies hung up by hooks and tortured repeatedly. Blood is on ample display and there are scenes which are meant for shock value only, such as a nude woman extracted from inside a pig’s body and covered in blood. Blood was not that much of a factor in the first two films mostly because of the lack of color. At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul is completely in black and white while This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse is also in black and white except for a small segment near the end which features Zé descending into hell.

Overall, Embodiment of Evil is the weakest of the three films and features scenes of needless violence and torture. Although the film is also updated to represent modern times in Brazilian cinema and features police-gang clashes in favelas. At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul is made with the least budget and does a decent job of laying out the character and his motives. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse features an amazing opening credit sequence. The titles and crew names appear in shaky and vibrant letters against visuals of spiders and snakes crawling on women with a background score of screaming women. This combination produces a jarring effect and prepares one for a horrific cinematic ride.

Note: the image of Coffin Joe under the title At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul misled me. I believed those words were Coffin Joe's threats towards his victims but as it turns out, those words were meant for Coffin Joe. After he is cursed, he is told that he would die at the stroke of midnight.

Drugs and censorship

Awakening of the Beast depicts a drug culture and features a panel discussing the impact of drugs in corrupting the morality of ordinary citizens. The panel led by a doctor also debate the role of José Mojica Marins’ films in corrupting citizens. Marins is invited to the panel to present his side and also stands trial in a fake segment within the film to defend himself and his films. As part of his experiment to observe the effects of drug usage, the doctor administers LSD to five volunteers. The effect of those drugs causes the volunteers to slowly drift away from reality and land up in a nightmarish world where their fantasies and fears play out in a hellish setting. The visuals of this hellish world take up almost the last 20 minutes of the film and are similar in set design to the version of hell shown in This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. There are several dialog free sequences in the film, including a sequence where a woman high on drugs dances on a table in a room full of men. The woman’s dance sequence flows quite easily without any dramatic cuts and is one of the best extended scenes found in any of José Mojica Marins’ films.

The final conclusion of the doctor’s experiment is that drugs do not corrupt moral citizens but only awaken inner demons within humans who already have devilish intentions buried within their psyche. José Mojica Marins is also cleared of any wrong doings both by the panel and the fake trial. Such a conclusion and the scenes of drug usage were probably reasons why the military dictatorship in Brazil banned this film in 1970. The film was eventually released 20 years later.

A prophet emerges

The opening sequence of End of Man has a tiny glimpse of Coffin Joe but otherwise End of Man is the only film in this spotlight which is entirely free of the Coffin Joe character. Marins plays a man who emerges naked from the sea and goes about preaching to the locals and performing miracles. He develops a cult following and is considered by locals to be a prophet. It is only at the end of the film that the prophet’s true identity is revealed and that revelation is another poke by Marins on the blind faith that people have in religion. José Mojica Marins always questioned the value of religion and its rituals through his characters starting from At Midnight I’ll Steal Your Soul onwards and End of Man continues that trend, especially the ending.

Technically this is the weakest out of the six features and contains substandard acting, editing and camera work. In fact, watching this film reminded me of some of the worst Bollywood films from the 1970’s to 80’s, minus the nudity.

Note: A party sequence in End of Man where the crowd chants “everybody naked” is duly expanded in Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures.

Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures

The title says it all. A hostel where strange occurrences take place and where people are either naked or seeking pleasure, or both. The opening ten minutes of the film are almost dialog free and depict an elaborate dance ceremony which resurrects Coffin Joe from the dead. Coffin Joe then gives his customary speech about the universe, existence, fate and life before taking charge of this special hostel. All along Joe’s eyes see everything, the future and past of the guests arriving in the hostel to seek pleasure. In fact, a trailer of the film could be cut with Coffin Joe’s voice as such:

Ladies look at my eyes
now look at the room with naked people
now back to my eyes
look at another room where an affair is happening
back to my eyes again
now look at that room with people gambling
now back to my eyes again.

One can find repeated shots in José Mojica Marins’ films but Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures takes that to an extreme with plenty of repeated closeups of Joe’s eyes, naked flesh and shots of the hostel in a dark stormy night with lightening.

A documentary to bring it all together

The Strange World of José Mojica Marins is a well made documentary that introduces us to the world of Coffin Joe and gives us as a closer look at José Mojica Marins. Marins love of film is apparent from this documentary and he relishes the fact that he is a self taught filmmaker. He mentions that he was literally born in a cinema as his parents owned a cinema hall and he grew up watching plenty of films and spending all his time in a theater. That love for film resulted in him making plenty of films at an early age. In fact, no opportunity was too good for Marins to pass up to make a film. When he went in for eye surgery, he had a camera crew in the operating room and directed them while being under the knife. His plan was to use the footage for a later film but that film was never completed. At the end of the documentary, we are told that there are another dozen or so uncompleted films by Marins. Since the documentary was released, Marins did finish his Coffin Joe trilogy with Embodiment of Evil and he may get a chance to make more of his films.

The film also shows what a wildly popular character Coffin Joe is not only in Brazil but internationally. Marins made many personal appearances dressed as Coffin Joe and attracted plenty of admirers. Unfortunately as per the film, Marins was never financially well off. No details are given but that fact becomes clear with the Sight and Sound article when Paulo Sacramento had to help produce Marins’ Embodiment of Evil, more than forty years after Coffin Joe first appeared on screen.

This is not the end...

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.

Slightly changing this The Usual Suspects quote:

The greatest trick Coffin Joe ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.

Because every time Coffin Joe is supposed to be dead, he comes back. He is left for dead at the end of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul but makes a remarkable recovery at the start of This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. He sinks to his demise in This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse but through magical cosmic powers is resurrected several times until he finally materializes in flesh serving time in a jail cell at the start of Embodiment of Evil. The ending of Embodiment of Evil shows that Coffin Joe more than gets his wish after all, with not one son but multiple offsprings on the way. Coffin Joe always believed the only way he could be immortal was with a perfect son. So if there are indeed multiple sons of Coffin Joe on the way, then maybe he will be a cinematic presence for many decades to come.


I had low expectations from this spotlight and there were many moments which confirmed those low expectations but there were also some aspects with surprized me. In a way, I agree with Neil Young’s assessment:

But the odd thing about the Mojica Marins pictures is that, despite their numerous individual deficiencies, they do cohere and combine into a whole that's much more effective than their separate parts….

One can see the full cycle of action-reaction consequences cycle through the various Coffin Joe films where his mistakes come back to haunt him and further curse him.

Finally....Christoph Huber’s article on José Mojica Marins is worth reading.

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