A Look Back at the Cannes Palme D’or Winners from the 60s: ‘O Pagador de Promessas’

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O Pagador de Promessas
Written and directed by Anselmo Duarte
Brazil, 1962

Looking back, there were some stiff competition for the top prize at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. Among the entrants were films by great directors like Sidney Lumet, Otto Preminger, and Robert Bresson. There were great, now canonical works such as Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, and Agnès Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 – movies still watched and loved by cinephiles today. However, none of these films won the Palme d’Or of 1962, as it was instead awarded to O Pagador de Promessas, a Brazilian film based on a stage play of the same title. O Pagador de Promessas would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, providing Oscar representation for the first time for not only Brazil but the entire South American continent. Despite the film’s accolades it’s gone largely forgotten and under-appreciated, even in its home country, which at the time was in the midst of a cinematic movement, Cinema Novo, influenced by Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave. Coincidentally, French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut sat on the very jury that awarded the film its Palme d’Or. Some Brazilian critics looked down on the film as a relic, enamoured with the new hotness that was changing the landscape of cinema forever, and they felt that it didn’t properly represent where Brazilian cinema was at in the early 1960s.

O Pagador de Promessas, directed by Anselmo Duarte, is the story of Ze, a country bumpkin who makes a vow to carry a large wooden cross to the altar of Saint Barbara at a church in Bahia. Accompanied by his reluctant wife, Ze makes the hard, long journey, but is denied entrance by the clergy after he explains that he made this promise to a Candomblé deity in order to save the life of his best friend – Nicholau, a donkey. Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian religion that was condemned by the church, but had over time integrated Catholic saints and imagery into its practices. Ze explains to Father Olavo that he identified the Candomblé God of Thunder as Saint Barbara, and so the promise wasn’t blasphemous, but the priest is unconvinced and decides Ze was tricked into making a mockery of Christ and that allowing him to enter would desecrate the church. Rejected but undeterred, Ze takes up residence on the stoops outside the church, hoping that at some point logic will win out and he’ll be able to finish his quest. Eventually his story is picked up by the newspapers and Ze becomes an unexpected folk hero, much to the chagrin of the church and politicians. The archetypal fool, Ze only wants to fulfill his vow, unconcerned with the fame and the issues that people want to attribute to him. During an interview for a newspaper, he reveals that as a part of his vow he had to divide up all his land equally among the rest of the villagers. The interviewer spins this into Ze supporting agrarian reform, which is still a contentious issue in Brazil to this day. Ze doesn’t even know what the term means, he only knows that he needs to get this cross into the church.

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The story brings to mind an Albert Camus quote from his novel The Fall: “Martyrs, my friend, have to choose between being forgotten, mocked or used. As for being understood – never.” Ze is used by everyone: the papers sensationalize his stories to sell copy, Candomblé supporters use his story to help promote their religion, despite Ze being devoutly Catholic, and the proletariat look to him as a symbol of oppression that they can rally behind. Regardless of this, O Pagador de Promessas’s message is about corruption within systems of power, and no organization is insusceptible to these corruptions, especially the Catholic Church. One wonders if Buñuel caught a screening of this film during the festival, and what he might have thought.

Duarte’s direction feels theatrical, as most of the action takes place on the steps leading up to the church, but he also has a clear grasp of cinematic language. The scenes of crowds moving on the stairs recall the Odessa steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin; however, instead of descension into panic, Duarte shows revelry and rebellion as crowds gather around their Novo Christ, and ultimately their ascension. The film is full of beautiful black and white photography and shot compositions, one of the most striking of which is Ze carrying his cross while a massive fire burns in the background – an image seared into my mind forever. It’s the first image of Ze beginning his journey and it looks as though he and his wife are walking out of Hell. The cross itself is creatively used, sometimes appearing as a shelter for Ze to sleep under, at other times a division between he and his wife when she struggles with her faith.

I don’t know which film I’d choose to win Cannes’ top prize over O Pagador de Promessas – those types of discussions feel arbitrary to me. But I believe Anselmo Duarte’s film deserves to be appreciated, or at the very least reappraised, today in the same way we look at the films of Satyajit Ray, whose Devi was also competing against O Pagador de Promessas that year. It’s a film that speaks for the people and optimistically places faith in the people to overcome corrupted forces that seek to control how we live and how we practice our faith. Ze lives by a simple code by which all you have is your word and without it you are damned, not necessarily in some afterlife but here on earth by your own conscience. And by being ignorant he is also above the labels of Marxist or Socialist, Candomblé or Catholic, as those are merely limits meant to divide people with ideologies the same way red states and blue states do today. You are on that side, so you can’t be on this side, as it were.

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It’s a shame that this film, rich in imagery and still relevant in message, has gone for over 50 years without much fanfare. In the United States it was only distributed theatrically in 1964, by a company that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t even exist anymore. While fellow Cannes competitor L’Eclisse, a worthy film no doubt, is getting polished up for a fresh blu-ray release by Criterion in June, O Pagador de Promessas has never seen a VHS release let alone a DVD release in the U.S. The year’s previous Palme d’Or winner, A Long Absence (1961), is apparently one of the only other films with such a lack of North American distribution. Outside of French import, one can only view it on YouTube without subtitles, or find it on a torrent site with the corresponding subtitle files located somewhere else on the other end of a Google search. While I’m thankful for the internet, it saddens me that a film like this can only be viewed this way, not to mention that these methods do nothing for the artists who made this film, or their families. Thinking back on that Camus quote and the choice of being forgotten, mocked or used, it’s clear that O Pagador de Promessas chose all three – Ze, mocked and used; the film, faded in the ether, waiting to be discovered again by the worldwide audience it surprised 52 years ago at the Cannes Film Festival.

— Jae K. Renfrow

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