The Red Light Bandit (1968)
Directed by Rogério Sganzerla
Sunday, April 8 and Thursday, April 12 at the Spectacle Theater
My movie event of the year so far was a Rotterdam retrospective of films from the Boca do Lixo. The "Mouth of Garbage" lies in the heart of Sáo Paulo, and during the 1960s the working-class neighborhood filled city papers with stories of poverty, corruption, and crime. It also produced a lot of great, grungy movies, made quick and cheap by any means necessary. A lot of these filthy-minded wonders—The Margin, The Pornographer, Orgy or: The Man Who Gave Birth—could only exist as independent productions, especially during Brazil's censorious military dictatorship's rule. 1968's The Red Light Bandit came through the grace of studio funding, but shares its rebellious brethrens' spirit. In time Rogério Sganzerla's movie became one of those classics so beloved that few people still talk about how radical it is.
If you live in Brazil, that is. It's hard to come by this baby in the States, which makes attending the Spectacle's digital projections a near-imperative. At them you can see (in clear, sharp, black-and-white) a smooth criminal (Paulo Villaça) robbing, raping, and murdering his way through the city, and doing such a job of it that he turns from man into legend. The radio announcers label him the "Zorro of the poor," the journalists plaster their walls with his pictures, and a fat politician smiles at the thought of feeding the tourists more folklore. The ruling powers stay in place by robbing the bandit of the right to tell his own story. He can crash through society, but he can't turn it topsy-turvy.
The film cuts lightning fast between its man's multiple failed suicide attempts; cartoon style crashes into real human despair, as the bandit sags under the weight of being made into a symbol. But if his actions, once made immortal, are doomed to repeat themselves, they can also inspire new witnesses each time. Part of the bandit's legend (romantic, sad, or both) is that the low can combat the ones at the top. "Those with shoes won't survive!" a mad character calls, and at film's end the shoeless masses take joyously to the streets. Laws are what make people criminals, imprisoning them inside social structures, and lawlessness can be an expression of freedom. As long as there's justice, there will be bandits.