Canon Entry - The Given Word (1962)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
I am slowly realizing that social satire is my favorite genre of film. Perhaps it is the presence of many people in my life who urge me to never just blindly accept the status quo, or perhaps the genre appeals to my basically cynical nature - that things can never be as good as they purport to be. I prefer to think that, when these movies are done well, they can be extremely entertaining, yet shake their viewers out of their complacency and see the world as it really is and that there will always be a need for satirists because human foolishness and hubris are endless.
The Given Word follows a modest farmer named Ze, who has built a large cross to give to Santa Barbara at her church in return for a promise he has made to her. He travels seven leagues with his wife to deliver the cross, but is denied entrance to the church because his promise is at first deemed too trivial (he had prayed to the saint so that his burro, his “best friend”, would be healed from an injury from a tree branch), and then it is deemed sacrilegious since he had actually made the promise to a shaman and for an indigenous spirit that had become intertwined with Santa Barbara, similar to santeria in Cuba. Of course, such complexities are lost on Ze, a childlike man, who stubbornly refuses to move from his spot until he is allowed to deliver his promise. The optics of the event (a modern day Jesus!) predictably catches the attention of newspapermen and crowds as they swoop on Ze like vultures and twist his original intention to serve their own purposes.
For such a potentially heady, cerebral story, Anselmo Duarte tells the story in such a dynamic way that I would not have believed that this movie had been based on a play. Towards the beginning, we see a huge festival going on as Ze and his wife travel with cross in tow, a harbinger of the carnival that we will see later. There are a lot of dramatic pans and close-ups, even during the talky scenes where Ze or someone else is soliloquizing or arguing. Yet he also knows the power of a simple image, especially when he focuses just on Leonardo Villar on the steps. Villar, who originated the role of Ze on stage, is an arresting presence - handsome with intense eyes and presence. He seems almost too intelligent to play a man as childlike as Ze, yet he does so convincingly, even though it feels like that he could lash out in violence at any time at the injustice and bureaucratic stupidity around him.
Anselmo Duarte was an unusual choice as director for this movie, which was based on a stage play by Dias Gomes. He was best known as a director of musical comedies, and one of his biggest hits was a Carmen Miranda movie. Knowing the director’s background makes certain scenes click more such as all that capoeira (!), but, more seriously, the rapidity of the eruption of the media circus and actual circus that erupts around Ze is dramatic yet believable, and Duarte seems to know exactly who to focus on to comment on the whole spectacle, such as the bartender who has experienced a huge boost in business because of it.
The Given Word has been compared to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, understandably so. In Ace, Kirk Douglas plays a newspaperman who exploits the plight of some trapped miners, so he can write a story that could break him out of his poverty. Both movies are great in their own ways, but they are also quite different in telling ones. Given Word’s focus is on the object of all the attention rather than the one trying to exploit it. Given Word’s scope is also much wider because of its focus on religion. Given Word is also a bit more fair-minded when it comes to its portrayals of everyone, especially its religious figures. The main priest Olavo is definitely dogmatic and unsympathetic to Ze’s pleas to be let into the church, yet he could also be seen as a man of principle. For me personally, I was much more turned off by the higher-ranking, more politically-minded priests urging Olavo to think about the optics of not letting Ze into the church.
Of course, the story also shows just how nakedly greedy and opportunistic the other side is as well, especially the newspaperman who crafts the narrative that Ze is a modern-day Jesus who strives to deliver the poor from their bondage (Ze had also mentioned that he had decided to split up his land equally with the other peasants in the area). Yet this story inspires some of the actual disenfranchised people to come witness Ze’s attempts to get into the church, and some even find genuine inspiration in him, though the carnival that they throw would seem to detract from the legitimacy of their complaints.
The best satire is boundless and eternal, no matter how specific to the time period and place it may be. This movie dares us to laugh at Ze for his simpleton behavior, or to condemn the church unreservedly. Yet we also have to remember that real good from Ze’s faith in God, or at least Santa Barbara. We also get plenty of opportunities to see how flawed the anti-religious sentiments are well and that they are just as guilty of twisting’s Ze’s story as the church is. And before the audience thinks that they get can get away scot-free and judge people without impunity, we also have to remember that these problems concerning the huge divide between rich and poor and the separation of church and state still exist today and that this movie came out in 1962 and that while we have made significant progress to address these problems, they still exist in just as bad or in an even worse form to this day.