By Jeffrey Bussmann
For reasons that will be obvious to readers acquainted with the work, João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas rightly belongs on any list of unfilmable novels. Nevertheless, it has not inhibited the production of two cinematic adaptations. The artist Rosângela Rennó (b. 1962, Belo Horizonte; lives and works in Rio de Janeiro) appropriated portions of footage from both films to make the dynamic two-channel video Febre do Sertão (2008).
The 1965 film Grande Sertão attempts the fool’s errand of shoehorning Guimarães Rosa’s sprawling story into a ninety minute cinematic format. Naturally, the epic and meandering narrative, qualities inherent to the novel, are entirely lost. Some twenty years later Rede Globo produced the miniseries Grande Sertão: Veredas starring Tony Ramos and Bruna Lombardi as Riobaldo and Diadorim, respectively. This television adaptation, benefitting from marquee actors and Globo’s production finesse, achieves a certain grandeur in its own right. Lacking from both adaptations is any effort to preserve Riobaldo’s first-person storytelling.
Rosângela Rennó typically works with found materials such as photographs, video, and ephemera. For Febre do Sertão she culled scenes from the film and miniseries, weaving them into a direct dialogue between Riobaldo and Diadorim. No other character appears onscreen. There is a distinct peculiarity to the interaction of the two characters. Diadorim (always on the left screen) from the 1965 version only ever speaks to Riobaldo (always on the right screen) from the 1985 version, and vice-versa. The conversation takes place across a chasm of time, lending a feeling of impossibility that underlines the enforced chastity of Diadorim’s and Riobaldo’s seemingly taboo relationship.
Rennó deliberately anthropomorphizes the mechanics of the video display. The two video channels could have been unobtrusively projected onto a wall, or played on two mounted flatscreen televisions. But in the initial showing of the work she used portable DVD players placed purposefully atop podiums. Each screen is angled slightly inward so that they face one another, giving the impression that a conversation is happening—one to which the viewer is a third-party onlooker. In a subsequent exhibition, which I organized this year, they were configured to two older CRT television sets, each similarly situated on its own pedestal. The height and dimensions of the TV screen make the talking heads close to life-size. Not only does the display approximate a human presence, but its columnar shape imparts a totemic quality. They are immobile pillars, save for the flickering screen, and the gap between them will never be narrowed.
The conversation and interplay between Diadorim and Riobaldo is by turns humorous, angered, solemn, tender, and tragic. The febre or “fever” of the title is set from the very start with Tony Ramos’s Riobaldo protesting like a madman that he is “Not of the Devil and not of God.” Likewise, the piece closes with Maurício do Valle’s Riobaldo—the actor later known for his iconic role as Antônio das Mortes in two Glauber Rocha films—cursing the whirlwind in the middle of the crossroads. These ominous bookends give the impression that the viewer is witnessing a nightmare. At one point a bewildered Riobaldo seems to be hallucinating as he gazes upon Diadorim sucking the end of a sugarcane stalk. It is a moment of homoeroticism, yet the audience is likely to be aware that Diadorim is a woman living as a man, in a way that a reader of the novel may not be until the fact is finally revealed.
The pledging of oaths acts as a constant refrain throughout the work as Diadorim and Riobaldo strengthen their mutual bond. Questions are raised about who rules the sertão, in both human and spiritual terms, and who is in charge of determining destiny. Riobaldo questions his own agency and Diadorim placates him. They confess secrets in intimate moments, though never the pivotal mystery that stands between them. Other forces prevail in spite of their pact, whether divine or demonic, preventing the love Diadorim and Riobaldo share from ever being consummated.
Rennó has dealt with national history in her work, even reaching as far back as Cabral’s “discovery” of Brazil in her 2000 video Vera Cruz. It cannot go unnoticed that in Febre do Sertão, beyond the subject of jagunços in the 1920s and 30s, there is a strangely fortuitous significance to the production dates of the two Grande Sertão: Veredas films she appropriated. The back-and-white version coincides with the early days of military rule in Brazil, as well as the founding of Rede Globo, while the latter version is timed to the restoration of democracy. Globo, castigated by some as a mouthpiece of the dictatorship, emerged from the period as a juggernaut with a near market share monopoly, allowing for the kind of ambitious programming like a twenty-five episode miniseries of Brazil’s most important novel.
Meanwhile there is something grimly constant about the sertão. It is a potent example of the drastic socio-economic disparity between the country’s prosperous South and hardscrabble Northeast. The twentieth century’s decades of upheaval and rapid modernization have largely skipped over it. The area remains a place forgotten by time, forsaken by God, and ignored by most of Brazil. It is a fantasy realm in the eyes of many, where folkloric tales can still transpire. Rennó’s Febre do Sertão, her fever dream of the backland plains and Guimarães Rosa’s futile lovers, brings up this inconvenient truth.
Jeffrey Bussmann is the Associate Director of Development for Individual Gifts at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. In the spring of 2014 he organized the exhibition Videoarte Brasil and the screening program Videoarte Brasil 1970s as part of ICA’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The pair of projects examined the history and legacy of ICA’s seminal 1975 exhibition Video Art, the first ever international survey of the nascent medium, which featured some of the earliest examples of video art to be produced in Brazil. He is also a co-founder and editor of Title Magazine, an online publication dedicated to advancing critical dialogue about art in and around Philadelphia.