The opening shot in Rodrigo Aragão’s A Mata Negra (aka The Black Forest) is of a stone church atop a rocky outcrop, overlooking the forest below. There humble herbalist Pai Pedro (Markus Konka) finds an abandoned girl, and takes her in as his own. Years later, foundling Clara (Carol Aragão) is a good-natured, naïve teenager – and on her first lone trip into the village to run ageing Pedro’s stall while he rests in their forest hut, Clara is already set on a path of corruption. The scale of this is at first small, but nonetheless significant: her clean clothes and face are covered in shit flung by some wayward children; her purse is stolen by a thief; she falls in love at first sight with ambitious Jean (Elbert Merlin); she has her first run-in with disapproving Christian evangelist Abigail (Mayra Alarcón); and, drawn to the glint of gold coins, she meets a strange albino man (Walderrama Dos Santos) with a book of demonic spells who asks her, in exchange for the coins, to perform an all-night black magic ritual over his dying body, and makes her promise to burn the book thereafter. She does not fulfil the latter oath, and so, despite her essential goodness, strays irrevocably towards the dark side, resorting to one Satanic rite after another in her desperation to fix a long, corpse-strewn trail of missteps.
A cautionary tale about the dangers of dabbling in the black arts, A Mata Negra initially plays out almost like an ethnographic fable of the eternal struggle between good and evil, gently documenting the cultural, political, sexual and religious tensions within a tiny Brazilian village. This fabulisitic mode is in keeping with the magical realism so often associated with South America’s artistic traditions – and yet the viewer should also remember, and indeed will be reminded, that Brazil is also the home of José Mojica Marins and his on-screen alter ego Zé de Caixão (or ‘Coffin Joe’), whose surreal cinematic excesses have been inf(l)ecting Brazilian horror ever since his first appearance in At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma, 1963). For A Mata Negra features coffins and religious hypocrisy (a common theme in the ‘Coffin Joe’ films, and here embodied by Abigail and Jackson Antune’s manipulative preacher Francisco des Graças) aplenty – and as ghosts, the devils and the dead rise, as necromancy and live burials become the norm, and as a bloody massacre takes place in a whore house and the home of a pious egg farmer (Francisco Gaspar) – named Zé perhaps in tribute to Coffin Joe – is brought down by his own demonically possessed poultry, the film’s sweet little village is taken over by Marins madness.
In the ensuing pandemonium, Aragão proves the old adages that it takes a village to raise a child, and that there is nothing more global than the local. It may start small, but by the end, A Mata Negra has expanded its themes to a universal, apocalyptic scale. The film is bloody and bananas (and includes bunches of both in its exuberant narrative), using its limited budget to craft a gorily unhinged world of hell with a diabolically compromised innocent at its centre. In the end, the village’s church, though now in ruins, remains the last, improbable bastion of hope against a path of devilish destruction down which it is all to easy to embark – but it proves far more straightforward to raise the dead than to retrace that path’s twists and turns back to the forest’s Edenic state. For in Aragão’s foundling footage, a community’s moral failings are disinterred, everyone is implicated in their own undoing, and the chickens have well and truly come home to roost.
© Anton Bitel