The Cemetery of Lost Souls (O Cemitério das Almas Perdidas) opens with a text dedication to José Mojica Marins, who died in February 2020. Marins made Brazil’s first ever horror film, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964) which, along with This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967) and the belated Embodiment of Evil (2008), formed a trilogy spanning the long, murderous mission of arrogant, utterly amoral undertaker Zé de Caixão/Coffin Joe (played by Marins himself) as he seeks the perfect woman with whom to sire an Übermensch son and perpetuate his own bloodline. Appearing in several other films, and in three (now lost) television series (hosted by Marins entirely in character), Coffin Joe has became a horror icon in Brazil (and beyond) – and while he comes with certain gothic influences, the long-nailed, top-hatted villain is also very much a product of his environment, embodying all manner of conflicts within the Brazilian character.
If Marins’ perverse paternal presence looms over the national horror scene that he himself spawned, then writer/director Rodrigo Aragão comes as his natural successor – an independent genre filmmaker who embraces excess while exploring specifically Brazilian terrains of psychological and sociological trauma with a manic sense of mythopoeia. A book of black magic and a ruined stone church play as prominent a part in The Cemetery of Lost Souls as they did in Aragão’s previous The Black Forest (A Mata Negra, 2018), but this is otherwise a very different film charting the endless clash of indigenous shamanic practices and imported Christian values from which the Brazilian nation has been so tempestuously forged.
The story starts centuries ago in Portugal, with a blind priest writing a grimoire as the monstrous Satan himself whispers into his ear (and the Dies irae plays ominously on João MacDowell’s score). Inquisitors horrifically slay the priest and seize the book, which is then stolen by a murderous Jesuit (Renato Chocair). Inspired by the third-century Cyprian of Antioch, a sorceror who converted to Christianity and was said to have written a grimoire of his own, this Jesuit adopts the name Cipriano, and brings the tome across the stormy seas to a Brazilian mission, acquiring a cult following along the way with his devilish miracles (all requiring blood sacrifice). The book, which over the course of the film will be used, abused, stolen, torn apart and reunified, changing forever the cultural landscape of its new home, becomes a bloody chronicle of the uneasy marriage, encoded in its very pages, between paganism and Christianity – a tension which, in Brazil, is inscribed in the conflict of native and colonial concerns.
On the wall of the church crypt where Cipriano now conducts his rites, there is the prominent Latin inscription mortui resurgent (‘the dead shall rise again’) – and sure enough, even as the film turns to a troupe of itinerant grand guignol performers stopping to perform near the church’s ruins today, Cipriano’s necromantic legacy will return to haunt the present, as he and his cursed followers seek the book’s missing pages to help them take their Satanic onslaughts beyond the church precinct where they are currently trapped.
With its black magic and necromancy, zombies and devils – and its Master of Ceremonies Fred (Francisco Gaspar) whose look is modelled on Coffin Joe’s -the troupe’s stage show represents an uncanny mise en abyme of the horrors in the church cemetery nearby, as though their routine has long been a mere dress rehearsal for their destined encounter with Cipriano. Jorge (Diego Garcias) in particular seems to have a supernatural link to this site of past terrors – before he has even arrived, he has a succession of interlaced dreams/nightmares in which he stumbles into the cemetery, runs into the native girl Aiyra (Ailana Lopes), and witnesses the aftermath of a massacre of her people.
In bringing these modern Brazilians into collision with the country’s colonial history, Aragão weaves a complicated narrative, readily leaping backwards and forwards through time as the past refuses to stay buried, restaging its atrocities in the present. Accordingly, well-mounted flashbacks reveal the fate of Aiyra’s tribe, and the many outrages committed by Cipriano in his invasive diabolical ascendancy. Among his men, only the tonsured Joaquim (Caio Macedo) shows the Christian qualities of compassion and mercy, and is willing to sacrifice himself for a higher cause. The rest are, to a man, vicious brutes, murderers and religious hypocrites. It is these monstrous revenants whom the circus performers must face – although it will turn out that the good can be resurrected too.
A gory tale of the eternally returning struggle between good and evil, The Cemetery of Lost Souls turns Brazilian history into its own heady, bloody myth, making surreally theatricalised horror fiction of horrors entirely real. The film is beautifully lit, its production design conjures a low-budget miracle of atmosphere across multiple periods – and best of all, it does the spirit of Marins proud, while remaining true to its own oneiro-gothic vibe.
© Anton Bitel