Features | The Man, The Myth, Mojica: Zé do Caixão’s Incredible Comeback

By Christoph Huber

Using excerpts of an interview conducted together with Vera Brozzoni, Markus Keuschnigg, and Olaf Möller.

“With this film I seem to have been successful,” says a visibly satisfied José Mojica Marins a few days after the midnight premiere of his magnificent comeback film Encarnação do Demônio at the 2008 Venice film festival. “People told me that it started as a screening, but it ended as a nightmare!” And horror is the stuff that this Brazilian genre pioneer’s dreams are made of, according to myth, which has been inseparable from (and cultivated by) the man ever since 1963, when, for the low-budget mondo weirdo miracle At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, he created one of the most perversely alluring (and subversively enduring) characters to walk the screen. The fearsome gravedigger Zé do Caixão, (much) later successfully promoted to international icon status as “Coffin Joe,” is a walking contradiction: hero and villain, despicably ruthless and admirably single-minded, a proud atheist that can only emerge from and subsist within a deeply ingrained Catholic context and, most deliciously, a steadfast renouncer of the spiritual realm who is nevertheless constantly dealing with and haunted by its otherworldly manifestations.

With Zé do Caixão, Mojica managed to create a vessel able to contain many of the antagonisms and ambivalences of Brazilian society. This indefatigable, nefarious, but also deeply honest seeker of immortality through a perfect bloodline (and the appropriate woman to bear his superior spawn) immediately became a hero of the poor and underprivileged, who undoubtedly responded to his liberating, anarchic anger against a hypocritical establishment—church, politics, and police inevitably form a corrupt trifecta of institutionalized evil challenged by Zé. Yet the black-clad gravedigger with his trademark accessories (top hat, cape, and those long, long nails) also is a frustrating force himself, stifling a timid society, which he punishes with contempt for its weakness. As the aptly schizophrenic words of the catchy gospel ballad over the opening credits of Mojica’s horror anthology The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968) have it: “His reign is for revolt/His orders are for hatred.”

But while Zé’s first film appearance in At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, naturally in a graveyard, caused consternation and silence, the opposite is true of Mojica’s own, controversial public appearances. He capitalized on his screen persona’s popularity to the point of convergence, including his own television program and culminating in amazingly absurd product branding, like a deodorant called “Mistério” and even a “Zé do Caixão” Volkswagen, fabricated from 1969 to 1970. At that time, having succeeded again with a slightly less arte povera, but just as astonishing and contentious sequel, Tonight I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1966), Mojica mostly had come to use Zé as an audience-attracting anthology-format device for the two things he loved (and loved to create) most: comic books and films. In those, Zé functioned very much like the Crypt Keeper of Tales From the Crypt (with similar tales of macabre revenge and punishment). In O Estranho mundo de do Caixão, the aforementioned omnibus, the title character does not even appear (discounting the opening tune’s warbling endorsement of the “Man without God/ do Caixão”), although Mojica shows up as a somewhat similarly disposed professor conducting cruel experiments with cannibalistic outcomes in the anthology’s best episode.

More and more, and not unwillingly, Mojica became one in the public’s mind with his fecund creation: This walking contradiction was indeed partly truth and partly fiction, as slyly and playfully acknowledged by its maker in the 1970 film he considered his “greatest achievement in terms of social commentary,“ Awakening of the Beast (originally titled Ritual of the Sadists, and only released in its original form in Brazil in 1990; its banning was the biggest of Mojica’s constant battles with the censors). Typically, this gleeful éxposé of a decadent society’s drug abuse and sexual aberrations gradually turns into a vindication of Mojica himself, who tellingly stands public trial on television twice (there’s a TV-show-within-the-TV-show) and rebukes the first attack in which he, a self-avowed autodidact, is accused of being “not intellectually prepared to understand this discussion, [Zé]” with the rejoinder, “Excuse me, but Zé do Caixão stayed behind in the graveyard. You’re talking to José Mojica Marins.”

Certainly that shows the sophistication of this supposedly “primitive artist” (“and pure filmmaker” goes the entire Glauber Rocha verdict quote—and clearly relished by Mojica—in Awakening of the Beast), even as his (self-)conscious mythomania threatens to overshadow his play with identities. When he was a political candidate for the Brazilian Worker’s Party PTB in 1982—in an irony worthy of the contempt exuded by his famous screen character, pretty much around the same time when lack of other opportunities forced Mojica to turn towards explicit sex films—he ran on the ballot (unsuccessfully) as Zé do Caixão (a not uncommon practice in Brazil). But later he at least supported the spreading of the story that he would have won, had he not made the mistake of running under his real name—since the overwhelming majority voted for the (in)famous Zé. This may throw some other legends in relief, even as they seem in total adherence to his directorial work, like Mojica’s repeated assertion that the first film he saw as a kid (in the cinema his father managed) was a documentary about venereal diseases: “I learned everything about movie watching then,” he concludes the story in the hour-long documentary Maldito – Coffin Joe: The Strange World of José Mojica Marins (2001), which is an excellent introduction to his work (and myth).

This darkly humourous attitude notwithstanding, by his sheer presence Mojica still does command a crazy, mythical power that is wholly authentic, as we witness when our quartet shows up for the interview. Like Zé, he prefers to declaim his hyperbolic statements in a hypnotic Brazilian-Portuguese singsong manner, his sotto voce enunciation repeatedly coming to a near-halt to savour such heavily and happily used expressions as “inferno,” “grande,” and, especially “horror.” Mostly, we can only follow his grandiloquent gestures and declarations in awe-struck silence, contemplating the mysterious, maybe magical nature of this persona(l) act, occasionally thankful that, with our attractive female colleague Vera Brozzoni in tow as a possible sacrificial victim of the kind much to Zé’s liking, we actually seem to have soothed this seemingly supernatural being. Having turned 70 before the shoot of his long-postponed dream project Encarnação do Demônio—the legendary last part of the Zé trilogy he wanted to conclude exactly 40 years earlier—Mojica (born in March 1936, on, naturally, Friday the 13th), does not show any signs of fatigue. Instead he jumps around the table like a young man when explaining in detail (and with even more exalted, swerving hand movements) how he disregards crossing the line of the camera axis according to his autodidactic method. “I never read a book about cinema. It all comes from my head; any book would impede me. I did not want to make normal cinema. I broke rules, like the axis rule, with my technique. And I hate those technical gadgets like the image assist. I just tell them: Take the camera and a 25 objective lens. No, a 14. I don’t even need to look.”

Breaking rules is certainly a key element of the Mojica mystique. The immediate impact of At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul surely was connected to Zé’s outrageous tortures and blasphemous pronouncements (on Holy Friday he promptly declares, “I have to eat meat tonight, as if it’s human flesh!” then savours the blessing of the priest leading an accidentally passing procession, as he bites into the leg of lamb). But the film’s lasting power springs from its unconventional aesthetic, a cramped, intense, expressionistic low-budget style that makes you forget Mojica isn’t (and doesn’t really aspire to being) much of a storyteller. Actually, the Zé trilogy repeats the same paltry plot over and over: Zé rages against man and challenges god and the devil, sadistically and methodically kills and maims in order to get closer to his goal of conceiving a child with the perfect woman (some resist his unabashedly sexual advances and pay bitterly, but mostly the beauties just line up, falling for Zé’s inexplicable, superhuman allure). Increasingly he’s haunted by visions of his victims, occasioning doubts about his materialistic, Nietzschean worldview. Then fate catches up with him. But Mojica’s conception of horror has less to do with plot than with images that seem channelled from the subconscious, scary philosophical ideas, and the theatre of cruelty.
At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul remains in some way its most intense expression, having been realized on a shoestring budget, the ensuing glitches somehow contributing to its bizarre power: There are out-of-focus-moments, three sets (a 60-square-foot studio served as the “wide-stretching” woods, with help of a fog machine, impressing a visiting Glauber Rocha), and the choppy delivery of amateur actors, whom Mojica prefers, as he can provoke reactions with pliers and, he claims, even small bombs. Also surely, because he stands out all the more himself, most impressively in an uncut, maniac monologue many minutes long, emphasizing how the eerie poetry of the Zé films has as much to do with the darkly lyrical beauty of his incantatory speeches as with the inspired visual touches. Mojica’s constant collaborator and cameraman Giorgio Attili regularly wrestles some lovely chiaroscuro effects from the hysterically enclosing mise en scène in bare-boned black-and-white. And before , during a directorial-trademark escalating thunderstorm, meets his maker—after encountering a ghost literally surrounded by glitter (which was directly applied to the negative, a prime example of the insane ingenuity Mojica is driven to by lack of funds)—Mojica’s nightmare vision is given cinephilic credence when the locks are chopped off, Bruce-Lee-style, of the coffins of Zé’s two most important casualties: de Oliveira and de Andrade!

As with all great horror icons, ostensible death cannot stop Zé from returning: Before the credits of Tonight I’ll Possess Your Corpse—flashing by as an amazing, jittery jumble of block letters—are over, the gravedigger is not only resurrected (or rather, retroactively spared death), but also acquitted in court, while still wearing a blindfold, a nice dig at Justitia and a fine reintroduction of Mojica’s major theme of perception vis-à-vis hallucination (stretching from the spiritual to the social realm, not to mention the demonstrative theatrical performance/audience aspect of his staging). At first glance the film may look like more of the same, but with bigger means—the trailer luridly promises to up the ante on previously seen terrors: “200 snakes! 300 spiders! The tortures of hell! 1000 extras!” But Mojica uses the opportunity to expand on the Zé legend, including ideas and details he had to rush over the first time around. This conte cruel part deux touches more extensively on the philosophical nature of Zé’s quest for the perfect bloodline through a superior woman. Weary, but categorically, Mojica emphasizes in the interview once more that this should not be confused with the despicable racial ideas of the Nazis: “Zé is not like Hitler,” he says, pointing out that in Encarnação do Demônio, the setting finally having moved from the isolated Brazilian countryside to the urban slums of São Paulo, his female followers, quite logically, are also Asian and African-American.

In Tonight I’ll Possess Your Corpse they are, outstanding enough for the provincial circumstances, “materialists, the daughters of atheists” and the like. Past midway comes the film’s legendary coup de resistance: Zé is dragged out of bed by a Tourneurian, featureless black figure and descends into hell, where black-and-white gives way to garish colour photography. The ensuing, joyfully sick baroque psychedelia—pink-blue and solarized red-green—with upside-down punishments and a whipping and a screaming as whopping as the crazy colours, is worthy of Mario Bava, emphasizing Mojica’s closeness to Italian cinema: horror (here and in certain remarkable proto-gore excesses), the Spaghetti Western (with its archetypal nowheresville settings in between saloon and graveyard, a music box Zé listens to while ignoring his victims reminiscent of 1965’s For a Few Dollars More), and even a sudden shot of an angry young man staring down the street that seems pure Pasolini. One of the memorably pulpy supporting characters (Zé of course has a hunchbacked minion), a muscleman with a perplexing “negative” eye (the iris is dark, the pupil light), is even compared to Hercules. By the time Mojica lets Zé drown amidst the skeletons of his victims, after a miraculous, Malickian shot through the water surface, desperately crying out to a priest for the crucifix he just renounced, you should think he’d let him return, with Leone-like aspirations, to transcend to operatic heights.

Instead, a 40-year struggle began, and the nature of the third Zé film changed accordingly. Encarnação do Demônio seems to proceed seamlessly, with that unmistakable, low-pitched timbre droning on the soundtrack, as those long-nailed fingers stretch out of a cell door’s inspection window after 40 years. Mojica explains that he returned as Zé at the behest of the producers: The young doppelgänger he had wondrously unearthed is now only in black-and-white flashback shots intercut with material from the older films, which feel like a complementary echo of the gaudy sequences in Tonight I’ll Possess Your Corpse and Awakening of the Beast.These, in turn, change from TV’s black-and-white horror noir soundstage to a crazed colour rush for its culmination when LSD test subjects are confronted with all kinds of Zé images (whom one already describes as, exactly, the “incarnation of the demon”), since only Zé is guaranteed to provoke a reaction. Intriguingly, Mojica conceived this film in response to a time when “everybody wanted two things: to talk to god and to take LSD,” while his original draft for the third Zé film only had one scene in the city: “Zé went into a church to get LSD.” Forty years later, the film has turned into a portrayal of urban squalor that feels like an angry expansion of the incident that inspired Awakening (Mojica saw “death squad cops” beat up a pregnant prostitute) and leaves Elite Squad in the dust(“Everybody has seen it“, nods Mojica, “but I only watched it after shooting my film”). Mojica is straightforward about his intentions: “There is a social message. For oppression, the authorities use a law that does not exist: the law of violence. I feel the need to challenge that.”

Certainly, the propensity for anarchic insurrection has been fuelled during difficult decades. In the ‘70s, as funds diminished, Mojica moved from the intriguingly arty, absurd trance parable Finis Hominis (1971) to churning out then-popular pornochanchadas Brazilian sex comedies. The trashy revenge story Perversion (1979) represents a particularly weird mix of sloppy conveyor-belt “eroticism” and remnants of perverse Mojica specialties, appropriately scored to an uninspired, unfathomable muzak medley ranging from the “Bridge on the River Kwai March” to “Je t’aime… moi non plus.” Although an appearance in Rogério Sganzerla’s structuralist mindfuck O Abismo (1977), one third of which seems to consist of Mojica cavorting for the camera in close-up, proved that his aura was undiminished (he’s supposed to be some mad professor, but he’s really just Mojica-Zé, all deranged stare and long nails), he could no longer capitalize on it. It is all the more touching that Encarnação is dedicated to Sganzerla, one of the pioneers of Brazil’s cinéma marginal to whom Mojica has a special affinity: “Rogerio, Glauber and Júlio Bressane gave me a lot of strength back then when I was ridiculed.” By the ‘80s, Mojica only survived by directing explicit sex films, becoming the Brazilian pioneer in yet another genre some 20 years after the nation’s first horror film, by directing its primal scene of animal love. Although by the time of Maldito, somewhat vindicated by international rediscovery in the ‘90s, he would wryly joke about this: Some of the documentary’s funniest scenes concern the German shepherd (“a better, more passionate lover than any man I’ve ever seen”) with whom actress Vania Bournier has an affair in 24 Hours of Explicit Sex (1985)—for which her husband seeks revenge by seducing a mule. “I cannot recommend that to anyone,” Mojica muses retrospectively.

Is it a coincidence that one of the most incredible scenes of Encarnação also features an animal and a nude woman? At some point, Zé cuts open a dead pig, from which a beautiful young girl emerges for a bloody embrace. It is one of Mojica’s most memorable invocations of his patented mixture of torture and ecstasy, but it is also emblematic of the film’s uninterrupted series of unexpectedly strong transgressive images. Hardly released from prison, Zé regroups to an underground hideout in the favela, first daring his followers to prove their allegiance by handing them pistols to shoot themselves, then conducting a series of experiments involving prospective mothers for his child, which involves all kinds of vermin and medical malpractice (one enthusiastic specimen is served her just-removed buttocks). And there is a scene involving female genitalia and a rat that conjures up memories of American Psycho. Completely gone is the cheap look of the early features, but the consistently visually stunning shots of DP José Roberto Elizier still have a palpable quality. The slicker, up-to-date look was also an idea of the producers, Mojica admits, but he manages to avoid the synthetic feel of much contemporary horror by insisting on the absence of digital effects. The only exception is the set for yet another Dante-inspired purgatory to which Zé inevitably returns, which is just too delirious to be true, anyway. Otherwise, “Everything is real, even the scene with the woman and the rat,” Mojica insists. “It is very important for me that these things cannot be manufactured in a computer if they should have power.“

And power they have, even more so as Zé’s adventures are put into perspective by the abusive methods of a vengeful police general, who hunts the gravedigger alongside a hypocritical exorcist. Marins describes the resulting anthology of shocking images as a “bible of horror for Latin American Cinema: It has everything a horror movie should have: Beautiful women and really ugly men. Nightmare visions that rise from the imaginary. It includes tortures not even the Chinese have thought of.” But even as he concedes that “there are moments that take the mind to the supernatural, that show all the faces of death,” Mojica points out that “these tortures are real to me”—referring both to his mythical character’s paranoid state of mind and to the actual terrors that clearly inspire his subversive fantasies. Even as Zé’s final confrontation ends in a breathtaking shot that leaves him literally crucified, there follows an even more tremendous tableau promising eternal return. Rejoicing at yet another paradox, Mojica promises continuation, even as he welcomes the apocalypse: “The next movie may be the horror bible for the entire world. This time there had to be a limit. The crew was horrified. But now they seem to be ready to go beyond the limit. I want to show what is happening in the world right now, which I believe is a new Sodom and Gomorrah. The world has become completely bizarre. Human beings are regressing, while the rational animals are progressing. Humanity is going down.” No wonder Zé’s stock keeps rising.

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