Gothic Rape in the Brazilian film ‘At Midnight I’ll Take your Soul’

Posted by Daniel Sá on April 13, 2012 in Daniel Serravalle de Sa, Guest Blog tagged with ,

Zé do Caixão or Coffin Joe makes his first appearance in the film At Midnight I will Take your Soul (1964). The character is played by José Mojica Marins, who is also the writer, director and producer of the film. Zé is a cruel undertaker in a nameless village in the hinterlands of Brazil who terrorizes its citizens with extreme violent behaviour. Although obsessed with the supernatural, he claims not to believe in Heaven or Hell, as for him the essence of life lies in the ‘immortality of the blood’. Therefore, his goal is to find the ‘perfect woman’ – a character with a similar mindset who can bear him the ‘perfect son’ to continue his lineage. Having murdered his former wife Lenita (Valéria Vasquez), whom he considered unsuitable for the task of providing him with a heir, his sexual desire homes in on his best friend’s fiancée Terezinha (Magda Mei), who becomes the repository of his quest for perfection. He brutally kills his best friend Antônio (Nivaldo de Lima) by drowning him, then beats and rapes his fiancée. Terezinha hangs herself after casting a curse on Zé do Caixão, vowing to return from the dead to reclaim his soul away – in reference to the film’s title. During the film Zé gouges out a man’s eyes and amputates an adversary’s fingers using a broken bottle. Still on the rampage, he also lashes an opponent with a whip (Genésio Carvalho) and savagely thrusts a crown of thorns into a man’s face. The film climaxes on All Souls’ Day with Zé envisioning his own dead body inside a coffin and being chased by a procession of ghosts. Terrified, he flees across an atmospheric graveyard and takes refuge in a crypt, where he has to face the decomposing, maggot-infested bodies of the couple he killed. The sight drives him out of his mind and leaves him in a death-like state. The undertaker’s vicious trilogy continues in the sequel This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1968) and unravels in Embodiment of Evil (2008).

Although Zé’s wrath is directed at anyone who thwarts his plans, the scene of Terezinha’s violation could be taken as an example of gender-specific violence, an issue that has been confronted in numerous Gothic works of fiction. From protean Gothic villains like Lovelace, through classic late eighteenth-century Gothic villains like Ambrosio and Schedoni, to Teddy’s rape/necrophilia scene in the B-movie American Gothic (1988), the representation of sexual assault on women has been a quintessential Gothic theme. Zé do Caixão can arguably be inserted in this long line of Gothic ravishers by means of his Victorian costume (resembling Jack the Ripper or Mr Hyde), his obsession with hereditary bloodlines (the Gothic ‘curse of the castle’ or the desire to rule beyond the grave), and his fixation with figures of the Christian imagination (witchcraft, the devil, the saving power of the cross). Further connections can be identified in the film’s style and cinematic vocabulary that include a chiaroscuro mise-en-scene and shadowy locales wherein threats consist of supernatural entities, grotesque creatures, and/or demented human beings.

Shot in black and white stock and lit for monochrome, the painfully long battering scene that takes place before the rape is shown almost without any cuts. Zé’s coup de grace takes the form of a punch delivered to Terezinha’s face. Because of an unexpected change in point of view, the scene becomes a reverse shot and the spectator is the one to receive the blow. Terezinha’s lips in extreme close-up are bleeding and half open in a sensual way. Zé now has her on the sofa. He kisses and feels her body, turning his face to the camera with a twisted grin – the scene resembling a vampire attack. The actual rape takes place off-camera and her deflowering is symbolised by the death of a canary, which Terezinha squeezes in her hand as she is being violated. The sequence concludes with Terezinha on the sofa looking somewhat pleased only to swear supernatural vengeance.

It could be claimed that At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is a ‘female revenge story’ in which the woman Zé raped comes back in the form of a ghost (real or imaginary) to take his soul away. Yet the moralistic conclusion of the film does little to diminish the potency of its sexualised scenes of brutality. The problem is the representation of sexual violence in association with eroticism. Sexual violence in horror fiction should not be seen to have a straightforward connection with what would be presumed to be its real-life enactment. The scene in question makes clear that what happened was against the woman’s will, illustrates how awful rape is, and effectively shows how it is linked to Zé do Caixão’s frustration and desire for dominance. It may actually galvanize constructive responses to the problem of actual rape in the real world. Novelist Anne Rice argues that rape is an archetypal fantasy and states that “it is hard to show it without being sexy because it is sexy” (Diehl 1993: 56). Some may disagree that rape is “sexy” but it is certainly sexual. The lowering of personal anxiety about images of sexual excitement in fiction is not the same as a lowering of moral principles in real life.

The use of reverse shot in the film represents a camera trick (a formal device) that obliterates the possibility of the audience identifying with the aggressor, challenging straightforward interpretations of sex-gender association systems. The inevitability of the blow delivered in reverse shot may signify that all viewers are unable to defend themselves against Zé do Caixão. At Midnight I’ll Take you Soul portrayed acts of violence that were unforeseen for Brazilian audiences in the 1960s – a prelude in certain ways to the Brazilian coup d’état, and the perfect introduction to the work of a master director.

References

At Midnight I’ll Take your Soul (À Meia Noite Levarei sua Alma) Cinemagia, Brazil, 2002, dir. José Mojica Marins.

Diehl, Digby (1993) ‘Ann Rice: The Playboy Interview’, Playboy, March, pp.53-64.

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