[29 March 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
At 75, he remains an icon in his native Brazil, a bold and brash filmmaker who takes the norms of society (and the country’s reliance on religion) and attacks them with anarchic glee. He’s a true eccentric, his off camera persona matching his onscreen façade right down to the overlong fingernails and sinister goatee. As the classic character Zé do Caixão, otherwise known as ‘Coffin Joe’, he introduced South America to true movie macabre, and as a writer/director, he’s dabbled in every genre from sexploitation to the Western. Now, Jose Mojica Marins has returned to his legendary undertaker character to conclude his long planned trilogy, and while Embodiment of Evil (now on DVD and Blu-ray from Synapse Films) can be enjoyed by anyone curious about the foreign fright master, those who’ve followed the character since its inception will be richly rewarded.
After spending 40 years in an prison asylum, the craven killer known as Coffin Joe is finally being released. With the help of a lawyer, who just happens to be the wife of a policeman that the villain blinded decades before, he reconnects with his assistant Bruno and sets up shop in the slums of São Paulo. There, he “deputizes” some new followers and begins his ultimate quest - to gain immortality via finding the “perfect woman” to continue his bloodline and bear his son. There are several candidates among the disenfranchised and destitute, but Joe insists on finding just the right one. During the search, he is tormented by the past, seeing ghostly visions of those he has wronged. As the law comes closer and closer to capturing him, Coffin Joe must avoid local superstition and forces from the Underworld, each one desperate to see him fail.
It’s so satisfying to see that little has change in the near half century since Jose Mojica Marins first unleashed this heretical undertaker on the God-fearing populace of Brazil. Still angry, still vehemently humanist, and still ready to blaspheme and belittle everything - from the Saints to the State, Coffin Joe has become even more relevant in the new century. He’s like a dissident distributing death, not a call for change. In his top hat and cape, he’s a case of nasty nostalgia, a reminder of what we used to fight for and an illustration of why said struggles are far from over. Draped in lots of gruesome atmosphere and some amazing special effects, Marins turns this final chapter in the character’s quest for everlasting life into a Grand Guignol geek show, complete with shocking sequences of vivisection, cannibalism and sexual sadism.
But it’s the message that’s much more important to Marins than the splatter. This is a movie that challenges the conventional wisdom, that argues for a man “higher than God and lower than Satan”. At any opportunity, from a minor moment interacting with his potential minions to major clashes with authority, Coffin Joe spews his “man first” mantras. It’s a philosophy based in freedom, self-actualization and fulfillment, anti-establishment stances, and most importantly, a rejection of faith. Clearly, Marins sees the Church as the root of all evil. He constantly challenges it necessity and own hypocrisy, even offering up a priest character who, while seeking revenge, has a few questionably kinky habits all his own. In Coffin Joe’s world, life is all that matters - and a life free of the restraints and unrealistic demands of The Bible is the most important of all.
This doesn’t mean that Embodiment of Evil skimps on the splatter, however. Like Dario Argento’s finale for his Three Mothers series, this is a film that relishes the repulsive nature of post-modern gore in all its ingenious facets. There are scenes that simply stun you in their cruelty, including one particular moment when Marins’ “blinds” a subject with her own scalp. Yes, it’s as nasty as it sounds. Perhaps the most disturbing scene is the trip into Purgatory, Coffin Joe confronting the keeper of said dominion as acts of horrific physical depravity play out in the background. Like the filmmakers he’s most influenced by - Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger - Marins believes in the power of images. Even if they don’t make much sense, we can still appreciate the artistry, impact, and vision involved.
And thanks to the callbacks to his previous films, tying everything together with an attempted narrative flow, Embodiment of Evil keeps everyone happy. Newcomers to the series can pick up the plot almost instantly while enjoying the up to date gruesomeness, while fans familiar with Joe’s insane ravings will get a healthy dose of said screeds. There are times when things seem purposefully confrontational and the actors playing the policemen occasionally come across as stodgy and amateurish. Indeed, one frequently feels that the cast can’t quite get a handle of Marins’ motives. Sometimes, they sync up with him quite nicely. At other instances, it’s like their starring in a parody of his impassioned secular scarefests. Sadly, the Blu-ray package (which presents the film in a stunning HD transfer) doesn’t offer a lot of context. We get a nice Making-of, and some film festival footage, but what one would really like is a commentary. If there’s a filmmaker in the world of horror who needs to explain himself, it’s Marins.
Still, unlike many former masters who return to the territory that made them famous, this is one filmmaker that truly delivers with Embodiment of Evil. While it doesn’t have the daft deranged darkness of his first few films, or the intellectualized assault of his pseudo-documentaries, it’s a brilliant wrap-up to an equally impressive career. Indeed, it’s rare when someone can be both revered and reviled in his own country, a legend to some, a legitimate threat to others. Though a lot of his issues within Brazil stem directly for the way he thumbs his nose at their convictions, Jose Mojica Marins wouldn’t be so important if he wasn’t so good at what he does. After nearly five decades delivering the kind of foreign fright flick shivers that turn the curious into obsessives, his latest is a triumph of tenacity and temerity. If ever a filmmaker lived up to his own self-created reputation, it’s Jose Mojica Marins. He doesn’t just make Coffin Joe movies - he lives them. And a world of scary movie mavens is happier for it.