Rasga Mortalha

Rasga Mortalha
Thiago Martins de Melo
Stop motion film
HD, 16:9,13:50 min, color, sound

Rasga Mortalha comes from the legend of the owl “Suindara” – much told in the folklore of the North and Northeast of Brazil – to address the socio-political urgencies of the country. It is believed that the appearance of its white figure, followed by the wild cry – which resembles the sound of a cloth being torn in half – carries with it the sign of death. As a metaphorical vector for thinking, and also transcending, a fatalistic view of Brazilian history, the artist uses this popular tradition to cross centuries of public events with memories, references and personal imaginations, creating a charged and sharp narrative. 

By Germano Dushá

The Suindara owl: its raspy screech pierces the air around its ghostly white form. In low silent swoops it indwells the twilight, bearing a bad omen with its strident cry like that sound of ripping cloth.

A legend, common in Brazil’s North and Northeastern regions, the story of a young wailing woman (a professional mourner) who fell in love with a young lad, only to be murdered by a hitman hired by the boy’s mother, a rich countess who was not very keen on romance. Suindara, as she was called, was well liked by everyone and was buried in a beautiful mausoleum, on which was sculpted the image of a white owl with a portly body, like Suindara’s. Eliel, her father, a powerful sorcerer, was able to read in his tarot cards what had happened and conjured some magic of revenge against the countess, whereby the spirit of his daughter penetrated the statue that decorated her tomb, making it come alive. The bird then flew across the village to the window of the countess’s castle. There, it let out its uncanny, spine tingling screech that sounded for all the world like the ear-splitting sound of a piece of cloth being torn in two. In the morning, the woman was found still in bed, her lifeless body lying under the fragments of her shredded silk garments.

It is commonly believed that the Suindara owl foreshadows a person’s death. Anyone who spots one flying over the houses is overtaken by a feeling of dread. Certainly, it is not a good sign. These birds, as stated in the tale by Moreira Campos: “have a silky smooth flight, flapping deftly and lightly, like a sigh of death, imperceptible. At an odd moment, one can become suddenly aware of the presence of their presence and their noiseless feathered wings. […] The silence is pierced by their eerie screech that sounds like the ripping of a shroud, foreboding, jolting the sick from their slumber.”

In the film by Thiago Martins de Melo, Rasga mortalha (2019) [pp. 275-88], the myth around the suindara owl operates as a trigger, a sort of metaphoric vector for critically considering and transcending a fatalistic understanding of the recurrent conflicts in the history of Brazil. Between a fallen sky and a land that still harvests the nefarious fruits of slavery, the film reveals the shadows that accompany the subjugated and the bold ones who rise up against the large landowners. The risk is imminent. The shadow of death is constantly present.

Rasga mortalha announces the hour of the crime. The moment when one spots, on the horizon of the vast sea, the impossible image of the caravels, or, on the narrow streets of the favelas, the terrifying shape of the caveirões. It identifies who is the “goat marked for death,” each time that the scythe is going to swing down, in the wake of the crusades and inquisitions. In this state of exception, in service to an economy of crises and a politics of scarcity, the cry of death lies in the maintenance of the abyssal inequality; in the sweeping away of opposition by blows of the billy club; in the clanging of pots and pans beaten in upscale neighborhoods, couched salivatingly in overeager, inhumane anti-intellectualism and medieval conservatism. It is part of the organized flattening normalization aimed at eradicating the forms of life. Under the school of the tyrants in tropical lands reigns the sovereignty of those who dictate “who can live and who can die,” the essential lemma of power, well articulated and well dressed, even when not.

Made on the basis of thousands of paintings and drawings, this stop-motion short film consists of a lurching montage of historical events and references. In its genesis we find everything from the lines of Gonçalves Dias to the nimble blade of Tuíra Kayapó; from the concept of necropolitics coined by Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe to the messianic verbosity of Glauber Rocha; from the indigenous Tupinambá mythology to the current struggle of the Gamela people in the state of Maranhão; from cordel literature to pamphlets inciting revolution; from Canudos and Contestado to the urban occupations; from the shamanic rituals to the Latin American guerrillas; from the memory of Dina do Araguaia to the metamorphoses of Subcomandante Marcos.

With his finger on the pulse of popular tradition, the artist contorts the centuries, intertwining them, compressing and bathing them in vibrant colors, jumbling them in a vortex that swirls “all the races, all the passions, the tumult of the empires, the war of the appetites and hates, the reciprocal destruction of beings and things.” In a single hallucinating sequence we go from the stone to democracy, from the colony to the big cities, from the first exploratory expeditions of Brazil’s interior to Brasília. And this all takes place among public issues and personal dramas, flare-ups and revolution, sexual pleasure and thanatology, sorcery and submachine guns, dances and decapitation.

Anachronistic, Barroque, and cathartic, it violently plays with countless episodes and signs, redistributing roles and protagonisms, conveying a wide range of experiences, visions, practices and points of view. This is when the canonic epistemology is folded, exposing its cracks, making new agents and histories to emerge, or, to state it better, allowing them to assume their rightful places, in accordance with their desires. Many axes are combined to tell this story, which does not follow a single thread or linear series of facts. It is divergent, it sparks disagreement. The narrative flow gives rise to a choleric cosmology: to the sound of drums and rifles, a multitude of gestures gushes forth to denounce the material brutality that reveals the cruelty of life, but also speaks of the trances and transcendences that point to the infinite. One needs to think with one’s head, waist and asshole. It is everything all the time and at the same time. It is biology everywhere, the physiologic drives, the states of the spirit.

At the center are the peasants, the Indians, the inhabitants of quilombos, the countryfolk, the favela dwellers, the immigrants, the homosexuals, the transsexuals, the artists and all of those who are not allotted any space within a unitary and totalizing project for the construction of the nation-state. While they suffer from genocides, they also take a common stand in the universal energy that mobilizes the uprisings of the people, the street schools, the practices of the forest, the daily esotericisms, the deviant sexualities and genders, always ready to surface in different ways, in different places and at any instant. While there is combat, there is a potential to live freely: art, community, mysticism, ritual, a bare torso, sex with a kiss, with an embrace, with urine. The “ethnic-retransfiguration,” the animal process of becoming and the anthropophagy of the mestizo who became an Indian, of the individual who became a jaguar and who now enjoys the flavor of a leg, later a foot, an arm. Of the bearded man with breasts and a vagina of the woman with breasts and a penis, each humping the other.

The figures, the tree branches and the words form dreamlike scenarios that reveal the entire historiography of humanity in an epic battle, in a sip of tree sap or a dip in the river. Like the cosmovisions and game strategies that make us close our eyes to human misery, but which also bear the absolute and ceaseless drive that powers the resistances. In times of war and reason, parties and imagination arise. “The dream is the only right that cannot be prohibited,” and the world really does belong to the tenacious, those who insist on experiencing their freedom. Those who thus speak “about sexuality, respect, laicity, racism, LGBT-phobia, and machismo. Because talking about these themes is to commit to life in its multiple manifestations.”

Everything is emergence, it is occasion. And the ethical moment is decisive. It brings to mind what Hélio Oiticica said about his Bólide in the memory of his friend Cara de Cavalo, wanted for daring crimes and murdered by the police in Rio de Janeiro. “This homage is an anarchic attitude against all types of Armed Forces: police, army, etc. […] because it reflects an individual revolt against every sort of social conditioning. In other words: violence is justified in the sense of revolt, but never in that of oppression.” It also recalls the song “Negro drama” by the Racionais MC’s: “Look who dies/ Then look who is killing […] I was the flesh, now I am the razor.” That which impresses must expect its counterpoint, unjust laws must expect disobediences, and the tyrannies that force submission must expect unsubmissive bodies. It is from the insurgencies and re-insurgencies that the main, messianic and radical blow will come.

The shrouds ripper: the white specter of the owl leaves its shrill screech in its wake. Whoever has seen and heard it already knows: death is soon to arrive. The suindara owl terrifies the eye, it pains the ear; an implacable omen, it cuts the cloth of the febrile. It bears the sign of death. The body is taken over entirely. A final paroxysm, a great ecstasy. The breathing gets faster, it pants, burns in the chest. The arms cling to the body. Twisted hands on one’s back, a bowing spine. The apocalypse takes a turn. The individual at the limit replies: every day is a day, each victory counts. The lungs fill to shout louder than the announcement of the owl, in a counter-magic, the verses of the poem attributed to Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, a.k.a. Lampião: “My rifle shoots singing/ at a frightening rhythm/ While my rifle works/ My voice spreads wide/ Sneering at the horror.” Or what sprang from the lips of I-Juca-Pirama, who upon encountering the grim reaper allowed himself to cry, if necessary to go to war, and when it is time, to be worthy of dying: “My song of death,/ Warriors, listen:/ I am a son of the forests,/ in the forest I grew up,/ Warriors, descending/ From the Tupi tribe […] Warriors, I was born:/ I am brave, I am strong, I am the son of the North;/ My song of death,/ Warriors, listen.” Death as death and death as life. No blood is ever spilt in vain: one dies, two are born. Death is what waters the soil.

Thiago Martins de Melo is a Brazilian visual artist. Master in Psychology – Theory and Research of Behavior at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA-PA), he works with painting, sculpture, installation, stop motion animation and engraving.é artista visual brasileiro.

Germano Dusha is a writer, curator, critic and cultural producer. Co-founder of Coletor, Observatório, BANAL BANAL and Um Trabalho um Texto.