O Pagador de Promessas
Religious movies, or movies with strong religious themes, are often problematic for me to watch. Not because I dislike them, though I sometimes do, but because I feel they are talking past me. Like watching a movie referencing a culture I am not familiar with. Oh, I know about religion of course, but there are numerous concepts that only a true believer or one deeply embedded in the culture will truly understand.
And so a movie like “O Pagador de Promessas” or “Keeper of Promises” is aimed at somebody else than me and I am a bit sidelined with only a partial understanding of what is going on.
A man, Ze (Leonardo Villar) arrives in Salvador, Brazil, with a huge cross on his shoulder and his wife in tow. It is the middle of the night and the church, which is their destination is not yet open. Ze and his wife, Rosa (Gloria Menezes) have walked all the way from their village to keep a promise to Santa Barbara. When Ze’s donkey fell ill only prayer to Santa Barbara worked and to give thanks Ze has promised to bring this huge cross to Santa Barbara’s church in Salvador.
Fairly simple, right? Or so you should think.
It turns out to be way more complicated. When the priest (Dionisio Azevedo) arrives, he will have none of it. The primary reason being that Ze actually made the promise to someone called Inanza, or something like that, in a witchcraft ceremony. In that particular sect Inanza is an incarnation of Santa Barbara and the witchcraft and catholic church are there meshed together. Not so in Salvador and the priest will not allow any connection to witchcraft in the church. Ze however is stubborn. He made a promise and he intends to keep it so he stays. This is where the situation turns crazy.
A pimp manages to seduce Rosa and turns the police onto Ze to get him out of the picture. A journalist sees a story in the making and makes a big thing out of it. Locals see Ze as a rebel against establishment and rally around him and desperate people converge on him, seeing him as a saint with holy powers. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Ze is constantly being used, abused, misunderstood and ridiculed and he just wants to keep his promise.
This all sounds very familiar. I am sure I have seen very similar movies before. “Ace in the Hole” comes to mind, but also “Life of Brian”. Obviously the movie is aiming at the exploitation of the naïve and of real faith versus institutionalized faith, but for me it actually seems to be about the absurdity of religion. Everything spins so horribly out of control because people get carried away by their convictions. This is why I write that I do not feel properly dressed for watching this movie. I do not understand what drives these people. A little flexibility all round would go a long way to defuse this situation, but instead the characters come out as caricatures, extreme and one-dimensional characters who serve the purpose to prove a point.
Because of this artificial sense I cannot say that I truly like the movie, but I suspect it is more a matter of me not understanding it well enough. It was nominated for an Academy award and won the Palme d’Or in Cannes so somebody obviously got more out of it than I did. What I did get is what I usually appreciate in movies from “exotic” (read: different from the usual) places, the window it provides into a very different world. Brazil is to me a very exotic place. I have been there twice and what strikes me is how extremely diverse a place it is. From north to south, from rich to poor, countryside to the city. This is something you also see in this movie and maybe it is actually the fundamental theme of the movie.