I took in the afternoon screening of "Embodiment of Evil" that was part of Philadelphia's CineFest 2009 (semi-related note to self: try to attend more screenings in 2010--this film fest has a GREAT and eclectic lineup) and found myself actively glad that I was walking out into a bright Springtime afternoon. I'm a fan of Marins' earlier Coffin Joe films, "At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul" and "This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse," both of which are triumphs of low-budget visionary filmmaking, but I consider myself to've been only partially prepared by these to bear the full brunt of his vision as it appears in "Embodiment of Evil." This 2008 film offers a coda to the saga of the Nietzchean undertaker obsessed with passing on his superior legacy to a son, hindered only by his difficulty in finding the superior woman worthy of lending her womb to his fiendish quest. The earlier films included stark depictions of cruelty (especially as committed on women), but there were characters lurking in the background who elicited our sympathies, taking some of the sting out of the nastiness. Marins offers no such shelter in this film--not a single character portrayed on screen shows a drop of kindness; from the child-murdering police officers to the gang members that surround Josefel in the favela to the beautiful but arrogant doutora in search of eternal life; forcing the viewer to sympathize with the figure they know the most about. Who else could that be but the freshly-released-from-prison Josefel Zatanas, a mass-murderer whose perverse ideas have only festered and increased over his decades in confinement.
Laundry-listing the shocking imagery of this movie would do it a disservice--I found the experience of viewing it with moderate expectations to be to my benefit. How, after all, would a now seventy-three-year-old filmmaker react to a very changed cultural and aesthetic landscape? The purpose of the movie isn't to "show gross stuff," and to approach it from such a perspective is severely undercutting the content--the disturbing visuals are part of Marins' intentions to unsettle and provoke the audience. The stark violence employed in earlier films is ratcheted up several notches and displayed in full-color glory. The effects work is convincing and is depicted unflinchingly to display a horrifying array of mutilations and murders. Showing his embrace of contemporary alternative culture, Marins uses real-life body modification with grueling effectiveness.
Marins proves himself to be an artist of the grotesque, bringing a distinctive Brazillian flavor to his Grand Guignol by showing slum life, Macumba black magic, and the extreme cultural anxiety that exists between the church, the police, and the poor. This is a different world from the village life that's portrayed in his earlier films--this Sao Paolo is a seedy, violent place inhabited by desperate people, many of whom are now eager to hear Josefel's gospel of supreme willpower and atheism. This casts Josefel not as the quintessential outsider railing against an ignorant world but as a dark messiah figure.
The most disturbing aspect of the film to my eye was the extremity of the violence to which the female characters are subjected. It's explicitly sexualized and depicted with such detail that it's positively Sadean in its evil creativity. Since the goal of all this violence is the creation of a new life, it takes on a particularly vicious aspect, and the horror is underscored when it becomes clear that the women are not only complicit, but eager to participate in this torture. Every sexual act is an inversion of the procreative impulse--Josefel's need for an heir has driven him to acts that result in the destruction of life.
"Embodiment of Evil" lives up to the promise of its name, splattering its hideously artful bounty on the screen. Truly a film that must be experienced by fans of subversive cinema.