The Life and Times of an Urban Guerrilla

“Marighella” hearkens back to the best political films of the 1960s like Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” and Costa-Gravas’s “State of Siege”. Set in 1968, it tells the story of Carlos Marighella’s desperate struggle against the military dictatorship in Brazil. Founder and leader of Ação Libertadora Nacional (ALN), Marighella was just one of many revolutionaries in Latin America who broke with the Communist Party to launch either an urban or rural guerrilla group hoping to emulate the July 26th Movement in Cuba. Unlike “The Battle of Algiers,” this story does not have a happy ending. The film concludes with the Brazilian cops firing dozens of rounds into Marighella’s body as he sits in the driver’s seat of a parked VW Beetle. Like Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” it is a tragedy about the failure of the revolutionary left in Latin America to help realize Che’s call for “Two, Three, Many Vietnams.” There were many embryonic Vietnams but they all aborted. Unlike Cuba or Vietnam, there was never a social base adequate to the revolutionary goals. To the credit of director Wagner Moura, this is the overarching theme of this film that will be of supreme interest to CounterPunch readers.

On April 1, 1964, the Brazilian military staged a coup against President João Goulart, who was a forerunner to Lula. Goulart was a member of the Brazilian Labour Party that despite its name was a center-left party with a populist agenda. It was founded by followers of President Getúlio Vargas in 1945 as an alternative to the Communist Party. Like Argentina’s Peron, Vargas was a demagogue who nevertheless favored reforms that would benefit the working-class. In a 1938 interview, Trotsky gave backhanded support to Vargas:

In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally—in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain.

Unlike Trotsky’s critical support, the Communists in Brazil eventually rallied around the Labour Party, thus giving the military the excuse it needed to take power. As the military and its backers in the Pentagon would always point out, a country had to be saved from Communism even if Goulart or Allende were more akin to the New Deal than the Kremlin.

As would be the case a decade later in Chile, the USA worked behind the scenes with the Brazilian military to align the country with the White House’s strategic interests in Latin America. Instead of Labour Party populism, the dictatorship cracked down on trade unions and peasant organizations. Anybody who opposed these measures would end up being tortured in prison or murdered by a death squad.

In the opening scenes of “Marighella,” we see him having a showdown with the Communist Party leadership. He argues that by attaching their fate to that of Goulart, the CP had no independent perspective on how to topple military rule. As happened during these rifts within CP circles in the 1960s, the party disowned Carlos Marighella as an “adventurist” just the way that the Cuban CP stigmatized Fidel Castro. It was these differences that led leftist guerrilla groups that broke with the CP to form ties to Cuba in a rough approximation of the revolutionary wing of the SP’s turning to the Comintern after 1917. For people from my generation, this was an exciting prospect that seemed to connect Marighella to the NLF in South Vietnam and Black rebellions in American cities. The idea of world revolution was palpable.

That was exactly the kind of ebullience that Marighella’s fighters shared with each other in first half-hour or so of “Marighella”. His lieutenants all paid verbal tribute to Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh when they took part in a daring, new attack on a bank or railroad train. At first, things go swimmingly well. In a brilliantly orchestrated action scene, we see ALN combatants commandeering a passenger train and breaking into a car carrying boxes of guns and ammunition. Determined to avoid stereotypical versions of cops and robbers, Wagner Moura directs such scenes with an eye toward realism that makes them far more tense and even more thrilling than the typical Hollywood film.

To get a sense of Carlos Marighella’s priorities, it is worth looking at his “Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla” that was studied by guerrilla groups around the world, including the PLO and the Sandinistas. Like “The Anarchist Cookbook,” it is short on theory and long on techniques. A chapter on Street Tactics recommends: “When the police designate certain of their men to go into the crowd and arrest a demonstrator, a larger group of urban guerrillas must surround the police group, disarming and beating them and at the same time allowing the prisoner to escape. This urban guerrilla operation is called ‘the net within a net’”. This is right up antifa’s alley.

Marighella is constantly trying to get the ALN’s program into the public sphere but the newspapers, TV and radio stations refuse to cover anything except the shoot-outs. In addition, whenever one of their fighters are picked up by the cops, torture frequently extracts the name and locations of other fighters despite the most secure protocols. To get the word out would require a mass party with roots in the working-class and peasantry. However, when Marighella broke with the CP, that outlet ceased to exist.

To make Marighella a subject with broader dimensions than as a guerrilla, the film creates what might be a fictional representation of his family life. To keep his son safe from repression, he sends him off to the countryside to live with a relative under an assumed name. The film begins with father and son swimming together in the beautiful waters off the coast of Brazil, a pleasure that slips away once the struggle begins. No matter the distance between them, the son understands the need for separation and continues to see his father as a great man and humanitarian.

As Marighella, Seu Jorge is superlative. In addition to his acting career, he is a recording artist who was nominated in 2015 for a Grammy as Best Brazilian Contemporary pop artist. His supporting cast is also first-rate. With dialog that has a ring of authenticity often equal to Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers,” the screenplay gives all the actors an opportunity to show off their talents. The film has enough parallels to Brazil’s troubles today to elicit performances that have an urgency lost on no viewer, including me.

The film’s distributors told me that “Marighella” was censored in Brazil when it was due to come out in late 2019. When COVID hit in 2020, the opening was delayed further. Now, they hope to release the film there in April, 2021. Fortunately for CounterPunch readers, it will have a virtual opening on February 12th. While the era of military coups has ended in Latin America for the most part, the film is a reminder that the ruling class in countries like Brazil and Chile will go to any lengths to prevent fundamental social change. Watching “Marighella” will help us understand the need for a strong social base. Without it, the result will be a tragic loss of some of our greatest revolutionary fighters, from Che Guevara to Carlos Marighella.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.