The Terrible Tucandeira

The initiation ritual of tucandeira is typical of the Sateré-Mawé people stationed along the Amazon River on the border between the states of Amazonas and Pará of Brazil.
The ritual is named after a giant ant (the Paraponera clavata, also known as “bullet ant”) whose painful sting, 30 times more poisonous than that of a bee, causes swelling, redness, fever and violent chills.

This test of courage and endurance sanctions a tennager’s entry into adulthood: every young man who wants to become a true warrior must submit to it.

The tucandeira takes place during the Amazonian summer months (October to December).
First the ants must be captured and taken from their anthills, usually located at the base of hollow trees, and they are enclosed in an empty bamboo called tum-tum. A mixture of water and cajú leaves is then prepared, and the ants are immersed and left in this anesthetic “soup”.

Once they are asleep, the ants are inserted one by one within the knitting of a straw glove, their fearsome stingers stuck on the inside of the mitten. They are then left to awaken from their numbness: realizing that they are trapped, the ants begin to get more and more angry.

When the time for the actual ritual finally arrives, the whole village meets to observe and encourage the adolescents who undergo initiation. It is the much feared moment of the test. Will they resist pain?

He who leads the dance intones a song, adapting the words to the circumstance. The women sit in front of the group of men and accompany the melody. Some candidates paint their hands black with Genipa berries and then drink a very strong liquor called taruhà, based on fermented cassava, useful for reducing pain and giving the necessary strength to face the ritual. Those who undergo the tucandeira for the first five times must apply to certain diets. When the ants awaken, the actual ritual begins. The dance director slips the gloves on the candidates’ hands and blows tobacco smoke into the gloves to further irritate the ants. Then the musicians begin to play rudimentary wooden tubes while the boys dance.

(A. Moscè , I Sateré Mawé e il rito della tucandeira, in “Etnie”, 23/01/2014)

The angry ants begin to prick the hands of the young, who are made to dance to distract themselves from the pain. In a short time their hands and arms get paralyzed; in order to pass the test, the candidate must wear the gloves for at least ten minutes.


After this time, the gloves are removed and the pain begins to manifest itself again. It will take twenty-four hours for the effect of inoculated neurotoxins to subside; the young man will be the victim of excruciating pain and sometimes prey to uncontrollable tremors even in the following days.
And this is just the beginning for him: to be fully completed, the ritual will have to be repeated 19 more times.

Through this ritual, a Sateré Mawé recognizes his origins, laws and customs; and from adolescence on, he will have to repeat it at least twenty times to be able to draw its beneficial effects. The whole population participates in the ritual and observes how the candidates face it. It is an important time to get to know each other, gather, and contract future marriages.
The tucandeira is also a propitiatory rite, through which a boy can become a good fisherman and hunter, have luck in life and work, turn into a strong and courageous man. People come together very willingly for this ritual, which in addition to its festive and playful aspect is also an opportunity to recall the cosmogonic myths of the origin of the stars, the sun, the moon, water, air and all living things.

(A. Moscè, Ibid.)

In this National Geographic video on tucandeira, the chief summarizes in an admirable way the ultimate meaning of these practices:

“If you live your life without suffering anything, or without any kind of effort, it won’t be worth anything to you.”

(Thanks, Giulio!)

 

Sailing On Top of The Mountains

A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong. To be more precise: bird cries, for in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling Titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed.

(Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless, 2009)

This was the genesis of Fitzcarraldo, and chasing this dream Herzog actually lifted a steamboat to the top of a mountain, in order to take it from the  Rio Camisea to the Urubamba; a gigantic effort that entailed death and madness, during what is probably the most legendary and extreme film production in history.

The epic of contrast (here: the boat on the mountain, the sophistication of opera against the barbaric jungle) is what always seduced men into attempting the impossible.
And yet, eighty years before Fitzcarraldo, there was a man to whom this very endeavour seemed not at all visionary. A man who, in this idea of a boat climbing up a mountain slope, saw the future.

Pietro Caminada (1862-1923), was born from the marriage betweeen Gion Antoni Caminada, a Swiss who had emigrated from the Grisons canton to Italy, and Maria Turconi, from Milan. Fascinated since an early age by the figure of Leonardo Da Vinci, he studied engineering and was forced, like many others at the time, to sail towards Argentina together with his brother Angelo, looking for a job. After stopping for a brief tour of Rio de Janeiro, however, he was stunned by the city. He came back on the ship only to get hold of his luggage, and said to his brother: “I’m staying here“.

During the fifteen years he spent in Rio, Caminada worked on several projects regarding the town plan, the harbor refurbishing, and transportation: he transformed the Arcos da Lapa Aqueduct, built in 1750, into a viaduct for the transit of the Bonde, the folkloristic yellow tram which caracterized the Brazilian city until 2011. He was even chosen to design from scratch the new capital, Brasilia, sixty years before the town was actually built.
After this brilliant start, Caminada relocated back to Italy, in Rome. In addition to a wife and three daughters, he also brought with him his most ambitious project: making the Alps navigable.

Certainly this idea had a foremost practical purpose. Connecting Genoa to Konstanz via the Splügen Pass would have allowed for an otherwise unthinkable commercial development, as waterways were affordable and inexpensive.
But in Caminada’s proposal there also was an element of challenge, as if he was defying Nature itself; a fact the papers at the time never ceased to stress. An article, which appeared on the magazine Ars et Labor (1906-1912), began like this:

Man always seems to turn his creativity against the firmest and most solid laws of Nature. He is like a rebellious kid who fancies especially what is forbidden.
— Ah, you did not give me wings, he says to Nature, well I will build me some and fly anyway, in spite of your plans! You made my legs weak and slow, well I will build me an iron horse and run faster than your fastest creatures […]. As wonderful as a moving train might be, it does not upset any of the fundamental principles of Nature’s system; but to sail through the mountains, to sail upwards, to sail across steep slopes expecting this miracle to come only from the energy of channeled water, that is something that turns our most certain knowledge of navigation upside down, something contrary to water’s immutable ways of being […].

The beauty of Caminada’s method to bring boats across the Alps resided in its simplicity. It mainly consisted of a variation of the widely used ship-lock system.
If building a lock “stairway” on different levels remained unthinkable, according to the engineer everything would be easier with an inclined plane:

Imagine holding a cylindrical tube filled with water in a vertical position, the water plane will be round: if the pipe is tilted, the water plane, while always horizontal, will acquire a shape which will be the more elliptical and elongated the more the tube gets close to the horizontal position. If water is let out of the pipe, any floating body on the water plane will come down with it, along a diagonal […]. Thus, if the tube is held vertical the floating body will go up or down following a vertical line: if inclined, the floating body in addition to moving up or down will also travel horizontally. On this simple idea of tubular locks I have built my system of inclined canals, with two lanes in opposite directions.

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Caminada’s double tubular ship-locks ran in parallel, sharing common usptream and downstream water basins.

One lock is full, the other empty. In the full lock is placed the descending ship; in the empty one, the other boat that has to climb up. The two locks communicate at the bottom through channels or syphons. Upon opening the syphon, the water moves from the full lock to the empty one, lowering and carrying downards the boat in the full lock while lifting up the one in the empty lock, until they reach the same level […]. The operation is completed by closing the communication duct and completely emptying the lock with the descending ship, while from the upstream basin comes the necessary water to fill the lock where the upgoing boat is.

This system, patented by Caminada around the world since 1907, had a huge resonance in those years. It was discussed in articles published by international papers, in conventions and meetings, so much so that many thought the project would become real over a very short time.
Cesare Bolla, who lived in Ticino and disapproved deeply of Caminada’s ideas, even wrote a tongue-in-cheek little poem in 1908, making fun of the inevitable, epochal trasformation that was about to hit Lugano:

Outside my tavern, I’ve put on display
A sign on the window, saying: “Seaside Hotel”.
Folks round here, by a sacred fire consumed,
Only by ships and sails are amused.
[…] it won’t be long, for our own sake,
we’ll gaze at the sea instead of this lake.
Ships will pass in great abundance
All headed for the lake of Constance.

The engineer never stopped working on his dream.

«Caminada — as Till Hein notes — struggled for his vision. He went over and over the details of his project, he built miniatures of his lock system, in many variations. And eventually he built a gigantic model, for the great Architecture Exposition in Milan. With unflinching zeal he tried to convince politicians and officials». He was, like the Bündner Tagblatt once wrote, «an erupting volcano» and had «a restless head, with hair down to his shoulders» […].

(T. Gatani, Da Genova a Costanza in barca attraverso le Alpi, La Rivista, n. 12, dicembre 2012)

But the Genoa-Kostanz route imagined by Caminada was bound to collide, on one hand, with the interests of a Swiss “railroad lobby” who endorsed the building of a train line through the Splügen Pass; on the other, there was Austria, which dominated northeastern Italy and was determined to see that the Kingdom of Savoy couldn’t set a direct connection with Germany, be it by train or ship.

In 1923, at the age of sixty, Caminada died in Rome, and his waterways never became a reality.
His project, which only fifteen years before was seen as the upcoming future, ended up like its inventor in the “mass grave” of memories — except for some sporadic exhibition, and a little country road still bearing his name, situated in the vicinity of the airport entitled to his beloved Leonardo Da Vinci.

Looking back today, the most unfortunate and even sarcastic detail of the story might be a prophecy uttered by King Victor Emmanuel III: when Caminada showed him his plans during a private hearing on January 3, 1908, the King replied: “One day I will be long forgotten, but people will still be talking about you“.

Caminada’s motto, which he repeated throughout his life, is however still true. In two simple Latin words, it encompasses every yearning, every tension towards human limits, every courageous desire of exploring the boundaries: Navigare necesse. It is essential to navigate.

For human beings, setting sail towards new horizons still is, and always will be, a necessity and an imperative.

(Thanks, Emiliano!)

The wizard of soccer

But Nino don’t be afraid of missing a penalty kick
One does not become a good player
On the account of these details
You can tell a good player from his courage,
His selflessness, his creativity.

(F. De Gregori, La leva calcistica della classe ’68, 1982)

Carlos Henrique Raposo, a.k.a. “Kaiser”, active in the Eighties and Nineties, played in eleven soccer teams, such as Vasco da Gama, Flamengo, Fluminense and Botafogo in Brazil, Ajaccio in Corsica and Puebla in Messico.
Eleven professional clubs, and zero goals scored in his whole career.
Yes, because Carlos Henrique Raposo, a.k.a. “Kaiser”, pretended to be a player. And in reality he was an illusionist.

Born in 1963 in a poor family, as many other Brazilian kids Carlos dreamed of a redemption made of luxury and success. He had tried to become a soccer player, without any major result: yet he had the right muscular and powerful build, so much so that he was often mistaken for a professional soccer player. Around his twenties, Carlos clearly understood his mission: “I wanted to be a player, without having to play“.
Therefore, he decided to trust his courage, selflessness and creativity.

Courage
Carlos “Kaiser” certainly had the nerve. As a nightlife aficionado and regular clubber in Rio, he managed to bond with a series of famous soccer players (Romário, Edmundo, Bebeto, Renato Gaúcho and Ricardo Rocha who later called him “the greatest conman in Brazilian football“); he offered his favors and used his connections to organize parties and meetings. In return, he began asking to be included as a makeweight in his friends’ transfer deals.
It’s importanto to keep in mind that in the mid-Eighties the internet did not exist, and it was quite difficult to find information on a new player: Carlos was enthusiastically presented by great players vouching for him, who granted him with his first professional contract (for a three-month trial) in the Botafogo club. And thus began his career, always behind the front line but nonetheless enjoying relatively high wages, and an incredible fiction which lasted more than twenty years.

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Selflessness
First of all, it was essential for Carlos to earn his teammates’ unconditional trust, their cover and benevolence.
As soon as I knew which hotel we would be staying in, I went there two or three days beforehand. I rented rooms for ten ladies in that hotel, so that instead of sneaking away at night, my teammates and I could simply walk down the stairs to have some fun“.
Another important step was ensuring to have some newspaper article backing up his non-existing talents. Again, that was not a problem for the “Kaiser”, thanks to his socialite connections: “I have an incredible aptitude for making friends with people. I knew several journalists very well at the time, and treated them all kindly. A little gift, some insider information could come in handy, and in return they wrote about the ‘great soccer player’ “.

Creativity
Once he obtained a contract, leaning on other players’ transfer negotiations, the second part of Carlos’ plan kicked off: how could he manage to remain in the team without the coach realizing that he wasn’t even able to kick a ball? The solution Carlos came up with was simple yet brilliant – he had to gain as much time as possible.
He started by saying he was out of shape, and that he needed to follow a special workout program with a mysterious personal trainer. He then spent the first two or three weeks running along the sidelines, without participating in the team’s exercises. After that, when he could no longer postpone his presence in the field, he asked a teammate to make an irregular entrance on him during a training game and to inflict him a (not too serious) injury. Sometimes he didn’t even need outside help, he just pretended to sprain his muscle, an injury which was difficult to verify in those years: “I preformed some strange moves during the training, I touched my muscle and then stayed in the infirmary for 20 days or so. There was no MRI at the time. Days went by, but I had a dentist friend who certified I had physical health problems. And so, months went by…
In this way, scoring zero minutes of playing time during each season, he jumped from team to team. “I always signed the Risk Contract, the shortest one, normally for a six-month period. I received the bonus, and went straight to infirmary“. To enhance his great player image, he often showed up talking in English through a huge cellular phone (a true status symbol, back then), presumably to some foreign manager offering him some outstanding deal. Unfortunately his broken English conversations made no sense whatsoever, and his cellphone was in fact a toy phone.

When he went back to Brazil, in the Bangu team, Carlos’ hoax almost collapsed. The coach, taking him by surprise, decided to summon him for the sunday match and around the half of the second time he told him to warm up. Given the dangerous situation, and the forthcoming disaster a debut would entail, Carlos reacted with an exceptional stunt: all of a sudden, he started a fight with an opposing team’s supporter. He got immediately expelled from the game. When in the locker room the coach furiously approached him, he pretended like he acted on behalf of the coach himself: “God gave me a father and then took him away from me. Now that God has given me a second father, I can’t allow anyone to insult him“. The incident ended with the coach kissing him on his forehead, and renewing his contract.
He had another stroke of genius at the time of his debut in the Ajaccio club, in Corsica, France. The new Brazilian soccer player was greeted by the supporters with unexpected enthusiasm: “the stadium was small, but crowded with people, everywhere I looked. I thought I just had to show up and cheer, but then I saw many balls on the field and I understood we would be training. I was nervous, they would realize I was not able to play on my first day”. So Carlos decided to play the last trump, trying yet another one of his tricks. He entered the playing field, and began kicking each and every ball, sending them over to the gallery, waving his hand and kissing his shirt. The supporters went into raptures, and of course never threw back the precious balls, which had been touched by the publicised champion’s foot. Once out of balls, the team had to engage in a strictly physical training, which Carlos could manage to do without problem.

Reality and lies
After leaving Guarany, aged 39, Carlos Henrique Raposo retired having played approximately 20 games – all of which ended with an injury – in approximately 20 years of professional career (the numbers are a little hazy). But he came away with a wonderful story to tell.
And here’s the only problem: practically every major anecdote about this intentionally misleading stunt comes from no other than Kaiser himself. Sure enough, his colleagues confirm the image of a young man who made up for his lack of ability with immense self-assurance and cockiness: “he is a great friend, an exquisite person. Too bad that he doesn’t even know how to play cards. He had a problem with the ball, I did not see him play in any team, ever. He told you stories about games and matches, but he never played even on Sunday afternoon in Maracanà, I can tell you that! In a lying contest against Pinocchio, Kaiser would win“, Richardo Rocha declared.
So, why should we believe this Pinocchio when he comes out of nowhere and tell us his “truth”?

Maybe because it feels good to do so. Maybe because the story of a “man without qualities”, a Mr. Nobody who pretends to be a champion, cheating big soccer corporations (which are frequently nowadays amid market scandals) is some kind of a revenge by proxy, that has many soccer aficionados grinning. Maybe because his incredible story, on a human level, could come straight out of a movie.

In the meantime, Carlos shows absolutely no regrets: “if I had been more dedicated, I could have gone further in the game“.
Not in the soccer game, of course, but in his game of illusion.

The Devil and the Seven Dwarfs

A pale sun just came up that morning, when a soldier came knocking at the Angel’s door. He would never have disturbed his sleep, if he wasn’t sure to bring him a tryly exceptional discovery. Once he heardthe news, the Angel dressed up quickly and rushed towards the gates, his eyes burning with anticipation
It was May 19, 1944, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Josef Mengele was about to meet the largest all-dwarf family ever recorded.

The Ovitz family originated from Rozavlea, a village in the district of Maramureș, Transilvania (Romania). Their patriarch was the itinerant rabbi Shimson Eizik Ovitz, who sufferd from pseudoachondroplasia, a form of dwarfism; over two marriages, he had ten children, seven of which were stricken by his same genetic condition. Five of them were female, two males.
Dwarfism made them unfit for heavy work: how could they solve the paradox of having such a large family with virtually no labor force? The Ovitzs decided to stick together as much as possible, and they embarked in the only activity that could grant them a decent life: entertainment.

They founded the “Lilliput Troupe”, a traveling show in which only the seven dwarf siblings performed onstage; the other, medium-height members of the family warked backstage, writing sketches, preparing costumes or managing their next gigs. Their two-hour show mainly consisted of musical numbers, in which the family covered popular hits of the day on especially tailored instruments (small guitars, violas, violins, accordeons). For 15 years they toured Central Europe with huge success, the only all-dwarf act in the history of entertainment, until Nazism’s dark shadow reached them.

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In theory, the Ovitzs were bound to die. First of all because they were observant Jews; and secondly, because they were considered “malformed” and, according to the Aktion T4 euthanasia program their lives were “unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben). At the time of their arrival in Auschwitz, they were twelve. The youngest was a 18-months-old child.

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Josef Mengele, nicknamed the “Angel of Death” (Todesengel), still remains one of the most sadly infamous figures in those unimaginable years of terror. In the tales of the survivors, he is without doubt the most enigmatic and unsettling character: a cultivated and elegant man, with doctorates received in anthropology and medecine, fascinating as a Hollywood star, Mengele possessed another face, one of violence and cruelty which could burst out in a totally disinhibited way. According to some accounts, he could bring sugar to the children in the nomad camp, play the violin for them, and shortly after inject them with chloroform on the operation table or personally carry out a mass execution. As the camp’s physician, he often began his day by staning on the platform and selecting with a gesture of his hand who among the newly arrived deportees was fit to work and who was destined to be eliminated in the gas chambers.

He was known for his obsession with twins, who according to his studies and those of his mentor Otmar von Verschuer (who was well-informed about his pupil’s activities) could undisclose the ultimate secrets of eugenics. Mengele carried out human experiments of unprecedented sadism, infecting healthy individuals with various diseases, dissecting live patients without anesthesia, injecting ink into their eyes in order to make them more “aryan-looking”, experimenting poisons and burning genitals with acid. Mengele was not a mad scientist, operating under cover, as was first understood, but was backed by the elite of German scientific community: under the Third Reich, these scientists enjoyed an uncommon freedom, as long as they proved their research was going in the direction of building a superior race of soldiers – one of Hitler’s obsessions.

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“I now have work for 20 years”, Mengele exclaimed. As soon as he saw the Ovitz family, he immediately ordered that they be spared and arranged in privileged living quarters, where they would be given larger food portions and enjoyed better hygiene. He was particularly interested in the fact that the family included both dwarfs and middle-height individuals, so he ordered the “normal” members also to be spared from gas chambers. Hearing this, some other prisoners from the Ovitz’ village claimed to be blood-related to them (and the Ovitz of course did not deny it), and were moved along with them.

In exchange for their relatively more comfortable life, in respect to other inmates – their hair was not shorn, nor were they forced to part from their clothes – the Ovitzs were subjected to a long series of experiments. Mengele regularly took blood samples from them (even from the 18-months-old child).

Written accounts of inmate doctors shed further light on the endless anthropological measurements and comparisons between the Ovitzs and their neighbours, whom Mengele mistook for family. The doctors extracted bone marrow, pulled out healthy teeth, plucked hair and eyelashes, and carried out psychological and gynaecological tests on them all.
The four married female dwarves were subjected to close gynaecological scrutiny. The teenage girls in the group were terrified by the next phase in the experiment: that Mengele would couple them with the dwarf men and turn their wombs into laboratories, to see what offspring would result. Mengele was known to have done it to other experimental subjects.

(Koren & Negev, The dwarfs of Auschwitz)

The “White Angel” kept a voluntarily ambiguous relationship with the family, constantly walking a fine line between mercyless cruelty and surprising kindness. In fact, although he had already gathered hundreds of twins, and could sacrifice them if need be (accounts tell of seven couples of twins killed in one single night), he only had one family of dwarfs.
Still, the Ovitzs didn’t indulge in false hopes: they were conscious that, despite their privileges, they would die in there.

Instead, they lived to see the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. They walked for seven months to get back to their village, only to find their home looted; four years later they emigrated to Israel, where they resumed touring with their show until they eventually retired in 1955.

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Mengele, as is known, escaped to South America under a false name, and during his more than thirty years as a fugitive his legend grew out of proportion; his already terrible deeds were somewhat exaggerated until he became a demon-like character trowing live children in the ovens and killing people just for fun. Reliable accounts evoke a less colourful image of the man, but no less unsettling: the human experiments carried out at Birkenau (and in China, at the same time, inside the infamous Unit 731) rank among the most dreadful examples of scientific research completely detaching itself from moral issues.

The last survivor in the family, Perla Ovitz, died in 2001. Until the end, she kept recounting her family’s tale, encapsulating all the helplessness and painful absurdity of this experience, which she could not possibly explain to herself and to the world, in a single sentence: “I was saved by the grace of the devil“.

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Further material:

An excerpt from the documentary The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz (available here), featuring Perla Ovitz.
Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz (Koren & Negev, 2013) is the main in-depth research on the Ovitz family, based on interviews with Perla and other Auschwitz survivors.
Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz (Lagnado & Dekel 1992) is an account of Mengele’s experiments on twins, with interviews with several survivors.
– The video in which Mengele’s son, Rolf, recounts his meeting with his father – whom he had never knew and who was living incognito in Brazil.
The truth about Cândido Godói, a small village in Brazil with a high twin births rate, where in the Sixties a strange German physician was often seen wandering: did Mengele continue his experiments in South America?

Coffin Joe

Benvenuti in Brasile, terra di sole, samba, bossa nova, piume colorate e carnevali pittoreschi.

E terra di una delle icone più tenebrose, ciniche e strambe del cinema weird – benvenuti anche nello strano mondo di Coffin Joe.

Coffin Joe (americanizzazione di Zé do Caixão, “Joe della Bara”) è il personaggio creato da José Mojica Marins nel 1963 per il film seminale À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma (“A mezzanotte prenderò la tua anima”). Il film è considerato il primo horror brasiliano, e Marins si era deciso a girarlo a basso budget ispirandosi a un incubo che aveva fatto, nel quale un demoniaco becchino lo trascinava verso la tomba; poco prima delle riprese l’attore protagonista diede forfait, e José fu costretto a interpretarlo di persona, oltre che a dirigere. Questa fu, nell’imprevisto, la più grande fortuna nella vita di Marins.

Zé do Caixão è un personaggio che sembra uscito dritto dritto dagli E.C. Comics, quelli di Crypt Keeper (Zio Tibia, per intenderci): è un becchino perennemente vestito di nero, porta una vistosa tuba, barbetta mefistofelica e unghie lunghissime ed arricciate a mo’ di artigli. Odiato dai campesinos, che lo temono per i suoi continui soprusi, egli spadroneggia con crudeltà e violenza nel piccolo borgo rurale in cui vive. Ma Zé ha anche un lato più “adulto” e scorretto, che lo distingue dai personaggi classici dei film horror di quegli anni: è un assassino amorale, apertamente nichilista e blasfemo, e dedito alla ricerca dell’unica cosa che abbia valore per un ateo come lui: la “continuità del sangue”, cioè la creazione di una stirpe. Per questo cerca incessantemente la donna giusta da violentare affinché gli doni un figlio.

Già da questa breve sintesi si comprende come, in un paese radicalmente cattolico come il Brasile di inizio anni ’60, una pellicola “cattiva” e aggressiva come A Meia-Noite potesse creare scalpore. In una scena Zé, contro ogni precetto religioso, mangia euforico uno stinco di maiale davanti alla processione del Venerdì Santo, sbeffeggiando i credenti per la loro stupidità. In un’altra, lega sua moglie al letto e, come punizione per non aver saputo dargli una discendenza, le fa camminare sul corpo semisvestito un’enorme tarantola che la morde, uccidendola. Zé quindi, pur di ottenere la donna di un suo amico, non esita ad annegarlo senza pietà per poi cercare di ingravidare la spaventata vedova. Il tutto condito dalle considerazioni filosofiche rabbiose, le invettive contro la codardia e l’inferiorità dei suoi simili, e la sfrenata mitomania di un super-uomo negativo e malvagio, in una specie di ingenua e fumettistica elegia del male. Nietzsche filtrato dalla sensibilità di un adolescente cresciuto a pane e Dracula, insomma.

L’anti-eroe creato da Marins fu censurato, osteggiato e creò un putiferio all’uscita nelle sale. Nelle provincie in cui era possibile vederlo nei cinema, il film fece incassi senza precedenti. Il successo enorme spinse Marins a continuare su quella strada, e a sviluppare ulteriormente il suo personaggio. Nel seguito al primo film, intitolato Esta Noite encarnarei no Teu Cadàver (“Questa notte possiederò il tuo cadavere”), del 1967, Coffin Joe ritorna più cattivo e potente che mai… e ancora ossessionato dalla ricerca della madre perfetta per la sua discendenza. Da questo momento in poi Zé do Caixão diventa una vera e propria icona del cinema brasiliano, e conquista fumetti, musica, TV, patrocinando il merchandising più vario (da una linea di profumi a una di manicure!). José Mojica Marins raramente esce dal personaggio anche durante le interviste e le apparizioni televisive o per la stampa: si presenta immancabilmente vestito di nero, con la sua tuba e le unghie  lunghissime (che si lascerà crescere fino al 1998).

Coffin Joe è fin dall’inizio immaginato come protagonista di un’imponenete esalogia dantesca, ma i soldi per il terzo titolo della saga arriveranno solo nel 2008, con il titolo Encarnação do Demônio. Nel frattempo, Marins sforna innumerevoli altri film in cui Coffin Joe appare marginalmente, solitamente confinato nel mondo degli incubi, o in limbi allucinati e surreali. Da un certo punto in poi la sua popolarità decresce, nonostante Marins continui a tenere vivo il suo personaggio tramite trasmissioni televisive, fumetti e quant’altro. In alcuni film egli gioca con il suo personaggio, mettendosi a nudo in prima persona, cominciando a prendere le distanze dal suo alter ego mefistofelico (“Zé do Caixão non esiste!”), e in alcune sequenze Marins sfida Coffin Joe in duelli all’ultimo sangue.

Nel 1985 Marins, per motivi finanziari, acconsente a dirigere un film pornografico, che ha un inaspettato successo; nonostante il suo disprezzo per la pornografia, Marins ne dirige quindi il sequel, ma decide di buttarsi nuovamente in prima persona nel film. Così, nel corso di una maratona di 48 ore di sesso, Marins si aggira attraverso la marea di corpi sudati e copulanti, impartendo ordini, dando istruzioni su che posizioni assumere, come e dove eiaculare. Scrivono Curti e La Selva nel loro imprescindibile saggio Sex and violence: percorsi nel cinema estremo (Lindau, 2003): “più che il discorso metalinguistico, colpiscono l’ammirevole coerenza e la faccia tosta, la stessa che il regista mostra oggi, a 70 anni suonati, salendo sui palchi dei festival con gli inseparabili mantello e tuba ed esibendosi nella parte di Zé do Caixão per un pubblico che dei suoi film apprezza spesso solo il fattore camp. Pare innocuo, con quell’aria un po’ da imbonitore di fiera e un po’ da pugile suonato, ma alla fine resta il sospetto che sia lui a ridere alle nostre spalle, anziché il contrario. Proprio come nei suoi migliori film”.

Nel 2001, il documentario che ripercorre la carriera del regista, intitolato Maldito – O Estranho Mundo de José Mojica Marins, vince il premio speciale della giuria al Sundance Film Festival.

Resta il fatto che, nella marea di filmacci “rivalutati” negli ultimi anni dagli amanti del trash, José Mojica Marins sia fra gli autori meno sprovveduti, soprattutto a livello figurativo. Egli resta a metà strada fra Mario Bava, il surrealismo di Buñuel o il panico di Jodorowksy, e l’exploitation “d’autore” di un Russ Meyer. I suoi film, seppur girati con budget irrisori, vantano sempre una fotografia suggestiva, e una particolare cura per le location. E seppure nelle intenzioni dell’autore fossero degli horror con un messaggio (l’attacco alla sonnolenza di un proletariato bigotto e superstizioso), la critica sociale è sempre smorzata dallo sguardo sornione, sopra le righe, del becchino dalle unghie smisurate.