Cobra Verde (1987)
Directed by Werner Herzog

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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In Nineteenth Century Brazil, Francisco Manoel da Silva (Klaus Kinski) abandons his farm after a drought has made it into a wasteland and gets a job panning for gold. When his new boss unwisely tries to cheat him, Francisco murders the man, flees, and becomes an outlaw known as Cobra Verde. He subsequently lucks into being hired as the foreman of a sugar plantation owned by Don Octavio Coutinho (José Lewgoy), but when he impregnates all three of that man's daughters and reveals his identity, he falls out of favor. To dispose of his troublesome assistant, Don Octavio, following the advice of some of his wealthy friends, decides to put Francisco in charge of an expedition to the West African state of Dahomey to acquire slaves. Since the English have prohibited the trade and the current king of Dahomey is known to be a murderous madman, they do not believe that Francisco will return alive. He, despite knowing his employer's intentions, accepts the position offered him and sails to Africa. There, Francisco is apprehended by the king, Bossa Ahadee (His Royal Highness Nana Agyefi Kwame II of Nsein), who plans to behead him, but manages to escape and become involved in a revolution.

Werner Herzog's Cobra Verde is a consistently engaging, often affecting, and visually impressive movie.

The narrative is essentially a picaresque adventure. The hero is an unsavory character who commits murder, seduces the daughters of his employer, embarks on a quest to reopen the slave trade, leads an army of female warriors in a revolt just to serve his own ends, and more. He is a complete scoundrel, but is, at the same time, a magnetic one. Although the viewer is unlikely to admire or even to like Francisco, he is still almost certain to find himself caught up in the rascal's immoral shenanigans.

As interesting as this story is, its setting is every bit as well realized. Herzog proves himself to be more than a little skilled at evoking other times and places. Whether he is depicting the rough towns of Brazil's interior, the wealth of its ruling class, or the callous disregard individuals of that class have for the people they own, the effect is impressive. I am unlikely to forget, for example, the scenes in which Don Octavio is giving Francisco a tour of his plantation and causally brushing off the sufferings of his slaves, one of whom has his arm crushed in a machine as the pair watch in a disengaged manner. Herzog's vision of Nineteenth Century Brazil, with its hardships, inequities, quirks, and humanity, does seem to be of some real place. So does the Dahomey the director shows. If anything, this land is brought to life with even greater poignancy. When Herzog presents processions of dancers, musicians, warriors, and the like accompanying their king, his film has a sense both of veracity and of splendid wonder. He really does take the viewer away to some distant land. In fact, Herzog does it again and again. It does not matter if he is showing a group of young women spontaneously performing a song, an army of Amazons training before a ruined Portuguese fortress, or a king holding court before his people, Herzog conjures up feelings of real enchantment. I can think of few other directors that have been as successful at revealing some culture other than their own.

What is more, Cobra Verde is well acted. All of the principals acquit themselves well. Kinski, in particular, is impressive. He is not at his best here, I will admit, but he, nonetheless, gives an often bewitching performance. The man is unsurpassed at revealing half-mad individuals living on the edge of society. I cannot imagine that anyone watching the film will fail to be enthralled by his character.

While Cobra Verde is not a masterpiece, it is still an impressive movie. I have seen few that I have enjoyed as much. It is certainly deserving of far more respect than what it has received.

Review by Keith Allen

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