When Zé Wilker Came to Chicago

When Zé Wilker Came to Chicago

On April 5, Brazil lost one of its greatest screen actors, José “Zé” Wilker—a man who portrayed businessmen in existential crisis, vagabonds and Lotharios, a man for whose soap opera character a chain of Angolan grocery stores is named. I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet and briefly work with Senhor Wilker when he came to Chicago in 2006 to help promote the film Canta Maria. In it he portrays the most legendary bandit in the history of Brazil, Lampião—a charismatic, ambitious, and terrifying leader of a gang of thieves and extortionists and the subject of countless ballads from the Brazilian sertão or outback. I was volunteering as a Portuguese/English interpreter for the audience talkbacks during the Chicago Latino Film Festival that year and was given the assignment of interpreting for Zé Wilker.

I viewed the film two times—once to gain initial familiarity and once again during the evening of the talkback. Although my knowledge of Brazilian music and literature was serviceable and growing at that time, my knowledge of Brazilian cinema and television was rather slight. When I was told I would be interpreting for Zé Wilker, the name did not ring a bell and I conceived of the interpretation assignment without any extra trepidation or anxiety.

I liked Canta Maria very much, especially its use of the Portuguese dialect particular to sertão of the Northeast of Brazil. The regional vocabulary, the tone, the lacunae present between words and phrases, and its nasal pronunciation all speak of the vastness, the aridity, and the bleak and unforgiving beauty of the sertão. Zé Wilker’s portrayal of the bandit leader Lampião was understated, complex and layered. Concentrated evil and intimidation were present in the posture, gaze and gait of Wilker’s Lampião. He inhabited the simultaneously fierce and dandyish classic garb of the cangaceiro (sertão outlaw)—the large half-moon hat decorated with flattened metal designs and leatherwork, the tightfitting tan leather chaps and the bandoliers of Winchester rifle bullets crisscrossed in an X across an often bare chest—with a mix of iciness and seductive, laconic charm. 

When I saw Senhor Wilker in the theater lobby standing alone before the second screening of the film, I introduced myself as his interpreter and complimented him on his brilliant depiction of Lampião. I mentioned the sheer strength of his screen presence— how it felt like some sort of natural force. He was gracious in response, thanking me for the compliment and then casually mentioned that it was his 81st film. This last comment of Wilker was not said to embarrass me for not knowing of his career, but more to establish himself to me. Not knowing what else to say, I remarked something to the effect of, “…well that explains the amazing performance,” or some such banality.

My memory had been jogged and the image of José Wilker 30 years younger, rangy and languid in his movements and with longish blonde hair, surged up into my mind. I had seen Wilker as the male protagonist opposite Sonia Braga in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and had loved his portrayal of a vagabond soul who haunts his widow as a lustful ghost after he dies. Whom I would be interpreting for during the post-screening talkback began to sink in. Fortunately, my having met him and gotten to know a little bit his calm and measured manner prevented my nerves from overtaking me.

These several years later, what I remember most from the discussion was Wilker’s description of Rio de Janeiro (his home for many years and where my friend Marta Costa, also a Carioca or resident of Rio, would often see him on his daily walks through the city, during which he always stopped to buy a book). Wilker remarked that Rio, more than any other city, combines the celestial and the terrestrial. It is a city, he said, of the sea and the mountain; of the most brutal oppression and the most transcendent experiences of music, of friendship, of love and of the beauty of the waves coming in upon Ipanema.

I also recall Wilker’s response when someone in the audience asked him to explain a certain film of his. He responded with the following story: A movie lover friend was in the Armed Forces in the 60’s and did not get the chance to get out and see many films. When he heard that Stanley Kubrick’s new movie was coming to town, his anticipation was almost overwhelming. The problem was that Wilker’s friend could not get off base in order to see the movie. A fellow recruit, however, could get leave. Wilker’s friend gave the other man the task of seeing the film and then returning to base to recount it blow-by-blow to him. 

On the appointed day, the friend went out and saw the film. He returned to base and was immediately cornered by the movie aficionado friend—looking like a famished man desperate for a morsel of food. The man who had seen the movie appeared perplexed. To the great dismay of the movie lover, he could only say, “I think it was about this black stick that somebody throws up into the air.”

Dan Hanrahan is a writer, actor and musician who forms part of the performance trio Proyecto Theriac, with Rey Andújar and Juan Carlos Bueno. His essays can be found pressing the link. 

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