When most Americans think about slavery, they usually think of racism and not the capitalist values that allowed the establishment of the system in the first place. While Sérgio Bianchi’s Quanto Vale ou é Por Quilo? (What is it Worth?) does not abstain from examining racism in this fiction film’s treatment of the effects of slavery in modern Brazil, it makes known that there were deeper problems with the enterprise than race alone.
Bianchi begins with a documentary-like anecdote about a freed black woman, Joana, who has her slaves stolen from her by white men. When she goes to court to have her slaves returned to her, she is fined by the court and leaves without her property. As Joana and her family pose in fine clothes for a group picture, the narrator cites the document from the National Archive which records this piece of history.
We are then shown, in a kind of History-Channel mode, the different devices slave-owners used to keep their slaves in line. Torturous tin masks, collars, and stocks are modeled while a voice-over explains how and why each tool was used. This fascinating information is followed by an introduction to a modern-day character, Arminda, a black woman at a birthday party near a favela. The party-goers are a racially mixed bunch, but none is impoverished. In fact, they all look to be middle class. In the favelas, however, we see a white family dressed in rags and looking for food. The screen goes from full-color to black and white. This is no longer “real” life that we are seeing but a commercial for a “Save the Children”-like non-profit that is being tested by a marketing company.
This movie, like its introduction, is multi-layered and complicated. History, irony, portraits, and vignettes intertwine to build a comparison between the oppression caused by slavery and that found in contemporary society. Bianchi’s goal is to critique the marketing consultants and non-government organizations that profit from the oppression of the lower classes in the same way that slave owners reaped returns from their human property.
Some may say that I am incorrectly reading the movie, and that it is truly about modern race relations. But I maintain this is not the case, considering that it is not only black people who are taken advantage of in the modern tale. The film is thus a story of class and, unfortunately, besides the reuse of actors in the parallel time periods portrayed, there is very little in the film to connect yesteryear and today. This is a very difficult comparison to make, especially when the historical examples given to us are so extremely different from the state of present-day lower classes.
The film is also a bit difficult to watch because of its narrative structure. Bianchi uses many interesting vignettes about life in Imperialist Brazil, all of which are supposedly drawn from the National Archives. These tales are more engrossing than the modern tale of marketing executives and their obtuse money-laundry scheme that intends to milk the image of the poor for everything it’s worth. In fact, I’m still not quite sure what the company’s plans were. Despite all this, the film should not be dismissed. It makes the viewer think about both race relations and class welfare. And, while I may not have fully understood the sketchy dealings of the seemingly liberal corporation, I appreciate that Bianchi tried to scrutinize those kinds of institutions and aimed to show the hypocrisy rooted within. It is rare to see the critique made, and it was a welcome viewpoint to absorb.