The Burning Season (1994)




Director:  John Frankenheimer.

Starring:     Raul Julia (Chico Mendes),  Carmen Argenziano (Alfredo Sezero),  Sonia Braga (Regina de Catrvalho),  Kamala Lopez (Ilzamar),  Luis Guzmn (Estate Boss),  Nigel Havers (Steven Kaye),  Tomas Milian (Darli Alves),  Esai Morales (Jair),  Edward James Olmos (Wilson Pinheiro),  Tony Plana (Galvao),  Marco Rodrguez (Tavora),  Carlos Carrasco (Helio),  Jonathan Carrasco (Genesio),  Jeffrey Licon (Young Chico Mendes),  Jos Prez (Moacir).

Made for TV movie. 

Chico Mendez attempts to protect the Brazilian forests and the workers



Spoiler Warning:

Thousands of men were lured up the Amazon River to work the rubber trees yielding vast fortunes for owners.  The workers lived in fear and died in debt.  They despised the bosses who enslaved them.  Finally a man was born; a man who would fight back.  His name was Chico Mendez. 

1951 Cachoeira, Brazil.  A man and his son (named Chico) bring in 60 kilos of raw rubber.  But the man accepting the rubber deliberately subtracts 20 pounds off the true weight and claims that he has only brought 40 kilos in.  A stranger is astounded by this cheating and asks in disbelief:  "40 kilos?"   The clerk says to the stranger:  "You're not from around here are you?"  The cheater then looks at a security guard giving him the sign indicating that there may be a trouble maker here.  The stranger sees this and says:  "No, I guess, you're right."

The clerk continues the company's work of cheating the workers.  He takes off money for impurities in the rubber, for supplies and for debts.  The man is only left with 11 cruzeros.  When the man and his son leave, the son asks his father if it really was 60 and not 40 kilos.  His father tells him:  "It's bad business, but it's all we got.  Maybe life will be better in the next world."  They head to their camp.  Later the stranger visits the man and his son.  He says he is from Sao Pablo and there is no work in the city.  He heard that a man could make a living working in the forest.  The father says the man who told him that should be shot.  The stranger notices that the boy is smart.  He tells the father that he would like to teach the boy to read in return for the boy teaching him how to tap rubber.

The boy teaches the stranger about tapping rubber.  When the man has 20 kilos he figures it will bring him 80 cruzeros.  But then he takes 10 off for impurities; 30 because the owner is greedy; 25 because the owner is a thief; and 15 because the owner is a blood sucker.  What is the end result?  He has nothing, which is just the way the owner likes it. 

The dissatisfied rubber workers are forced to show up at the compound of the rubber company.  There the security men for the company bring out a man whose hands are tied in front of him.  One of the security men then uses his rifle butt to hit the tied man in the stomach and then in the face knocking him out.  The clerk of the company then has gasoline poured over the man's body.  The clerk sets the man afire.  The man screams in pain as he dies.  The man's crime?  He tried to form a union among the rubber workers. 

1983.  32 years later.  Several bigwigs fly in a plane over the Brazilian rain forest.   Sezero tells the head of the Bordon Company (road building with earth moving machines) that he and his partners are buying up land cheap.  When the road to Lima through the rain forest is complete, cattle will be raised on the land and it can be sold at great profit.  It will take five years to build the road.  He asks Borton to come in with them.  If he doesn't, they can always go to the Americans or the Japanese.  From the plane they see huge fires below and are pleased at the sight. 

In a church in Cachoeira William Pinheiro talks about unions.  He says that recently 340 families were burned out of their homes.  But in Cachoeira he says they won't let it happen.  A young man named Jair asks how can they do this without guns.  William replies that the law is on their side.  The ranchers can buy the police and the judges, but the law itself is on their side.  He asks the rubber workers to march with the union to save the rubber trees.  On another day the rubber workers and union people place themselves around the trees that other workers are chopping down.  Chico Mendez jumps into action.  He asks a worker how much he makes.  The answer is 20 cruzeros a day.  Chico and the others laugh and Chico says:  "You boys need a union.  You got sold a bag of shit."  He adds that the soil is useless once the trees are gone.  "And all that for 20 cruzeros a day."

William, Chico and others play cards and talk about union activities.  A young woman stops and asks William:  "Don't they kill people who do your job?"  William just laughs.  Regina de Catrvalho is thee.  She is an expert in forest people and an environmentalist ecologist who helps the union work. 

The owners are backing for the position of the next state deputy, Sr. Galvao.  He says that the workers union is threatening the road.  And the road is a matter of national security. 

The owners wants William killed.  They give a local rancher a lot of money and a picture of William.  The rancher places a goat's head in front of the union house.  William knows it's a death threat.  Regina suggests that he leave town.  William answers:  "No, I'm not going anywhere."

Two suspicious characters show up at the union house asking to sling their hammocks there.  William tells him that he does not know them and sends them to Maria's bar.  Then William says he's going home.  Later two guys break into William's home and start shooting.  They succeed in killing William.  Chico and others are so mad they take over the local radio station.  Chico broadcasts that they (the owners) shot William in the union office.  Later a union man shoots a man associated with the owners.  The police come to town and beat union people.  Chico is also roughed up.  The police take him to the station and there they torture him with electric shocks .  They also beat him while he hangs upside down tied like a pig to a pole.  Later they drop Chico on one of the town streets.  The young girl at the bar sees him and she and a boy help him get up.  They put him in a boat and the girl paddles him to a hiding place.  There she gets him into a hammock.  Later she tells Chico that the police are everywhere.  This alarms Chico and he tells her:  "I have to go away."  He and the girl get on a bus.  Near Xapuri they run into a police blockade.  Chico is very anxious, but it turns out that the police are only preparing the way for a huge convoy of earth moving equipment.  This maddens Chico and he decides to go back to the union office.  The office is in shambles.  Chico says:  "Nor more widows.  No more orphans."

While in the union office, a man comes in looking for Chico.  His name is Steven Kay and he is a documentary filmmaker.  He says he is doing a story about the fires that are destroying the rain forest.   He is working with Regina, so Chico tells him to say hello to her for him. 

Chico has all the workers turn in their guns.  He stores them underground.  Chico doesn't want any violence from their side.  The next day the workers link arms.  Chico tells them to stand their ground and don't fight back.  They want to stop the wood choppers from taking down any more trees.  The foreman of the work crew says to Chico:  "I don't want to kill you, but I will and I can get away with it and you know it."  The man threatens Chico with a chain saw.  A man comes to Chico's defense and in doing so is badly wounded in the left arm.  They throw the man into a truck and try to get him to a hospital.  The local rancher uses his cattle to block their way.  He then threatens Chico by saying he better be careful or he will end up like William Pinheiro.  But the rancher lets them continue on their way. 

The wounded worker loses his left arm.  A young boy named Gennacio comes to the medical clinic.  He tells Chico that he got kicked by a horse.  Chico takes an interest in the boy. 

The earth moving equipment starts coming out of the rain forest.  The news quickly goes around town that the road builders are pulling out.  They just don't know what to do about Chico.   

Chico dresses up and goes to the local bar.  As he enters he gets a round of applause from the crowd.  He speaks to the young girl's father and asks permission to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage.  The crowd gives him another big applause. 

The film maker comes in and tells Chico that he has beaten them.  The road crews have left.  Chico just says that the ranchers need the road and they'll be back.  He adds that he is not going to stand by and let a terrible thing happen.

Four years later.  The fires are burning, destroying the rain forest.  The film maker and Regina film the fires from the river.  Chico now has a daughter with another child on the way. 

Chico talks with the native peoples.  He sees himself on the documentary film.  He decides that he will run for state deputy.  His wife is not happy about this:  "Does it have to be you?" she asks.  He tells her that he has to do this.  He feels he has no choice. 

Galvao gives a political speech to the locals.  He says that the road is coming.  "And why shouldn't we have what everyone else has?" he asks.  He adds that they will be wealthy men.  Their opponents are against progress.  The fact is that there is no money in rubber tapping anymore.  It's an old way of life. 

Chico gives a speech himself,  but the audience seems bored.  He concludes from this that he is a terrible public speaker.  Someone brings him a satellite photo showing some of the 2,500 fires burning down the Amazon rain forest.  In the last 10 years some 350,000 square miles of forest have been destroyed.  He proposes the idea that the government give the land around the town as a reserve.  Then nobody could sell the land. 

The election campaign is not going well for Chico.  The opposition gives a chain saw to anyone who will vote for them.  Chico's wife gives birth to two boys, but one dies.  The film maker tries to console Chico.  He says that he lost an 18 year old son in a car accident.  Chico says that 11 of his own siblings died early. 

The election is over.  Chico received only 10% percent of the vote.  Jair says that the people are scared.  Besides, he (Chico) knew it was going to be bad.  This angers Chico who says that he is scared too.  He says he is fighting because he thinks he can win.  He walks out.  He speaks with Gennacio.  Chico ponders about struggling until the end, but how does one know when it is the end?.  The young fellow tells Chico that you don't give up; you go down fighting.  This inspires Chico and he says:  "I have to go to Miami."

Inter-American Development Bank Conference, Miami.    Chico is shocked by all the photographers that gather around him.  The film maker tells Chico that now he is a movie star, adding:  "Just be yourself."   Chico then learns that he won an award from the United Nations for saving the rainforest.  He even is given a t-shirt with his picture on it saying:  "Save the Rain Forest."   The film maker introduces Chico to influential people as the hero of the rain forest.  But Chico does not get a good reception from them.  One fellows says that Chico is bad for business.  Chico gets a bit discouraged by this.  The local rancher sees Chico on TV and is not pleased. 

As Chico comes home he sees that the earth moving equipment is back.  When he arrives in his home town he is received with calls of:  "You did it!  Chico, Chico, Chico!  You stopped the road"  Chico quickly gets away from the crowd and goes to surprise his wife.  She is very happy to see him.  He brings back a Chico "save the rain forest" t-shirt. 

Sezero talks with the local rancher.  He has brought with him three prostitutes for the man.  And he also brought some money.  In addition, the rancher will be given even more land.  And this particular land is the land in and around Chico's home town. 

In church Jair comes in to tell Chico that the local rancher has been given the town land.  And now he can clear it. 

The local ranchers, his sons and some ranch hands ride to their gate.  There they meet Chico and a few others from the union.  The rancher says that they are going to start cutting tomorrow.  Chico tells him that there must be some way they can work this out. 

The rancher and the cutters are blocked by the rubber workers.  Even the women and children come out in support.  They start singing.  The rancher shouts to the workers:  "Did Mendez tell you, you can't win?"  One of the rancher's sons hits Chico.  Jair starts fighting with the son.  All hell breaks out.  The rancher's men pulls Jair off the son.  The rancher tells Jair:  "You're a dead man!"  The fighting continues and many workers get hurt.  Chico tells them to stop fighting and let the cutters through.  There are lots of wounded people following the melee.  The workers start back for home.  Then some ranchers and ranch hands ambush the workers.  After a volley or two, they run away.  A boy is killed and Chico is very upset.  Later one of the rancher's sons assassinates Jair. 

The workers want to fight back with violence.  Chico doesn't want that.  He takes a vote.  A lot of people vote for the use of force.  But the majority votes for non-violence.  Chico says that the land owners are scared.  They put nine bullets in Jair's body; that's how scared they are. 

Galvao reads the headlines and says that this cannot go on.  They will have to negotiate with Chico.  With Sezero, he will talk to Chico. 

The police descend on Chico's home town.  They clear the plaza of town residents telling them to go to their homes.  Galvao and Sezero arrive by helicopter.  Chico is surprised to see them.  He says:  "What a great honor!"  The two men say that they have come to talk about the road.  They ask Chico what he wants.  Chico answers that his people want the rights to their lands and they want to save the rain forest.  The two men say that Chico is embarrassing his country and government in the eyes of the world.  Is that in good taste?  Chico shows the fellows the nine bullets taken from Jair's body.  He asks:  "Is that in good taste?" 

The men sit down to eat.  The two men say that America is saying that the Amazon rain forest does not belong to Brazil, but to the world.  What side is Chico on:  Brazil's or the world's?  Outside, the town residents stand in silence waiting for the negotiations to be over.  They walk through the lines of the police even though threatened with being shot by these troopers.  Chico says that everything he has done has been for his country.  Galvao says that they will stop the burning if Chico and his people will stay out of the way of the building of the road.  The roosters start crowing.  Chico says that the politicians must ask the people what they want to use the money for. 

News arrives that the land around Chico's home town will be an extractive reserve held in perpetuity.  And now it is the local rancher that is forced off the land.  In addition, the government promises to investigate the murders of William Pinheiro and others.

Sezero goes to speak with the local rancher.  He says:  "I'm sorry.  It's politics."  But this is not acceptable to the rancher.  He says:  "It's personal now."  Soon another goat head hangs before the front door of the union house.  People tell Chico that he has to get away.  The rancher has been humiliated and wants revenge.  The film maker also wants him to leave:  "We can't lose you now."  Since Chico doesn't seem to want to go, the film maker asks him if he wants to be a martyr.  Chico answers that his death might help the cause and that might make it worthwhile. 

Gennacio, who works for the local rancher, comes to see Chico to tell him that he has to leave now.   But Chico just reminds him that they are the type that go down fighting.  Gennacio gives Chico his gun, but Chico just throws it in a bucket of water. 

Chico gives presents to his family.  He tells his daughter to be sure and tell her brother about the forest legends.  His wife begs him:  "Chico, let's just go now, please."  Chico goes outside.  There he is shot dead by one of the rancher's sons.  His wife screams. 

The news around the world is about the murder of Chico Mendez. 

March 12, 1990.  2.5 million acres of land around Cachoeira is protected in the Chicho Mendez Reserve. 

Gennacio testified against the rancher and his sons.  They were sentenced to 19 years in prison.  After three years they escaped and have not been found. 

Half of the world's rain forests have been destroyed.  The smoke from the fires can cover an area the size of India.  The destruction of the rain forest is expected to raise the world's temperature by three to eight degrees. 


Good movie.  An inspiring movie, but also a sad movie.  The rubber workers were treated like slaves by the land owners.  When William Pinhiero and Chico Mendez stood up to the land owners, terrible crimes were committed against the rubber workers and their leaders.  One has to admire people who work for justice and truth even though they face the very real possibility of being killed.  And it is terrible how governments can cooperate in these atrocities and crimes.  They often look the other way, if they're not directly involved in promoting the injustice.  Chico persevered, but, boy, at what price?  Now that's a hero. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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