Tuesday, May 22, 2007

How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman

A minor comic gem, Nelson Pereira dos Santos' 1973 film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is one of the best known (and easiest to see) works to come out of the influential Cinema Novo movement that rejuvenated Brazilian film beginning in the 1950s. Santos' picture takes a comical look at questions of national identity in 16th century colonial Brazil by charting the complex interactions of four distinct groups, the French, the Portuguese, and two rival Indian tribes who each align themselves with one of the European powers. In the film, an unnamed Frenchman (Arduino Colassanti) is captured by the Tumpinamba Indians and, mistaken for a Portuguese, is granted eight months to live before being eaten in a ritualistic act of cannibalism in revenge for the Portuguese's killing of a Tumpinamba chief. Despite the Frenchman's repeated insistence on his true national identity, the Indians either don't or deliberately choose not to believe him and proceed with their plans to eat him.

The film is purposively slippery on notions of historical accuracy and national identity, continually subverting the viewer's expectations. From the beginning, Santos keeps the viewer off balance by having the narrator read a quotation from a letter by the French colonialist Villegagnon, while deliberately contradicting the narration through a series of contrary images. For example, the letter details an attempted mutiny by mercenaries against the French party. According to the narration, after the mutiny was suppressed one mutineer threw himself into the sea. The image, however, shows the mutineer being pushed into the sea by the party, contradicting the narrative account which whitewashes the actions of the colonial power. If we are forced to rely on such historical documents written by the European colonists, it is unlikely, Santos suggests, that we are granted an accurate view of history. The director announces his intention to skewer a traditionally Eurocentric view of the material he treats, even while relying on European documents (according to Lucia Nagib's The New Brazilian Cinema, the picture's primary source is a German travel narrative, Hans Staden) for the film's historical grounding.

Santos plays as well with notions of national identity, reducing the very concept of nationality to the level of absurdity. The Frenchman is mistaken for a Portuguese, but Pereira dos Santos suggests that there is hardly a difference. Both represent unwanted colonial intrusions, so the question of which power is doing the intruding is hardly essential, especially if, as the director suggests, the Indians realize the man's true identity as a Frenchman, but pretend to believe he is Portuguese so they can eat him anyway. (The Tumpinambas are on trading terms with the French). Santos' equal opportunity irony extends as well to the Indians. The Tumpinambas are no less warlike than their European counterparts, swearing destruction to their sworn enemies, the Tupinaquins. The director shows a genuine flair for battle scenes, and the blunt and bloody showdown between the two groups that forms the film's climax is expertly staged, as the hordes of Indians engage in brutal hand to hand combat against a lush natural backdrop of greens and the blue of the ocean. Santos here shows the Indians to be as brutal and as divided along tribal lines as the Europeans. As the different groups in the war sequence quickly become indistinguishable, the significance of these tribal differences becomes increasingly absurd. The presence of the Europeans only intensifies the local conflict and makes it more deadly, since they bring with them gunpowder which the Indians use to more efficiently destroy their enemies.

As the Frenchman waits out his eight months before execution, he makes the best of his situation, while keeping one eye on escape. He is granted a "wife", the lovely Seboipepe (Ana Maria Magalhaes). He makes gunpowder to help the Tumpinambas in their war with the Tupinaquins. As the impending act of cannibalism lingers over the proceedings, Santos takes a flippant attitude towards the practice, playing the idea for laughs. In one scene, the Chief explains to the still living Frenchman which members of the tribe will be eating his various body parts. Seboipepe briefs him on how the ceremony will proceed as the man mimics the gestures he will make during the proceedings and the two share a laugh. Only when the woman sabotages his last chance at escape does the seriousness of the situation become central and the film abruptly proceeds to its finale in which the man is finally sacrificed (and eaten by a gleeful Seboipepe) before the Tumpinambas are attacked (and eventually wiped out) by the Portuguese.

Santos' comic colonial fable effortlessly offsets such serious issues as genocide and cannibalism with a light comic touch. The delicate balance that it carefully maintains between levity and horror grant the picture its unique appeal, sustained throughout by the film's offhand humor which continually underlines the absurdity of the colonial project. Ultimately the film makes a mockery of notions of national identity, divisions which are useful only insofar as they give groups of people an excuse to exterminate other groups.

No comments: