Saturday, October 27, 2012

HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMAN (Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês,1971)

The Vietnam War and the final throes of European imperialism inspired a wide range of revisionist views of confrontations between "civilized" and "primitive" peoples in 1970s cinema. While the benevolence of the white man was, to say the least, not taken for granted, the nobility of savages wasn't always taken for granted, either. Cinematic aboriginals ranged from the idealized Native Americans of revisionist U.S. westerns to the utter savagery, albeit provoked, of Italian cannibal movies. Nelson Pereira dos Santos's movie comes early in the wave and is more likely influenced by the global interest in the primal kulturkampf than by other countries' movies. While it may have given world audiences the fashionable thrill of seeing a white man undone by tribal folk, it doesn't exactly offer a blueprint for a Third World uprising. Como Era Gostoso is a grim, unheroic affair that sees brutality and selfish ambition everywhere, though its main attraction is probably its abundance of nudity, male and female.

The little Frenchman (Arduino Colassanti) never gets a name. Condemned by his own people, who are competing in 1594 with Portugal in the colonization of Brazil, he is weighed down with a ball and chain and dumped into the sea. He somehow makes it to shore and eventually falls in with some Portugese who make him their gunner. He gets captured by the Tupinamba tribe, to whom he struggles to prove that he is French, and therefore an ally, and not a Portugese enemy. They may not know either language, but they think they can tell the two apart when Europeans speak. Their chief, Cunhambebe (Eduardo Imbassahy Filho) decides that his prisoner is Portugese, mainly because he wants a slave to sacrifice as a ritual meal -- and the French trader who visits the Tupinambas regularly has no interest in correcting the chief's error. The most he'll do for his fellow Frenchman is hold out hope that Cunhambebe will eventually free him before he decides to kill him.


For the moment, the Frenchman is useful. The tribe has salvaged two small cannons from their raid, and their prisoner knows not only how to fire them but how to make more gunpowder. Cunhambebe hopes for a decisive victory against his tribe's traditional enemies, the Portuguese-allied Tupiniquins. While he prepares for war, the Frenchman introduces the tribeswomen to new ideas in agriculture, sheds his European clothes and cuts his hair tribal style. This last bit actually makes it easier for Cunhambebe to grab him and yank him around, to assert his dominance. You can see concern in the chief's eyes even as everything seems to go his way -- a suspicion that his slave and his cannon might get more credit for the eventual victory over the enemy tribe. Meanwhile, the Frenchman has been given a woman, Seboipepe (Ana Maria Magalhães) and notices that the "bead" she wears in her navel is actually a silver coin. He and the trader find a buried treasure but squabble over the split, our hero killing his momentary partner. He's still hoping to make a break, maybe with the woman and definitely with the treasure. Everything comes to a head when Cunhambebe decides abruptly, after brooding in the middle of a victory celebration, that it's time for his slave to die. The girl explains the role the Frenchman must play in a scripted ritual, and stops him from escaping with his loot. The climactic question is whether the ritual is symbolic only, whether a Pocahantas scenario will be played out, or whether Cunhambebe ain't playin'...


The objectification of the Frenchman is the starkest fact of the story. If the French think of him as a criminal, and the Portuguese as an enemy, the Tupinambas see him as food, albeit a special kind of meal they can taunt as he's dragged into their village. This taunting may make the Tupinambas seem more evil or depraved, if not more savage, than the mindless-seeming cannibals of Italian gore films. The more that we see that the Tupinambas have a culture, from their elaborate rituals to their purely ornamental fashion sense, the more disturbing their cannibalism seems and the more, perhaps, we want to think that they don't really mean it, that all this talk of eating someone is just a game. Seboipepe;s attitude may be the most troubling of all; does she grow truly affectionate toward the Frenchman, or is she simply turned on by the idea of playing with her food? Despite any horror we feel toward his fate, it remains hard to root for the Frenchman, as he remains viciously greedy in a way the filmmakers may have felt was characteristically European for the time. Como Era Gostoso is a film without a hero, since Cunhambebe seems hardly less odious in his egotistical ambition and readiness to exploit the white man and his weapons. As the chief, Filho practically steals the film from Colassanti, his surly ambition trumping the title character's somewhat generic traits. He manages more than anyone else to convey a performance with body language and facial expressions while speaking a language foreign to him and parading about practically starkers. The cast as a whole manages to transcend self-consciousness in portraying the topless and bottomless tribespeople, probably because they understand that feathers and bodypaint are as much their clothing and their identity as shirts, pants, etc. are ours.

Dos Santos films in appropriately spare style, stripping the story of any European romanticism while showing off impressive art direction in the Tupinambas village. While the quotations from contemporary writers commenting on native savagery really only interrupt the story, except for a probably predictable epilogue, they don't disrupt the viewer's immersion into an authentically alien human environment. The picture's invocation of a dead culture is convincing, though one might wonder whether dos Santos meant ultimately to show that it deserved death. No paradise was lost, it seems, and primitive life promises no refuge for a drop-out from European civilization, whether accidental or deliberate. How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is a vision of human nature in the raw, in more than one sense, and has a place in movie history as a discordant variation on the savage-vs.-civilized theme.

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