Judge Neal Solon prefers to call them tasty little freedom-men.
The beginning of the exploitation of Brazil
In 1971, Nelson Pereira dos Santos made a film about late 16th-century Brazil. The film explored colonial issues that dos Santos thought precipitated (and mirrored) modern Brazilian sociopolitical conditions. Yet this is not why How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman gained international attention. For better or worse, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman's place in cinema history is earned because nearly the entire cast is naked for the full running time of the film. This got the film banned from the Cannes film festival, and to a large extent it is why people seek out the film today. Hardly a review of this DVD has been written that does not mention nubile, exotic beauty or make reference of some sort to the size of the main character's member. Such exoticizing and sexualizing commentaries might provide interesting insight into the political and social positions of the critic, but they could not be further from the point of the film. The nudity in the film is as non-exploitative as any screen nudity I've ever seen, and there is far more to the film than just naked bodies.
Facts of the Case
In nascent colonial Brazil, a Frenchman (Arduíno Colassanti) is captured by warriors from a native tribe. The tribe, which is allied with the French, is convinced that the man is Portuguese. So its leader condemns the man to die eight months hence. The Frenchman lives for eight months as a privileged observer and de facto member of the tribe: taking a wife, fighting with the men, and adopting the native dress and custom. Having this freedom, he seems almost to forget that he will soon die and that when he does, his new tribe, including his wife, will eat him.
It is a bit of a critical copout, but it is difficult to come up with anything remotely new to say about How Tasty was My Little Frenchman. Dos Santos' film is a funny, potent satire even today, nearly forty years since it was made. But it is a film that is difficult to understand fully without the appropriate context.
Some of the humor and insight translate easily to modern times and native English speakers. The most apparent source of humor is in a constant disparity between the film's intertitles, which come from real, historical accounts of the period, and what occurs on the screen. Dos Santos plainly sets this up from the very first sequence of the film, and it is a source of insight to the very last. Comparisons of the "official story" and the truth of what is happening on the ground in times of conflict are timeless and revealing.
On the other end of the spectrum is the film's cannibalism. To modern audiences, the meaning of this sequence is sure to be obscured by political and historical distance. In addition to using the act of cannibalism as a tool to mark the Frenchman's captors as exotic, dos Santos is making a statement about the political and social climate in which he made the film. It was a time of violent dictatorship, and dos Santos saying two things through the scene: First, the fractured nature of Brazilian society could only lead to mischaracterization of others and unnecessary strife, and second, that Brazilian culture was, in a sense, sealing its own fate by blindly cannibalizing typical "Western" culture.
These commentaries are no less prescient than dos Santos's comments on political posturing during times of conflict, but they are less direct. One of the biggest failings of New Yorker's DVD package of this film is that it does not provide adequate context for exploring this aspect of the film. Worse, some of the most obvious insight into dos Santos's commentary, provided by the film's intertitles, is obscured by New Yorker's failure to translate the intertitles. The halves that are left are often incomprehensible and wholly useless for following either the film's plot or dos Santos's message. Anyone with a working knowledge of Spanish should be able to decipher enough of the Portuguese to get the gist of the titles, but we shouldn't have to. Neither should less observant viewers be left thinking that dos Santos deliberately made his intertitles as confusing as they are in translation.
What context is provided in this package by New Yorker comes from erudite liner notes provided by Darlene Sadlier, a professor in the departments of Spanish and Portuguese and Communication and Culture at Indiana University. Apart from the film, these notes are the one indispensable part of the package. A brief video "discussion" of the film is provided by Richard Peña, Columbia University Film Studies professor and director of the New York Film Festival. This feature is underwhelming, if occasionally interesting. Despite being an acknowledged expert on the film, Peña's comments brush the surface of the film, giving little attention to the subtexts of the film. A more appropriate, if still not compelling, compilation of Peña's thoughts on the film can be found in an essay he published in the book Brazilian Cinema, edited by Randal Johnson and Robert Stam.
The final extra is unique and, at the very least, interesting. It is a second, brief video "discussion" of the film provided by a man named Aílton, a member of an indigenous Brazilian tribe. Aílton discusses the presentation of native Brazilians in the film and about the status of these people in post-colonial Brazil.
Technically, the DVD presentation is less than ideal on an objective scale. The image is occasionally softer and less crisp than it might ideally be and the audio, while functional, is a little bit thin. Subjectively, however, this sort of presentation adds to the film's feeling of authenticity, even more so considering that these defects could very well have been a part of the presentation since the very first prints of the film.
New Yorker earns thanks for bringing this unique film to the digital format, in spite of their oversights in terms of context and subtitling. The film should be of great interest to any one with a penchant for global sociology and political history, and the DVD is certain to be a fixture in the collections of cineastes with a passion for third world cinema and Cinema Novo.
Not guilty, though New Yorker's quality control team might want to be wary of ending up someone else's dinner…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Liner Notes by Darlene J. Sadlier
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