Smacking of Buñuel, the brilliant prologue to writer-director Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês is hilarious. In 1594 Brazil, a young French mercenary, captured by an indigenous tribe, the Tupiniquins, is pushed off a cliff, shackled, to drown in the sea below as a priest, his back toward us, makes a wide sign of the cross in the air. Surviving, the boy is captured post-prologue, this time by the Tupinambás, who, although hospitably disposed toward the French, mistake him for being Portuguese and reject all his attempts to prove himself French. The Tupinambás hate the Portuguese and enslave the boy, informing him they will dine on him eight months hence. One point that Pereira dos Santos is making is cruel though apt: interchangeable, Europeans are all alike. The fact that the protagonist isn’t named buttresses the point. Of course, the filmmaker is also suggesting that the two tribes shouldn’t each be aligning themselves with a different European country, Portugal or France, but instead with each other. This is not to be.
White Boy—let us pretend that that’s his name—tries assimilating into the tribe, which includes fighting alongside the men and marrying, hoping that all this will derail cannibalistic designs on him. He also seeks help from European traders and even tries escaping on his own. All his plans fail (his wife Seboipepe’s arrow into his thigh cuts short one of his attempts at escape), and Time eats up eight months quickly. (For us, the eight months grow monotonous and slow.) At his ceremonial slaughter, he pushes away Seboipepe and prophesies European retribution (colonialism); a cut to an overhead long-shot accentuates the final violence that the tribe, stomachs growling, wreaks upon him.
There is visual irony in White Boy’s appearance; he blends in with the film’s color scheme, which includes the color of the pale sand in addition to the pale turquoise blue of sea and distant hills. By contrast, the reddish-bronze flesh of the Tupinambás makes them stand out, that is to say, not “fit in” as well. One of the tenets of Brazil’s cinema nôvo, of which Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês is a centrifugal example, is the avoidance of Western cultural influence, including that of Hollywood; White Boy’s assimilation into the film’s beachiness provides an index of the seductive nature of “outside” cultures that Pereira dos Santos is warning against. Cinema nôvo also stresses the contribution made by indigenous groups to Brazilian identity.
The cinema nôvo movement is also politically committed. Elusively, the atmosphere of the film contains glints of Brazil’s military dictatorship at the time and, too, sideswipes at mercantilism as a forerunner of capitalism—for Pereira dos Santos, the principal Western poison.
This important film has been described as being “pseudo-documentary” in an ethnographic vein—but detailing tribal activities and ceremonies of the distant past. Stylistically, this description is unsatisfactory; the use of camera is too dynamic for ethnographic documentary, simulated or otherwise. The abundance of closeups, moreover, would be considered florid in such a film. Rather, Pereira dos Santos has given his film a style of its own.
Footnote: The pervasive nudity of the natives—including that of White Boy when he is trying to act like a native in order to dodge his fate—got this film famously excluded from Cannes. Or did it? That was the reason given; but I can think of others.
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