Jaundiced cultural allegory dressed up as anthropological re-creation, Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman slyly links Montaigne’s who-are-the-real-savages query to Brazil’s military dictatorship. When a prisoner is bound to weights and pushed off a cliff into the ocean while the narration describes a suicide in the blithe, terse tones of a TV newscaster, what’s shocking isn’t just the connection made with the tortures and disappearances that were dreadfully frequent in the country during the ‘60s and ‘70s, but also the way the gentle director of Vidas Secas stages it as acrid burlesque. The man dumped into the sea is actually the nameless Frenchman of the title (Arduíno Colassanti), a soldier of fortune who, during Brazil’s formative years in the 1500s, finds himself in the middle of a tug of war between rival European colonizers; he survives drowning only to be captured by the Tupinambá, a tribe at war with the Portuguese conquerors and to whom, in the film’s deadpan reversal of prejudice, all Europeans look alike. The chief (Eduardo Imbassahy Filho), proud of his white captive and eager to avenge the deaths of his people, decides that the mercenary will be killed in eight months. In the meantime, the Frenchman becomes part of the native community, adopting their customs, taking a wife (Ana Maria Magalhães), and even fighting by their side—he hopes that being accepted will save his life, though to the Tupinambá this ultimate communal integration boils down to being literally (and ceremonially) devoured. Cannibalism, brought to the exploitative fore in grindhouse staples like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox, is here as shorn of prurience as the full-frontal nudity of the cast, offered instead as the metaphorical axis of Pereira dos Santos’s complex satire of New World mythology and unformed national identity. Eating the Frenchman may be an act of defiance, yet it also seals the tribe’s fate not only by triggering governmental reprisal, but also by symbolically ingesting the European values that will contribute to their disintegration. How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman invites active examination of contemporary mores by presenting a past where Pocahontas might munch on John Smith as promptly as redeem him.
Vibrant colors and strong skin tones abound, even if it's unclear whether the careless framing is the result of the film's faux-newsreel style or New Yorker Video's 1.33:1 full frame transfer. The Tupi soundtrack is plain and clear.
Two brief interviews, one with Columbia University Professor Richard Peña contributing an astute overview of the film's historical context, and another with Ailton, a member of the Krenak tribe discussing its portrayal of native Brazilians, but the most in-depth extra is Darlene J. Sadlier's smart interpretation in the liner notes.
Pereira dos Santos's notorious anti-establishment allegory is still a pungent meal.