Eat the imperialists: HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMAN (Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês) – Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1971

Let’s get this out of the way – there is nudity. Lots of it and throughout the movie. Well, it’s set in pre-colonial Brazil, and the Indigenous peoples did not bother with a lot of clothes, so it’s historically accurate. To ensure authenticity, the actors and the crew were all naked, so that nudity would become natural. If that bothers you, please read the blog but skip the movie.

While it was refreshingly authentic, the nudity was also a problem. First, because the authenticity is somewhat diminished, as The New York Times critic pointed out, by the fact that the natives are “middle-class white Brazilians… stripped down and reddened up for the occasion”. Secondly, the film was refused entry to the Cannes Film Festival because of all the swinging dicks. In Brazil, the censors were eventually persuaded that the natives indeed did walk around naked, but remained vehemently opposed to the nude Frenchman, a telling comment on the racist distinction that the film was intending to expose.

So, the plot in a nutshell: the French and the Portuguese are fighting to control the rich lands of South America. Each has allied with local tribes who are at constant war with each other, often involving (so the European narrative goes) capturing and eating each other’s warriors.  The Tupinambás are allied with the French, while the Tupiniquins are allied with the Portuguese. The Frenchman of the title escapes his own command, is captured by the Portuguese, and is then captured by the Tupinambás, who are allies of the French, but believe him to be Portuguese, so intend to eat him. Got all that? – there will be a test.

Tupi custom involved bringing the captive into the community, feeding and homing him, and even finding him a wife, then eventually killing him in a ceremony that will allow them to capture his essence, bravery, speed, and so on.

This wide-spread belief about the Tupi comes from a European who was captured but then escaped in 1554, came back to Europe and wrote a book. His name was Hans Staden, and he was actually a German who was trying to get to India. But since it was the French who were invading South America at the time, the director changed his nationality.

De Bry’s engravings of Tupi cannibalism were “eaten up” by the Europeans.

Tupi cannibalism has a whole literature explaining it or denying it – William Arens claimed the ‘evidence’ was mostly based on Staden’s account, which contained several contradictions, and had been continually retold as if it had happened to new re-tellers. Other anthropologists such as Rene Girard explained Tupi cannibalism as a seamless explanation for the way culture and religion have evolved. The universal violence of the human species is redirected toward the outsider, who is taken into the tribe, but remains foreign enough to be killed as a scapegoat, to release the social pressure that would lead to endless internal revenge feuds. For many, Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat under this theory, even to the extent of insisting that his followers eat and drink wine and bread transubstantiated into his “blood and body” in the Eucharist ritual.

For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.

John 6:55

The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro proposed a ‘post-structural anthropology’ in his book Cannibal Metaphysics. De Castro sought to ‘decolonise’ anthropology by challenging the increasingly familiar view that it was ‘exoticist and primitivist from birth’, denying that cannibalism even existed, and so transferred the conquered peoples from the cannibalistic villains of the West into mere fictions of colonialism. Arguing that the ‘Other’ is just like us is to deny any separate identity and to return the focus of anthropology to that which interests us: ourselves. Rather than deny the existence of cannibalism, which allows a reclassification of the Amerindian peoples as like the colonialists, de Castro examines the details of Tupinamba cannibalism, which was ‘a very elaborate system for the capture, execution, and ceremonial consumption of their enemies’. This alternative view of Amerindian culture rejects the automatic assumption of the repugnance of cannibalism, which serves to either confront it or deny its existence.

Well, that’s pretty much where this film planned to go. Pereira dos Santos challenges the Eurocentric perspective which insists on a superior civilisation overcoming a primitive one. It is true that Tupi civilisation was destroyed by the slavery, smallpox and slaughter of the Portuguese who, the film tells us at the end, also wiped out their allies the Tupiniquins. The Tupi peoples are now a remnant, confined to small areas and currently being decimated by COVID-19.

But the chief, in the killing ceremony which promises the Frenchman’s body parts to his relatives (his wife will get his neck), tells the story as a mirror image:

“I am here to kill you. Because your people have killed many of ours, and eaten them.”

So the film asks: who were/are the cannibals? It does not fully succeed in telling this story, because the audience gets involved with the Frenchman’s story, instead of his captors. Pereira dos Santos lamented that the public:

“…identified with the French, with the coloniser. All spectators lamented the death of the hero. They did not understand that the hero was the indigenous, not the white, so much were they influenced by the adventures of John Wayne.”

Nonetheless, the binary of the colonised and the powerless occupied victims is so deeply embedded in our cultural stories that it is refreshing to see this mirror image version, where the indigenous win the battle, if not the war.

Cannibal Dad: WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (Mickle, 2013)

I’m publishing this blog on Sunday 6 September, which is fathers’ day in Australia and New Zealand, but hardly anywhere else (e.g. it’s June in the US, UK, Canada, China, etc). Well, turns out there are several fathers’ days, which is fair, because there are several different kinds of father.

The father in this movie is a keen family man, and also a cannibal. The patriarchal symbolic order of this family is: the father catches them, the mother (or daughter) slaughters and cooks them.

If the prey weren’t human, some might consider that “normal”.

This time last year (on father’s day down under) I blogged about a Mexican film translated to the same as this one: We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay). Now, we all know that American remakes of “foreign” (i.e. non-American) films can be disastrous (remember Godzilla?) and, to be fair, Jim Mickle, the director, did not like the idea of remaking the excellent Mexican version just so American audiences did not have to read subtitles. But he and co-screenwriter Nick Damici came up with a new angle. In the Mexican film, the father dies, causing family conflict over the role of cannibal patriarch; in this one, it’s the mother that dies, and the children must decide whether to follow the tradition and authority of their father, or follow their own paths.

Frank Parker (Bill Sage) is left widowed when his wife starts shaking and bleeding from the mouth, then collapses, falls into a ditch and drowns. She has just finished shopping at the general store where, through the pouring rain, a butcher carries a dead pig from a truck marked “Fleischman’s” (German for meat man) – the pig’s corpse is cut up and the flesh is minced.

What they’re doing to the pig would usually be considered unremarkable, except that, knowing this is a cannibal movie, we expect the same thing will happen to humans somewhere around the end of Act I.

This is an ultra-religious, white family in the rainy Catskills, and everything they do is avowed to be God’s idea. The daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner from Ozark) explain to their little brother that he can’t have his cereal, because the family is fasting.

Fasting is usually followed by a ceremonial feast, which this family calls “Lamb Day”.

It is a family tradition passed down from 1781 – we get a flashback via a family journal which is handed to Iris – it was started by their ancestor Alyce Parker (Odeya Rush from Goosebumps) when her father fed them their uncle in one of those pioneering cannibalism events with which American history is so replete (think the Jamestown “starving time” several decades earlier, or the Donner Party several decades later). The Parker descendants have been cannibals ever since.

Their religious tradition requires eating human flesh on special occasions; while the wider community’s ritual anthropocentric carnivorous sacrifice requires the (far more regular) consumption of other mammals, such as the pig being carried through the store.

Eating meat requires the “deanimalisation” of the chosen victim, often by dividing the carcass up into named components like “spare ribs” or “rump”. The Parkers work the same way. Like a cooking show, we witness them “process” the carcass, then cook and consume the flesh; only worth filming because we know (or willingly suspend our disbelief) that this is human meat.

Rene Girard says we maintain social amity by the sacrifice of a surrogate victim, a symbolic consumption of our violent impulses – we eat an outsider instead of warring with each other. For most people, it’s a non-human animal; for the Parkers, it’s whoever is unlucky enough to get a flat tyre near their property. In stark contrast, the Parker’s neighbour Marge (Kelly McGillis from Witness) is vegetarian, and her offers of help to the family are variously accepted or brutally rebuffed, depending on whether it’s Lamb Day. Marge gets a hint that cannibalism, extreme carnivorism, runs in the family when she steps in to nurse the sick little brother. Has he inherited the family hunger?

Cannibalism movies often cling to the Wendigo hypothesis – that there is a metaphysical force that drives the eaters, once having tried human flesh, to crave ever increasing amounts of it – to need it for their very survival. A classic of this genre is Antonia Bird’s film Ravenous. In the original Mexican version of this film, the family believe they need their cannibal ceremony to survive. It’s the same in this version, with the father convinced that when he gets shaky and his mouth bleeds, this means God is telling him it’s time for Lamb Day.

But there’s a modern twist. The town’s (apparently only) doctor (Michael Parks) performs an autopsy on the mother, which reveals that her ailments were more closely related to the disease kuru, which killed hundreds of Fore people in Papua New Guinea and was believed to have been caused by eating the brains and spinal columns of dead relatives in funerary rites.

Then the doc’s dog finds a human bone washed downstream by the floods, and he begins to suspect what happened to his own missing daughter.

Kuru is a prion disease, similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow disease”), and is often quoted as a reason why we shouldn’t eat people, in case they have abnormal prion proteins, although that argument is no more convincing than the one against eating cows in case they have BSE (safest option for avoiding spongiform encephalopathy is: go vegan). At any rate, this family have been engaging in cannibalism for some 240 years, believing they are doing God’s will, and hey, who invented kuru anyway?

As Hannibal would say – “typhoid and swans – it all comes from the same place”.

The father’s day feast at the end of the movie is spectacular, and the girls drive off with the diary from 1781, unaware of the kuru diagnosis, and presumably still believing in the necessity to obey God’s will and eat people occasionally. Honestly, it wouldn’t be the stupidest thing that’s ever been blamed on the deity.

Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie 86% fresh, with most critics liking it, and a couple of them really detesting it. The London Evening Standard asked:

“Who can resist a good cannibal movie?”

Well, my gentle readers, clearly not us. And this is a good one.

A complete listing of Hannibal blogs can be viewed here:
https://thecannibalguy.com/2020/07/08/hannibal-film-and-tv-blogs/