Reframing the shocking exploits of the cannibal subgenre, Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is a potently dark, anthropological allegory. Recalibrating horror tropes popularized by the Italians in the seventies and eighties, the film is simultaneously humorous, yet bleakly incisive, using its 16th century backdrop to gnaw away at the contradictions of its own epoch. Shot in the Cinema Novo style, the film raises provocative questions about the relationships between different cultures and historical verdicts, exploring how these perspectives — and their supporting mythologies — are skewed or contextualized by the beholder.
Rival French and Portuguese colonizers have been exploiting Brazil’s native tribes as pawns in their rival attempts for control of the country in the late 1500s. A French prisoner is bound and pushed off a cliff into the ocean by his Portuguese jailers (which the narration describes as a suicide), but washes ashore and is then taken hostage by the Tupinambá — a tribe at odds with the Portuguese settlers. The chief is convinced the man is Portuguese, and the Frenchman is sentenced to die in eight months — meaning the tribe will ceremoniously eat him. Until then, he adopts every Tupi custom — fighting alongside the other men against the Tupiniquin tribe, transforming his appearance, and taking a wife.
The Frenchman seems largely impassive about his capture. A peculiar scene between the prisoner and his wife — in which she eerily taunts him with the nickname “Little Neck,” because she will eat his after he’s killed — displays a bizarre, intimate, and playful exchange between the couple as she describes exactly how he will be slaughtered, while he chuckles softly.
The symbolic connections between cannibalism and cultural collapse seem obvious, but Dos Santos further demonstrates this by introducing detachment between expansive visuals, framing, tri-lingual dialogue, and the use of text. The film’s opening sequence debuts the technique, delivering an anarchic spill of textures. National Geographic voiceover narration, images of 16th century engravings depicting tribal cannibalism and intertitles offering quoted historical accounts all compete for authenticity, and our endorsement. The contents of the frame are undermined and contradicted, the screen becoming a site of contention rather than consensus. This explosive analysis assumes a subversive resonance given its context: Dos Santos created the movie during the height of Brazil’s violent military dictatorship. Amidst the riotous polycultural montage and battery of assertions, it’s truth itself which is at stake.
How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is available on DVD