The focus of Richard A. Gordon's book is, to use the author's own term, 'colonial films', that is, Latin American historical films that have appropriated and adapted colonial narratives of European and indigenous contact. Analysing films from the silent period to the present day produced in Mexico and Brazil, 'nations that have produced the greatest number of […] colonial films by far', the author shows how their adaptations key into cinematic debates concerning the nation that take place in the arena of revisions of the colonial past (1). The book is a timely contribution to the increasing academic interest in Latin American cinema and also to the growing body of theoretical and critical work on the topic of cinematic adaptations. In addition, the study's comparative focus is a useful addition to scholarly interest in the connections between Brazilian and Spanish American culture.
The book's introduction contains a concise synthesis of the work, as well as a useful outline of Gordon's own theory of cinematic adaptation. Drawing on Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade's 1928 'Cannibalist Manifesto', which advocated an active digestion of the region's colonial history, Gordon argues against the notion of fidelity to an original text, which often dominates discussions of cinematic adaptations, to look at how colonial films 'digest and absorb their intertext in order to transform it into a calculated commentary on the nation' (2–3). Rather than to provide a comprehensive view or theory of colonial films, the intention of the book is to understand 'how and why at a particular historical and political conjuncture certain filmmakers devour colonial narratives, delving into the past configurations to rethink their present' (4).
The subsequent five chapters, organized thematically, expound upon this notion of 'anthropophagous adaptation' (2). Chapter One, by far the strongest in the book, examines Brazilian director Humberto Mauro's 1937 film Descobrimento do Brasil and its adaptation of Pero Vaz de Caminha's 'Carta'. Drawing on an impressive array of extra-textual sources, which includes publicity material, and taking into account the inclusion of new material, which may for instance, be inserted text in the intertitles, Gordon explores Mauro's rendering of this founding text in the context of Getúlio Vargas's New State (1937–45). The author argues that the film's portrayal of a peaceful encounter between the Europeans and the natives adheres to the ideological imperatives of mestiçagem, central to the populist underpinnings of Vargas's nation state.
The other chapters in the book focus on less positive and ideologically complicit dialogues with the colonial past. Chapter Two examines the exotic display of indigenous peoples by European explorers in two films based on sixteenth-century captivity narratives, namely Nicolás Echeverría's 1991 film Cabeza de Vaca, an adaptation of Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca's Naufragios (1542 and 1555), and Nelson Pereira dos Santos's 1971 adaptation of Hans Staden's Viagem ao Brasil (1557), Como era gostoso o meu francês. While separated by considerable historical and cultural differences, Gordon shows how these films address the positive contribution of indigenous peoples to Latin American identity by reintroducing captivity narratives into the popular imagination. In Chapter Three Gordon analyses the reconfiguration of the popular colonial icon La Virgen de Guadalupe in La Otra Conquista (1998), directed by Salvador Carrasco, and Gabriel Retes' Nuevo mundo (1976). Gordon argues that these films actively exploit Guadalupe's potential for resistance. The return to a female icon of the colonial past is also at the heart of Chapter Four, which discusses Eduardo Rossof's Ave Maria (1999) and its translation of the historically criolla Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz into a mestiza Maria Inez. Gordon links the film's 'malleable adaptation' to Mexico's political and historical conjuncture, arguing that the film's mestizo Sor Juana was part of a political context that sought to inspire solidarity with the indigenous population that emerged after 2000 and the defeat of the long-standing...