- Cannibalizing the Colony: Cinematic Adaptations of Colonial Literature in Mexico and Brazil
In Cannibalizing the Colony, Richard A. Gordon offers an unconventional reading of celluloid representations of the traumatic and contested “origins” of Mexico and Brazil. Aside from the striking yet unanalyzed datum that the majority of films about the colonial period are reportedly made in these two countries, Gordon’s chief motive for concentrating on Brazilian and Mexican cinematic production, in particular, is that historically both nations have evinced an enduring preoccupation with the question of national identity. The other important and related ground for this comparative study is precisely to demonstrate “the untapped potential” for scholarly analyses comparing Brazilian cultural production to that of Spanish America.
For Gordon, the concern with national identity arises on the one hand from the two nations’ continuing political and cultural struggles around the assimilation and autonomy of indigenous peoples, and on the other from historical trajectories analogously defined by fraught and entangled processes of cultural hybridization. He argues that Mexican and Brazilian filmmakers creatively adapt, and at times radically transform colonial texts as a means not only of interrogating prevailing conceptions of national identity, but of persuasively engaging their spectators in imagining contestatory identity formations. Because Gordon understands these cinematic adaptations as complex and contradictory strategies of exercising control over the colonial archive, he provocatively calls them “anthropophagous adaptations.”
In this way, the Brazilian modernist Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 recuperation of the Tupi cannibal ritual as a metaphor for the appropriation of hegemonic [End Page 139] cultural forms and epistemic models anticipates the modes in which these so-called colonial films aggressively (or revengefully) unmake their putative archival sources in an effort to shape their own narratives of national origins and identity. The central irony defining this cinematic “cannibalism” is that in attempting to subvert colonial domination and oppression by exercising dominance over texts that register a history of violence and dispossession, filmmakers run the risk of reproducing, rhetorically at least, some of the very practices they denounce and ultimately strive to displace. It is this agonistic dialectical relation between film and colonial archive, as it plays out in eight “emblematic” films (four from Brazil and four from Mexico), that Gordon undertakes to examine in the book.
In the first of five chapters, he analyzes Humberto Mauro’s “re-creation” of Pêro Vaz de Caminha’s 1500 Letter of Discovery in Descobrimento do Brasil [The Discovery of Brazil] (1937). Mauro’s ostensibly faithful adaptation removes much of the contradictoriness and ambiguity from Caminha’s foundational text to construct a mythic narrative of contemporary Brazil emerging out of the cordial and peaceable encounter between Portuguese mariners and the coastal inhabitants of precolonial Brazil. As Gordon indicates, the filmmaker’s vision of the nation’s origins largely coincides with the ideology of the contemporaneous authoritarian regime led by Getúlio Vargas, which was keenly invested in underscoring the purportedly Catholic and Portuguese components of Brazil’s national character. In the end, Mauro’s cinematic reconstruction replicates the paternalistic outlook of its archival source. Insofar as it reinforces both the cultural dispossession and longstanding subjection of Brazil’s indigenous peoples, Descobrimento do Brasil exemplifies the colonial film in the full acceptation of the term. It stands as a kind of emblem for the gravest pitfall that may beset an “anthropophagous” cinematic adaptation of a colonial text.
The second chapter turns to Cabeza de Vaca, Nicolás Echevarría’s loose 1991 adaptation of Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios (1542 and 1555), and Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Como era gostoso o meu francês (1971), a similarly liberal reconstruction of Hans Staden’s 1557 captivity narrative. Both filmmakers engage in “self-exoticizing” procedures which Gordon deems integral to the history of Latin America’s cultural production. Borrowing Stephanie Merrim’s and Roberto González Echevarría’s notion of “self-exoticization,” a strategy criollo writers deploy in the seventeenth century in order both to denounce the excesses of the colonial order and pursue...