BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: cannibal-tropicalism.

WHO WOULD HAVE ever thought that a cinema could ever have a “cannibal-tropicalist” phase (outside of the Italians). Well the Brazilians did, and a whole bunch of films were made challenging political ideas via outrageous symbolism and grostesque storylines. As Brazil became more and more politically censoring, the Cinema Novo movement was forced to adapt. Macunaíma is considered a key film in this movement, and is indeed wickedly funny and I must admit, rather bizarre.

The film’s previous history was huge box office success in Brazil, but midnight screenings elsewhere. Billed initially as an exploitation film, the film would have found favour with those expecting an El Topo like freakshow. And the movie certainly does seem like it right from the start. A man (playing the mother, in drag to match to Monty Python for ugliness) gives birth to another fully grown black man (played by popular vaudeville performer Grande Otelo) and names him Macunaíma because it’s bad luck to have a name with the letters ‘ma’. Eventually leaving the jungle with his brothers in which Macunaíma grew up in with his family, he becomes white, becomes the lover of a terrorist and then battles an ogre for a jewel.

Yep it’s surreal. I’d be tempted to call this magic realism, but there’s no pretension to reality in its construction of its story. Cause and effect logic is discarded, while character motivation is virtually nil. The sheer randomness of the story is comedy enough, obviously if you’re prepared for some of the outrageous antics (my favourite was the odd jungle spirit who cut off meat from his leg to tempt Macunaíma).

However, this picaresque film is deadly serious in its thematic implications. The idea that cannibalism and consumerism are in essence the same, is the film’s major focus. And like Romero’s zombie films, Andrade goes to rather extreme and entertaining lengths to demonstrate this. At times Andrade could be accused of being a little heavy-handed, but for the most part the film’s humour certainly does carry it through. The ending was fitting too – if somewhat symbolically a little loaded. What was also surprising was the sheer cinematic feel of the film – whoever restored this film did an amazing job. This was a rather entertaining film, and hopefully triggers more films from this intriguing genre to become available.