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Cannibalizing The Colony: Cinematic Adaptations Of Colonial Literature In Mexico And Brazil (Purdue Studies in Romance Literatures) Paperback – November 15, 2008


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Romance Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1, 66--69, 2013


Richard  Gordon.Cannibalizing the Colony.Purdue: Purdue University Press, 2009.
264 pp.
As the author affirms in the introduction, Brazil and Mexico are perhaps the countries with a  richer legacy regarding the visual representation of colonial literature and colonial culture in  the screen. The films chosen as corpus for this study go from a classic early sound feature like  Humberto Mama's Descobrimento  do Brasil (1937)  to a digital post-cinema  production  like  Caramuru (2002), directed by Guel Arraes. The other two films for Brazil include a classic of the  late era of Cinema Novo, Nelson Pereira DosSantos' Como era Gostoso o Meu Frances (1971), inspired  on Hans Staden's  testimonial of captivity vVarhaftige Historia (1557), and a fictional recreation  of colonial contact between Portuguese and Tupf peoples, Lucia Murat's  Brava Gente Brasileira  released in 2000. On the Mexican side the chronology of the works covered is less encompassing but  definitively pertinent to the subject and vision of the book. The earliest work studied is the  controversial film Nuevo Mundo (1976), directed by Gabriel Retes. The most recent is a fictional  reconstruction  of seventeen  century  convent life focusing  on  a female  poet and thinker  (not  unlike Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz),  Ave Marfa, directed by Eduardo Rossof ( 1999). The other two  Mexican productions studied include the expensive and long adaptation of the Alvar Nunez Cabeza de  Vaca chronicle Naufragios (1542) in the first fiction film of documentarian  Nicolas Echevarrfa,
Cabeza de Vaca (1991), and Salvador Carrasco's Spanish-Mexican coproduction La Otra Conquista  (1998).
These eight films are analyzed according to a set of interesting  methodological  strategies.  First, "cannibalism"  is used as an encompassing  metaphor central  to the creation of cultural  artifacts and cultural identities  in Latin America in general and, as Gordon  argues, especially  relevant for Brazil and Mexico in particular. Second, anthropophagic  practices are studied both as  historiographic  occmrences  and as visual representations  or allusions in Como era gostoso and in  Cabeza de Vaca. But perhaps the most important contribution of the book is the nuanced threading of  cultmal, historicaL sociological, and cinematic issues revisited in an attempt to assess a film  legacy that, until now, has seldom been studied as a corpus in a comparative context.
Although I found myself disagreeing  with some of the proposed interpretations  offered in Cannibalizing the Colony, I fully appreciate the care with which the arguments were constructed,  avoiding the dismissals against "colonial films" typical of some strict historiographic readings in  which movies are always accused of "bastardizing  History." On the other side of the spectrum, the book also avoids the facile summarizing exercises of some film critics who are not interested in going  through  a rigorous  reading  of both  the visual  rendition  of a historical  era  and the actual text on which the films adaptations  are based.  In fact,  where actual colonial  texts are adapted for the screen, Cannibalizing the Colony goes directly to the pages and finds the visual approximation given by the director paragraph by paragraph and scene by scene. This is the case of the analysis of Mama's Descobrimento and Echevarrfa's Caheza de Vaca. In the first chapter,Gordon cites and discusses specific passages of Vaz de Caminha's Carta ao Rei Dam Manuel to trace the ideological and cultural negotiations effected by the film images vis-a-vis one of the most important documents of Brazilian colonial history, since this text narrates the first encounter
of Alvares Cabral with the inhabitants of the Bahia de Guanabara in 1500. First, the chapter offers a detailed discussion confronting paragraphs of the letter in relation to editing and mise-en- scene elements in several sequences of the film. Then the chapter discusses the elisions, conflations, and modifications made by Mauro's adaptation of the original chronicle. The rest of Chapter 1 offers an explanation of the sociological importance of the film released in 1937 when Getulio Vargas' Estado Novo was still under material and symbolic consolidation. Gordon explains with clarity how the film fitted well the investment of the regime in reconfiguring the cunent national identity. In that sense, Mauro's images helped the regime in its search of a new sense of Brazilianess that tried to reconcile the Portuguese and indigenous heritage for the popular imaginary of a modern multiracial nation (40).
I see this step-by-step analysis going from historiographic to cinematic discourse, then to the cultural and sociological context of film production and spectatorship, as one of the most valuable aspects of the book.  most of the five chapters give well-balanced discussions of films in this sense, but not all. Chapter 3 presents a comparative reading of the seventeenth century book of songs and prayers to the Virgin of Guadalupe known as the Nicar1 Mopohua (1642) and two contemporary Mexican films depicting the evangelizing mission of the colonial church, Nuevo Mundo (1976) and La Otra Conquista (1998). The mythology surrounding the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the most revered figure in Mexican Catholicism, is examined under what I have called elsewhere as "'denunciatory film discourse." This denunciatory condition affected the circulation of Retes' film Nuevo Mundo, which was briefly released in 1976 and then banned by state censorship until its re-release in 1992. Salvador Canasco's La Otra Conquista (1998)
had better luck as a commercial film in the late 1990s. Gordon characterizes both films as "antiadaptations antiadaptations" for the counter-hegemonic stance taken by the images regarding the emergence of
the indigenous virgin. According to Cannibalizing the Colony, Retes represents this foundational moment of colonial religiosity as part of a deliberate strategy of controL manipulation, and subjugation of the growing mestizo population of the New Spain. This chapter is very effective in describing many of the tensions and still-standing contradictions in the adoption of the Virgin of Guadalupe as the central symbol for Mexican mestizo identity as a supposed "'autochthonous" figure (81 ). However, after the complex analysis and clever compmisons between both films and the Nican Mopohua to explain the evolution and apparent flexibility of the myth of Guadalupe, the book comes short of explaining some contextual elements of the Mexican film production of the 1970s when Nuevo Mundo first appeared.
As it is well-known, the 1970s saw a resurgence of Mexican cinema due in great pmt to an unusually strong official backing for the industry. With actual support from the authorities, many young directors went on to criticize different aspects of Mexican society, exposing police brutality or corrupt political and cultural institutions-indeed a dm·ing use of the camera unheard of in the history of Mexican film until that point. Thus, in my opinion Retes commitment to a strong denunciatory rhetoric in Nuevo Mundo (confirmed in later films like Bandera Rota [1976] and El Bulio [1992]) not only was aimed to criticize colonial  eligiosity, but also was a metaphor to pass scrutiny on the authoritarian and violent tendencies of the Mexican state and its allies. This indirect criticism was made in reference to the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, and the subservient attitude taken for the most part by the Mexican Church toward the events. Cannibalizing the Colony misses the opportunity to comment on the contextual conditions of the exhibition of these Mexican films as it was done in Chapter 1 in the case of Mauro's adaptation ofVaz de Caminha's chronicle in Brazil. The most engaging discussion regarding the colonial legacy and the cinematic depictions of cannibalism comes in Chapter 2. In this chapter, Alvar N1:ifiez's Naufragios (1541) and Echevanfa's conesponding cinematic adaptation Caheza de Vaca (1992) are discussed in comparison with the Brazilian texts, the adaptation of Hans Staden's chronicle of captivity (1557) and its widely known parodied version in Pereira DosSantos film Como era Gostoso o Meu Frances (1971). In the latter case, Gordon's argument for conceiving film versions of Latin American historiography as "anthropophagous adaptations" is solidly advanced and successfully proven. Gordon argues that Latin American historical films consume historical texts and their symbols to propose new images that could serve in the "digestion" of colonial legacies and help in the reconfiguration of contemporary identities. The author builds an agile  nd engaging argument to analyze the extent and power of the anthropophagic metaphor proposed by Oswald de Andrade in Brazil in 1928 in his Manifesto Antropofago. However, the pertinence of this concept as a central element in contemporary Mexican cultural processes is less convincing. In this chapter entitled "Exoticizing the Nation in Caheza de Vaca (1991) and Corno era gostoso o meufrances (1971)" Gordon  rgues that both films make use of a strategy of "'self-exoticizism" to de-center and destabilize cultural assumptions regarding the indigenous origins of the nation in order to anthropophagically reconfigure modern  egemonic identities. But the comparison of both films corresponding to two different cultural moments in these two nations seems to leave some loose ends, specifically in the case of Mexico.
In Chapter 2, Gordon proposes that in Echevarria's film, a free and stylized interpretation of Alvar Nunez's narrative,...

About the Author

Richard A. Gordon, The Ohio State University, works in the areas of Hispanic and Portuguese language literatures, cultures and film studies, and comparative studies. His research intersects with colonial and post-colonial studies, centering on Brazilian and Spanish-American historical cinema. He is currently writing a book that evaluates the role that films about slavery have played in shaping national identities in Cuba and Brazil. His articles have appeared in Hispania, MLN, Luso-Brazilian Review, Letras Peninsulares, Colonial Latin American Review, and Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies.

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Cannibalizing The Colony: Cinematic Adaptations Of Colonial Literature In Mexico And Brazil (Purdue Studies in Romance Literatures)
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