In "How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman," Brazilian director Nelson Pereira dos Santos recreates the overt conflict between the Europeans and the indigenous populations on the 16th century Brazilian coast. The plot specifically concerns two groups of Europeans, the French and the Portuguese, as well as two tribes of Tupi, the Tupinamba and the Tupinuquin. In their efforts to conquer and control the same coastlands, the two European powers each befriend one of the tribes: the French ally with the Tupinamba, the Portuguese with the Tupinuquin. Though an obvious comparison of civilized and savage, this film daringly portrays the differing societies in all their gruesome and fascinating details, thus challenging the viewer to discover for themselves just which side, European or native, they should support.
The action begins as the main protagonist, an unnamed Frenchman, is driven out of the French settlement for plotting to assassinate its governor. After capturing this rogue European, a tribe of Tupinamba refuse to believe that the Frenchman is indeed French and declare him to be Portuguese. The Frenchman, now an enemy, is destined by native custom to be consumed at a feast. Happily, as custom also dictates, the Frenchman must before his death become a full part of the tribe by living as one with it, bestowing upon the captive a reprieve of 8 months.
The rest of the movie examines the Frenchman's measured transformation from European to native. Among the outward changes are the assumption of the characteristic nakedness, possession of a wife, shaving in the customary manner and learning the language of the Tupinamba. Yet though the loss of his superficial European characteristics is important, the movie examines as well those characteristics which are left intact through the metamorphosis. For instance, even through all his trials, the captive cannot give up his desire for wealth and gold. In the face of opposition, even when from other Frenchmen, his civilized veneer becomes academic and the captive descends to barbarism. The Tupi are shown as much more simple in their desires--to them it is important to receive beads and combs, but no more important than to receive guns and captives. In comparison to the Europeans, their way seems balanced and affection for objects never overwhelms the traditional ways and beliefs. Though to a certain extent romanticizing the natives' way of life, the director does not flinch from portraying the most gritty parts of both European and native cultures. His eagerness to illustrate unpleasant practices is quite obvious from the title role cannibalism plays in this movie. The concept of humans consuming one another universally repulses and begs the question of what kind of society can make such a barbaric practice a part of daily life. Yet one of the movie's most disturbing intentions is the comparison between two kinds of death: execution or cannibalism. The Frenchman, condemned without a word in his defense, is thrown to the sea in a shockingly perfunctory manner. Yet those captives of the Tupi, condemned to be consumed by the tribe, are treated with respect and even honored as they live among those who will eat them. Above all, they are allowed dignity as they die. Thus even this seemingly simple choice of "civilization" versus "savage" becomes complex, and the choice between a callous, ignoble death and a personable, honorable one difficult. As desired by the director, we are forced to question the ingrained knowledge perpetuated by our culture, and perhaps realize how relative the term civilization truly is.
To some extent, all such movies that contrast the excitement of European intercontinental expansion and the resulting wanton destruction of the New World's native peoples are designed to induce viewer sympathy towards the native cause. Yet never before has a director asked us to sympathize with cannibals. In his dedication to an unsentimental portrayal of both cultures, Pereira dos Santos almost manages to convince us of his objectivity. That we resolve despite their abominable practice to support the natives is a considerable testament to the director's skill and evidence of the movie's hidden power.