Tribes and Tribulation: Colonization of South America in THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017) and THE MISSION (1986)

 

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The Lost City of Z (James Grey, 2017)

 

Indigenous communities in Hollywood films have always had marginalized roles and appearances, especially in those films dealing with Western and imperialist historical topics. James Grey’s The Lost City of Z (pronounced “Zed”) however, might be the first I’ve seen which makes a conscientious effort to reverse this Hollywood treatment. To, in fact, make it a point to say native peoples are actively marginalized throughout imperialist histories, and it’s main protagonist, Colonel Percy Fawcett, as a beholder to their intellect and power.

The main obstacle to Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) was not to convince England he had discovered a lost tribe, but that it was, in fact, a civilization, one replete with the advancements of cookware, art, weaponry, and buildings that constituted a people of intellect and scientific and engineering knowhow. In a boisterous and argumentative session before the Royal Geographic Society, he makes his case to the horror of many of the “intellectuals” who’s fear of a non-white race achieving civility and discipline shattered their world view.

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Fawcett’s adamant stance on the intelligence and advancement of native cultures is an important counter to our biased views of Western civilization. Despite a more politically correct polish on what used to be incredibly racist stereotypes of the civilized white towards the native barbarian, we still don’t acknowledge in textbooks or discussion of colonization how much more advanced Natives actually were in regards to their understanding of natural and environmental science and food cultivation than any settlers were.

Previous treatments of native cultures contained them as entities having to be “saved” by a Western hero (Dances with Wolves). It was a veil of digestibility for our sake and a continuation of the lies that native cultures never really had an “order” before the Conquistadors or Pilgrims came to settle and command. That there were no rules or governance and thus, the land was essentially for the taking and the people free to be “educated”.

In contrast to such restrictive Hollywood tropes, James Grey’s The Lost City of Z might be considered unique in its “progressive histrionics”. There are conversations regarding women’s roles in society and home, white and non-white race relations, the erasure of cultures, and the validity of scientific findings. The film has quite a clear argument in favor of progressive views of the world, even if its setting is in the old world where such thoughts were considered preposterous or worse, treasonous.

 

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The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986)

 

Take these views into consideration with Roland Joffé’s The Mission, a critically acclaimed historical epic which uses a very traditional Hollywood construct of native people as a group looking to be conquered or brought to salvation… or both. Joffé’s film also creates a good vs evil dichotomy, wherein its progressive politics are poised as a fight between the peaceful salvation of the Jesuit order and the ruthless slavery-driven economy of imperialist Portugal. There is even a character, Rodrigo Mendoza (a miscast but adequate Robert DeNiro), who spent time on both sides of this fence; a former mercenary and slave trader who corrects his ways and finds God with the help of Father Gabriel (the impeccable Jeremy Irons).

Much like Fawcett’s character, Father Gabriel and Mendoza fight for the dignity and independence of the indigenous Amazonian tribe they befriend, the Guarani. Unlike Fawcett however, their attempts at protection of the tribe, i.e., “conversions” via their mission, is on its head a form of cultural erasure… the elimination of the Guarani’s spiritual and traditional beliefs in favor of the Holy Spirit.

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The Mission is much more politically volatile than The Lost City of Z and thus, much more exciting and entertaining, but also much more unforgiving. But what makes one a tale While Grey maintains his central characters in such a steady and unbending light for “good”, for the true understanding of native peoples in the fact of evil imperialism, Joffé’s story is more about the inevitable genocide of the native, caught between enslavement via the Monarchy or coerced abandonment of their century-old cultural beliefs.

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Tale of Tales : Fairy Tales for Adults

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Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, 2015)

From the moment I saw the impeccable world-building that I witnessed in Gomorra, I knew that Matteo Garrone was both a talented and ambitious filmmaker. While his Italian crime drama was signature in its portrayal of the many different facets of the violence and drug smuggling of a single “kindgom” (the notorious Italian mafia Comorra), in his latest feature, one completely stripped from the real world into into its own parallel universe fantasy, Tale of Tales sees Garrone juggling many kingdoms at once. The title of the film is a play on words, it both implies that the particular “tale” this movie tells is comprised of several tales, and also, that its creator, Matteo Garrone, is a bit of a showman, a confident auteur declaring that this particular movie, is one above all.

Well, as they ask in the sports world, can you back up your talk? In the case of Tale of Tales, Garrone more than achieves the magnum opus its title suggests. This movie is a wonder, a horror, a weird and disgusting, but at the same time warm and endearing little bed-time story for grown ups. It follows in the same footsteps as Guillermo Del Toro’s 21st century masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth in that it imbues a world of terrible violence and nastiness of character with a whimsicle child-like wonderment and dazzling visuals that could easily pass for Lord of the Rings. There is nothing cheap about this film, despite its relative obscurity (mainly due to lack of a wide release in the U.S. insofar), and it manages to create terror and mystique in equal amounts, guided by Garrone and company’s off-the-hinges creativity, adapted from European folk-tales collections from the 1600’s, titled Pentamarone penned by poet Giambattista Basile, but also original in its own way of taking these many sources and weaving them into each other to create one tale or many tales.

The movie is structured in 3 different parts.

The first is the story of a Queen (Salma Hayek) who longs for a child. Her husband, the King cannot give her one, so they seek the advice of a Necromancer (dark wizard) who tells the King he must defeat a giant sea-monster, rip out its heart, have it cooked by a virgin and give it to his wife to consume thus she will bear a son.

The second is the story of a pathetic, weak, and short statured king (Toby Jones), who grows attached to a pet flea he keeps and feeds. His attachment to the flea is so strong it comes at the detriment of his own daughter who is left neglected. His daughter seeks a husband to run away with, but the King, a posessive and lonely man, does everything he can to prevent his daughter from leaving the castle.

The third story is that of a nymphomaniac King (Vincent Cassell). He sleeps with many women every night, multiple at the same time, yet feels empty that he has not found a single women who he deems worthy of committing to. He hears a voice one night of a sweet girl, who he is instantly aroused by. Little does he know that the girl is a hideous wench. The wench attempts to trick the King into sleeping with her using only her voice. Their dangerous game leads to unexpected consequences.

These premices are juicy in and of themselves, but Garrone’s ability to tangle them along with each other makes them that much more fertile ground for building a seductive fantasy world. Coupled with lush painterly cinematography by Peter Suschitzky (known for: Star Wars V: Empire Strikes Back, and a bunch of Cronenberg films) that makes you wish these places and castles were real, Garrone’s direction and plotting set up suspense perfectly, like the end of episodes where things are left hanging and switches to a different channel to build that story up, and then goes back to tie things together.

The weirdness of the the film also cannot be just shrugged aside. There are moments of abject horror and strangeness that occur in the movie that border on surreal. It’s interesting though because this film is supposed to be a fantasy movie, yet, in many stretches feels like a period-piece. The juxtaposition of staged historical drama (political power play, family issues, love, sex) with moments of strange other-worldly powers (wizards, giant flees, magic spells, trolls, etc) keeps us on our toes. Unlike Lord of the Rings and more like Pan’s Labyrinth, the film switches between a world which we can relate to stories we’ve heard about empires and kingdom’s past with stories we’ve read in ficitional novels. This keeps both aspects of the film ripe and provides many moments of ample surprises. Just when we think the movie is settling down like a James Ivory character drama, it shakes us up with something out of the worlds of Dante or Beowulf.

Richly layered and illustrated, Garrone’s Tale of Tales is the best fairytale for adults I have seen since Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth plus one of this years greatest cinematic marvels, and its creativity and immensely beautiful world-building is worth investing your time into. It is confrontational, and its weirdness and uniqueness of character can surprise you if you are expecting your typical Hollywood fantasy movie, but that’s what makes this tale, of many tales, worth remembering.