Pros: Pleasing erotic entertainment; catchy theme song; good performances
Cons: Thematically weak, especially for a film with subject matter that begs for a thematic position
Well, I rather enjoyed the film Quilombo that I reviewed just a few days ago, so I decided to take a stab at another film by the same director, Carlos Diegues, a leading proponent of Cinema Novo, which is the Brazilian equivalent of New Wave cinema. One of the intents of Cinema Novo is expanding the range of subject matter from the dominant culture that grew out of colonization of Brazil by the Portuguese to encompass the traditions and history of both the Native American population of Brazil and the Black populace of African origin that originated in Brazil as a result of the trafficking in slaves.
Historical Background: Carlos Diegues was born on May 19th, 1940 in Maceió, Brazil. After studying law at the Catholic Pontificia University of Brazil (PUC) in Rio, he began directing shorts in the early sixties and his first feature film in 1964. Xica (Xica da Silva for its original release in Brazil), made in 1976, was his sixth feature film and his most successful up to that point in his career. It preceded Quilombo (1984) by eight years. Although Xica (pronounced like "Sheeka" of "Zheeka") is not so critically acclaimed as Quilombo, it out-pulled the later film at the box-office and was one of the highest grossing films in Brazilian cinematic history. For a more complete outline of Diegues's career, see my review of Quilombo.
The Story: The fact-based story tells of a diamond contractor, Comendador João Fernandes (Walmor Chagas) sent by the King of Portugal to protect his interests in the diamond mining operation in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil. While traveling to the remote location, Fernandes encounters a pair of musicians, Raimundo (Julio Mackenzie) and Mathias (Beto Leío), with whom he briefly plays his flute, as well as the black bandit, Teodoro (Marcus Vinícius). As a result, Fernandes learns two important things. First, Teodoro is adept at locating untapped pockets of diamonds, and second, much of the theft of the King's cut of the wealth attributed to bandits is actually the work of top Portuguese colonial officials in the province, such as the Intendant, Theodoro (Altair Lima).
Arriving in Arraial do Tijuco, Fernandes is warmly welcomed by the populace and the leading officials, among them the Intendant and his scheming wife, Hortensia (Elke Maravilha), the Sergeant Major (Rodolfo Arena), and the town's priest, Paroco (Joío Felicio dos Santos). The Sergeant Major has a rascally young adult son named Jose (Stepan Nercessian). Both the father and the son use their favorite slave girl, Xica da Silva (Zezé Motta), for sexual services and she's more than a little good at it. She apparently has some special techniques that drive men absolutely wild, causing them to scream like Tarzan at the moment of climax. These interludes occur frequently, but always off-screen, so the audience is left guessing exactly what her special techniques might be. Finding out would have been surely worth double the price of admissions (for admissions and emissions, perhaps?).
Xica wants to move up in the world, however, and sets her sights on the contractor, especially after she notices, upon his arrival, how handsome he is. As a mere slave girl, she'll rate no introduction to Fernandes, despite her best pleas to her master. She nevertheless manages to crash the meeting between Fernandes, the Intendant, and the Sergeant Major. She feigns a complaint of having been beaten by Jose, but is really there to reveal her special sexual proclivities and to drop her dress under the pretense of revealing the marks from her beating. By the time she's completed her impromptu demonstration of goods, Fernandes is hooked and demands that the Sergeant Major name his price. The Sergeant Major, who is himself utterly addicted to her sexual services, has no desire to sell her at any price, but the threat of an audit of the diamond accounts is enough to seal the deal.
Xica's sexual magnetism is of such a high order that Fernandes is soon bellowing like an elephant, just like his predecessors. He is more than happy to shower Xica with special gifts and privileges in return. He even has emancipation papers drawn up for her and frees her from slavery. He builds a new palatial residence for Xica, himself, and their retinue of servants and imports luxurious furniture, ornaments, and silver servings from Paris. Xica is soon decked out in the latest gowns, hats, and parasols from fashionable Europe. Her demands become increasingly outrageous. Fernandes has an inland sea constructed for her, complete with a small ship. Since she is still denied access to the white-only church, he builds her a special monastery for blacks. Fernandes is able to finance all of this largesse because of a nifty "arrangement" he has worked out with the bandit, Teodoro. He lets Teodoro operate unmolested by the soldiers, allowing Teodoro to find diamond deposits and to work the site for a while. Then, after Teodoro clears out, Fernandes sends in his more technologically advanced mining operation to divert the river bed and allow more thorough excavation of the sands. Thus, Teodoro collects his "finder's fee" while Fernandes gets rich as well.
Gradually, the extravagances of Fernandes reach the ears of the King's court in Lisbon. The King is furious, because of both the extent of wealth being acquired by Fernandes, which is starting to rival his own, and the elevation of the former slave, Xica, to such a position of overt power and influence. Ultimately, the King sends the Count of Valadares (José Wilker) to investigate. Fernandes attempts to corrupt the Count with precious gifts and, when that fails, Xica tries the other kind of seduction. You'll have to check out the film for yourself to find out whether she succeeds.
Themes: Thematically, this film doesn't work well for me. Dealing as it does with slavery, racism, and class issues in late 18th-century Brazil, it begs for some meaningful thematic stance of one kind or another, yet ends up being mainly a kind of entertaining, farcical erotic piece with nothing meaningful to say about racial relations. On the surface, a story about a black slave woman who rises to a position of power in colonial Brazil, through a combination of guile and sexual prowess, would seem to be a pro-black and pro-feminist kind of story. Unfortunately, Xica is not a story about a black woman who overcomes sexism and racism (in the most extreme manifestations of each slavery and sexual exploitation) but, instead, a story of a black woman who buys into the system in which some people dominate others, but who is able to shift her position in the system from one of being exploited to being one of the exploiters. Having gained power, Xica abuses it in much the same manner as the corrupt white slave owners. Xica acquires her own retinue of slaves and demands silly extravagances. She even advises her husband, João Fernandes, at one point, not to try to save the black bandit, Teodoro, from a torture session at the hands of The Count of Valadares, because to do so would raise further questions about Fernandes's loyalty to the King.
I am not a racist, at least not in any intentional way, though I recognize that people (including myself) can sometimes be unintentionally racially insensitive merely because of differences in life experiences and perspectives. I fully subscribe to all reasonable instances of equal opportunity. I therefore take no more issue with a black person being a slave owner than a white person being one, but, that's a moot point, since my disregard for slavery, and for exploitive dominating relationships in general, is absolute regardless of the demographic characteristics of either the exploiter or the exploited individual(s). Some people who are in an exploited class learn to despise exploitation as a basis for human relations. Some others among the exploited underclass merely long to rise from the exploited class to the exploiter class and, given the opportunity, become part of the perpetuation of inequities.
I imagine that some African-Americans watching Xica will experience the film differently than do I. After generations of, first, slavery and, then, bigotry, it would be natural enough for a black person to derive some satisfaction from observing a person of their race rise to a position of power, avenging some of the wrongdoing they've experienced from their old tormentors. Such viewers might even overlook the person abusing their power in relation to less fortunate people of their own race. It's an understandable reaction, but not one that I can support. A modern day analogy to Xica, here in the U.S.A., would be Condoleeza Rice. On the one hand, both women and blacks might be tempted to take a degree of pride in the evident success of Ms. Rice. She's risen to a position of prominence and power that few women and few blacks have enjoyed in American, and even fewer black women. On the other hand, she's teamed up with the political element in America (the Republican Party) that represents the power elite, protection of the interests of the wealthy, and the resultant obscene class disparities. She is not an example of an American transcending racism or sexism; she has simply succeeded in relocating herself from disadvantaged categories to an advantaged group. I read recently that Ms. Rice is being groomed as a potential presidential candidate for 2008. It will be interesting to find out how many blacks and how many women will be motivated to support her (out of racial or gender pride) and how many will vote against her (on the basis of racial and gender equity interests).
There's another undercurrent in this film that seems rather unflattering to both races, from my viewpoint. The white colonialist males are presented stereotypically as sexually repressed, though enslaved to their libidos. The blacks are equally stereotyped as more carnal and in tune with their bodies. Xica, especially, is depicted as possessing great sexual prowess. Though the sexual encounters occur off-screen, we are led to believe that she knows some unique techniques that drive men wild to the point that they end up bellowing like elephants at the moment of orgasm. These stereotypes are both unflattering and blatantly racist. Unfettered carnality is often associated with animals (hence, phrases like "she's a real animal in bed"), so associating it with black slaves tends to perpetuate the notion of black inferiority, which was the last line of rationalization for slavery.
Production Values: Although I've stated that, thematically, this film seems to have nothing worthy to say about racial issues, the film does work pretty well as pure lively, erotic, and colorful entertainment. The story builds on a factual instance of a slave woman who rose to a position of prominence in colonial Brazil. She so thoroughly won the allegiance of João Fernandes, the King's diamond contractor in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, that he made her not only his mistress but his formal hostess and chief policy advisor as well. Rather than presenting this story with epic realism, Diegues follows the Latin American style of filmmaking known as "magical realism." The story is presented with such flamboyant exaggeration as to border on farce. The power of Xica's sexuality is magical beyond all reason. The opulence of her gowns reaches the level of buffoonery, especially when her entire retinue of personal slaves are similarly decked out, strutting down the dusty streets of Arraial do Tijuco like a troupe of Parisian schoolgirls. Motta, who plays Xica, spends about half of the film naked, exuding pure carnal lustiness. The last ditch effort to seduce the Count involves a dozen or more topless slave girls shaking their bare breasts, leading finally to an orgy amidst a banquet of African delicacies. In this respect, the film reminds me most of the popular Spanish film, Belle Epoque, another example of lighthearted sex romp in a quasi-historical context. Xica is a bit like a musical comedy, especially because of the catchy recurrent theme song of the film.
The performance by the irrepressible Zezé Motta is the film's foremost delight. There is disagreement in the comments about this film left by various male viewers as to the level of attractiveness of Motta. That kind of thing is a matter of personal taste and I really hate to get into evaluating any woman (or man), body part by body part, as at a slave auction. It's distasteful to me. I'll therefore limit my observation to saying that she has more of an athletic kind of build, for a woman, than a full feminine physique. I thought both her look and her exuberance made her casting in the role entirely successful. Motta later appeared for Diegues in Quilombo (1984). Walmor Chagas did a fine job in the role as João Fernades. I very much liked the comic relief characters in this film, notably Rudolfo Arena as the Sergeant Major, Stepan Nercessian as his son Jose, and José Wilker as the Count. Wilker also appeared in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976) and Bye-Bye Brazil (1980). Also impressive was Marcus Vinicius as Teodoro, the closest thing to a truly sympathetic character in the film. Vinicius also appeared in Bye-Bye Brazil (1980). The lily-white Elke Maravilha was so effective as the devious Hortensia that I'll admit it I wanted to bitch-slap her around just a bit.
Bottom-Line: So, here's what you've got with this film. Thematically, it's a mess, with nothing very worthy to say about race issues, despite the story pertaining to slavery and the strange instance of one slave girl rising to a position of prominence. As a straight erotic comedy, with lively dance numbers and music, it's darn good entertainment. This is the kind of film that almost anyone could take offense from, if they're in that frame of mind, but which, taken as sheer entertainment, holds your interest. I'll give it four stars, though 3.5 would be a truer evaluation. Xica is in Portuguese with English subtitles and has a running time of 109 minutes.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Brazil:
Behind the Sun
City of God
The Motorcycle Diaries