1980 // Italy // Ruggero Deodato // August 27, 2010 // Theatrical Print (Hi-Pointe Theater)
The legends surrounding Ruggeo Deodato's exploitation magnum opus are so fulsome and contradictory, I think it's probably best to simply appraise what is on the screen, and leave questions of sincerity and intentions aside. Revisiting the film following a Halloween DVD screening in 2008—and for the first time theatrically—it's more self-evident to me that Cannibal Holocaust is a fairly daring slice of nastiness, rather than merely nasty. Granted, it's gratuitous, skuzzy, and stomach-churning, and in its lowest moments it quite deliberately apes a Mondo feature, lending it the whiff of a spectacle with no purpose other than to revolt. I'm thinking particularly of the on-screen animal murder, which is admittedly gruesome, but also comes off as sort of vapidly shocking and pointless, aspirations of crude metaphor aside. However, what's fascinating here is how much time Deodato devotes to things that aren't violent and appalling. Robert Kerman's anthropologist spends a healthy chunk of the film negotiating with guides, sparring with television executives, and interviewing acquaintances of the murdered documentarians. Not exactly the sort of stuff that keeps squirming teens in their seats when they came for gore and titties. Of course, the film's innovative found footage / double-timeline structure definitively betrays the filmmaker's interest in the artificiality of cinema. Errol Morris it ain't, but that's sort of the point; if it accomplishes nothing else, Cannibal Holocaust puts to rest the notion that metafilm is necessarily a pretentious, high-brow endeavor.
It's in the pursuit of its social commentary that the film finds its most gratifying traction, amid all the excessively drawn-out, oddly-scored scenes of turtle gutting and awkward, post-atrocity coitus. Sometimes this commentary has all the subtlety of a jackhammer, as when Deodato repeatedly cuts from the found footage to the executives in the screening room, who shift uncomfortably in their seats and throw horrified glances at one another. (Get it?! You're culpable too, Mr. and Mrs. Viewer!) Occasionally, however, the film exhibits some genuine black wit. One of my favorite moments occurs when documentary director Alan Yates (Carl Gabriel Yorke), upon stumbling upon an impaled woman, is observed cracking a shit-eating grin. When Yates' cameraman alerts him that he is being filmed, the director reverts to carefully arranged look of grim sorrow. Now that's delicious satire! My main problem with Cannibal Holocaust is the old saw about having and eating one's cake. The film bottoms out on the shoals of tastelessness even as it lobs righteous hand-grenades at filmmakers, journalists, Big Media, and consumers. Of course, the "wants to have it both ways" charge is leveled at almost every work that addresses violence, sex, or other potentially offensive subject matter, but I think the often jarring contrast between Cannibal Holocaust's leering tendencies and its cleverness supports at least an indictment for two-facedness.