Despite Epic Ambitions, Xingu is Flattened by 2D White Saviors


It’s the Cinemanifest Destiny of courageous white people to save the natives of unexplored territories from the ravages of the other white people, who are historically greedy for land, gold, unobtainium, and slaves.

Xingu, directed by Cao Hamburger, is derived from the actual story of the Vilas-Bôas brothers who embarked on an exploration of unmapped central Brazil in 1943, making first contact with many previously unknown Indian civilizations.

They befriend the Xingu, becoming enraptured by the culture and generosity of the people. In voiceover, the most righteous of the three brothers, Claudio (João Miguel), says, “We knew we could only be free in the wild.”

Unfortunately, it’s the government in São Paulo that bankrolls the whole excursion, wanting to usher the Indians from their land and build outposts as a preamble to occupation. Claudio thinks he can act as a buffer between the Brazilian government and the Indians, appeasing the capitol while providing for the Xingu people.

But we know how this story plays out wherever it happens, and halfway through, the film switches from Dances With Capybaras to an Exodus tale, as Claudio scrambles to convince various tribes to abandon their villages before bulldozers arrive, resettling them in the Xingu National Park his brother has negotiated with the government.

Hamburger reaches for an epic scale with a story spanning decades, soaring over mountains, hacking into forests, and plunging down rivers. Unfortunately, Cinemanifest Destiny also dictates that the white saviors are flat, 2D manifestations of virtue, which is true here. And the film’s Indians? They aren’t characters at all.