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Body Language

Xica At the Orson Welles Theater

By Rebecca J. Joseph

RIPPLING MUSCLES WRITHE to primitive drumbeats, naked skin shimmers for voracious eyes, and brown eyes, reflect internal fires. Steamy Xica mesmerizes characters with her glib tongue and her sensuous hips. And men experience unimaginable ecstasies when she unleashes her exotic, sensual wiles--behind closed doors. They become Xica's slaves, and so do we.

Xica (pronounced shee-ka) is an African slave who captures the attention of 18th century Brazil. Stylized and full of titillating shots, the film achieves success in the sheer exultation manifest by its splendiferous imagery. The finely tuned character acting and the bawdy deadpan script enable the movie to sustain a smoothly paved course. And Zeze Motta as the legendary figure Xica de Silva transforms a vibrant period piece into an electric saga that transcends time.

The film--a 1981 Brazilian export--depicts the rise and fall of Xica's influence in the Portuguese colony of Arraial do Tijuco. Initially a slave for a transplanted government official, Xica dominates her owner and his son with her unusual sexual prowess. But Xica sets her sights on more ambitious conquests; and what she wants, she gets. She manages to capture the mind and body of the new Portuguese governor. As the governor's slave, Xica wields her effervescent sensuality to the hilt, thus ascending to the most prominent social position in the land. Xica's fairy-tale-like climb does not go unnoticed by her fellow slaves or the Portuguese officials in Brazil. And these characters react in stereotypical--and unrelentingly comic--fashion to Xica's rise with their expressions of jealously and desire.

Everything in Xica reflects the new prosperity of this conquered South American territory. Diamonds are the source of the men's attentions and the resulting richness overflows into the cinematography. The landscape is absolutely magnificent with breath-taking views from mountain-tops. The fluidity that accompanies the pictures provides a glossy finish to the gaudy representation of 18th century life.

And the accoutrements to the plot strike a visual chord. The costumes are exquisite, as are the wigs, the arrays of food, and the furnishings of the houses. Ranging from magnificent gardens to bleak deserts, director Carlos Diegues assaults us with a barrage of kaleidoscopic images. Even though these images never stop, no saturation point exists. Our eyes gladly devour these gorgeous pictures that affirm the gaudiness and materialism of Tijuco.

XICA MONOPOLIZES the flurry of extravagant images. As her power increases, so does her array of costumes and assorted wigs. In each new scene, her dressings increasingly drown out her blackness. And in one scene, she even paints her face white, thus underlining her incongruous position in the governor's household.

All these exotic costumes enhance Xica's natural sexuality. No true beauty. Xica captivates men with some special tricks which are never revealed--but the men's screams are telling enough. Motta as Xica fills her character with enticing charm and energy; the momentum of her performance never wanes. Her physical presence dominates the film and her facial expressions--especially her twinkling eyes--reflect the depths of Xica's fervent sexuality.

Even though Xica dons very elaborate costumes, the climax of the movie comes when the character sheds her clothes to perform a ritualistic dance. Her taut body fills the screen as she seduces a foppish Count eagerly watching her--not to mention the audience.

Xica is not just a soft-porn foreign flick. Although a major focus of the plot is on Xica's sexuality and her effects on men, the themes extend into deeper realms. The film tackles the question of who is the slave and who is the master and visualizes the effect of Portugal on the natives of Brazil. And ultimately we wonder whether one person's ability to manipulate a colony with her body can endure.

Even though Xica uses her body as a means of increasing her position, she seems to enjoy her relationships and even exudes compassion for the slaves whom she has surpassed. When Xica's protector is sent back to Portugal, the slave still retains her inexplicable control over men. The bright colors have been replaced by black, but Xica--charms intact--adjusts to her once again lowly position. She has lost the adornments of power, but her corporal presence continues to reign.

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