Cannibal movies, or humanism challenged


  • Frédéric Marteau
  • Christophe Becker


anthropophagy, barbarism, cannibalism, Humanism, Thomas Aquinas


If the question of the body is often predominant in movies, it is mainly because directors have always been obsessed with the idea of filming the Other and the Same.
Does filming the Other mean that we recognize someone of the same kind as ourselves? To answer this question, we will study a phenomenon, or rather a symptom, that is at the core of “extreme cinema,” namely cannibalism.
Two moments seem to respond to each other throughout history. The first one linked with the writing of Michel de Montaigne’s famous text Des Cannibales published in 1580, a text that exerted a fundamental influence on Western philosophers (Voltaire, Rousseau, Emerson among others) while asserting a definition of Humanism and the relativity of the notion of barbarism. The second one linked with the growing interest of filmmakers around the world in anthropophagy, especially with the production of cannibal movies in Italy in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but also with a tradition of American movies from Scott Sidney's s Tarzan of the Apes (1918) to recent “Hillbilly movies.” These films, quite a few of them considered duds, are important to us as they seem to contradict, or even parody, the ethnological tradition emphasising the existence of a “noble savage.”
While studying the theological questioning arising with the first stories of anthropophagy as well as the symbolical links between transubstantiation and cannibalism as it was established by Thomas Aquinas, we will show this series of movies “beyond help” (as Roland Barthes once said of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo) echo a philosophical and theological tradition which turns the cannibal into a unique phenomenon, both seducing and frightening at the same time.
We know that for Montaigne and Voltaire the cannibal is first rejected as inhuman before being turned into an object of thought that challenges our own humanity; it is, to them, an opportunity to criticize society, its inner violence, as well as the notion of Otherness. Such questioning can also be found in Italian cannibal movies shot during years of political uprising in the country, movies whose subtext seems to be entirely different and very much contradictory. In these films, often seen as misogynous or racist, displaying images that seemed unbearable at the time, one can find the negation of Montaigne’s Humanism, namely the inanity of considering the Other as part of humanity as a whole.




How to Cite

Marteau, F., & Becker, C. (2013). Cannibal movies, or humanism challenged . Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image, (4), 164–183. Retrieved from