The 1979 Oscar-nominated documentary "Raoni" (at the Nuart) is only now receiving a six-day engagement in Los Angeles and such a delay and limited run serve only to underline with bleak irony the film's urgent message: the plight of tribal peoples everywhere, and in the Amazon jungle in particular.
Raoni is the name of the young leader of the Mekronoti, one of about 70 tribes of the Amazon, where the population has dropped over the years from 4 million to 80,000, thanks to the encroachment of the white man's civilization. Film maker Jean-Pierre Dutilleux and his crew managed to gain the trust of Raoni, and the first part of this film has an idyllic Garden of Eden quality as we watch the Mekronoti in their daily lives, in which the search for food alternates with rituals and meditation. They are a naked, healthy-looking people who paint their bodies with beautiful designs; the warriors among the men wear wooden lip plugs, which they believe allows them to make sounds to frighten animals.
So successfully has Dutilleux transported us, via Carlos Saldana's rich Cinemascope images, to a world of beautiful lakes and lush vegetation in which people live in close harmony with nature that it comes as a jolt to realize how endangered this seeming paradise is--the jungle, we learn, is being cleared at a rate of 60 acres a day.
Later, we follow Raoni and other tribal leaders to a meeting with a Brazilian government official, who assures them they will all receive the boundaries to their lands that they have fervently requested and which will remain sacred (but which, in fact, were violated only a year later). Dutilleux will be present at 7:45 p.m. Friday, before the 8 p.m. screening, to bring us up to date on the fate of Raoni and his people.
For the final portion of the film, Raoni, whose fluency in Portuguese and awareness of the outside world comes as a surprise, dons clothes and journeys with the film makers to Sao Paulo for his first view of a major city--and for a meeting with anthropologist Claudio Villas-Boas, a man he regards like a father and as a leader in the movement to protect the rights of tribal peoples.
"Raoni" is narrated by Marlon Brando, whom we meet at the start as he talks to Native American leaders Greg Zephier and Philip Deer at the culmination of the Longest Walk, the 1978 march on Washington in behalf of Indian rights. The most simple and basic of the many important points Brando makes in the course of the film is that tribal people have the right as human beings to be left alone. Contact with the white man and his products, says Brando, has only brought "disease, injustice and death."
On the other hand, "Raoni" (Times-rated Family; the film's nudity is of the National Geographic variety) makes it clear that beyond altruistic motives on behalf of fellow human beings, we all have a vested interest in the preservation of the Amazon jungle: It produces one-fourth of the world's oxygen.