The principal contribution of Vincenzo Petrullo to ethnographic film history relates to his participation in the Matto Grosso Expedition of 1930-1931. It was during this expedition that Matto Grosso, the Great Brazilian Wilderness (1932) was shot, though Petrullo himself made a more significant contribution to two shorter, more ethnologically oriented films that also arose from this expedition but which were released only in 1941. One of these concerned the Bororo, the other the indigenous groups of the Xingu headwaters.
Later in his career, Petrullo shot a limited quantity of footage while he was carrying out fieldwork among the Pumé (Yaruro), an indigenous group living in the llanos of southwestern Venezuela
Vincenzo Petrullo was born in Italy in 1906 but entered the US in 1913. He became a US citizen in 1930. At the time that he joined the Matto Grosso Expedition, he was a graduate student of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of staff at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum)
During the course of the expedition, Petrullo and the assistant cameraman, Arthur P. Rossi, spent three weeks shooting footage in the upper Xingu river region, primarily in the villages of the Yawalapiti and the (now-extinct) Naravute. This footage was initially incorporated into Matto Grosso, but in a misleading manner, as if it had been shot in a Bororo village.
Ten years later, the Xinguano footage was re-edited and released in a new film by Penn Museum, with a new voice-over that had been largely scripted by Petrullo before he left the museum in 1935. However, the circumstances of his departure had been acrimonious and probably for this reason, his name does not appear in the film credits, nor is he named when he appears on screen.
Although he had not been involved in shooting the main Bororo sequences that had appeared in Matto Grosso, Petrullo also wrote the voice-over script for the reversion of the Bororo footage that Penn Museum released at the same time, but again his name does not appear in the credits.
In 1933 and 1935, Petrullo made two further ethnographic research trips to South America on behalf of Penn Museum, on both occasions to Venezuela. In the first of these, he carried out fieldwork among the Pumé (Yaruro) of the Venezuelan llanos, during which he and/or an associate shot some technically poor footage of the Pumé subjects dressed in traditional loincloths (which they no longer wore) and engaged in traditional crafts and fishing activities.
On his second visit to Venezuela, Petrullo led a joint Columbia-Pennsylvania universities expedition to the Guajira peninsula in the extreme northwest of the country. The original plan was for this expedition also to do some ethnographic film-making, but this never happened because the expedition ended prematurely due to interpersonal conflicts within the team, particularly between Petrullo and the Columbia University representative, Paul Kirchoff. When Petrullo returned to Philadelphia, he discovered that he had been summarily dismissed by Penn Museum
Thereafter Petrullo developed his career as an anthropologist in various directions but he had no further involvement with ethnographic film-making. In 1990, he was finally reconciled with Penn Museum and when he died the following year, many of his papers were deposited with the museum.