CABEZA DE VACA (Nicolás Echevarría, 1991)

The following is one of the entries from my list of the 100 greatest films (through 2006) from Africa, Latin America & the Caribbean, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

An outgrowth of his earlier ethnological documentaries, Nicolás Echevarría’s most celebrated film is based on explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s 1542 report to Charles V about a 600-man expedition to the New World—the mission was to claim Florida for Spain—that only four others survived. In particular, the film explores the relationship between Cabeza de Vaca and, once separated from his shipwrecked group, native tribes he encounters. But the film departs from what Cabeza de Vaca wrote to the King; Echevarría pursues instead a what if? approach to the historical material. Indeed, Cabeza de Vaca weighs aloud the prudence of telling the King lies, so unbelievable has been the course of his adventures, against a desire to tell the truth.
     When indigenes take Cabeza de Vaca away, his comrades assume that he is headed for the roasting pot. Rather, as the fairest of the group, he would perhaps make the best slave. However, the tribe’s shaman takes the white man under his wing, and the Spaniard proves his worth by restoring the sight of a blinded chieftain. When Cabeza de Vaca, thus allowed his freedom, departs, the eyes of Malacosa, the armless dwarf who had once derided him, well up in tears.
     Cabeza de Vaca searches throughout America for his comrades. Eventually they reunite. The cannibalism that had seemed to be his destiny proved instead to be theirs, on the other end of the ladle. One of the group attributes his man-eating to “a Christian’s hunger”—an indication of how easily the “civilized” rationalize their own barbaric behavior.
     Echevarría’s wild, hypnotic, at times deliriously magical film ends with one of cinema’s most searing wide-angle shots: a gigantic Cross being carried across the landscape—colonial presumption, and the enslavement of indigenes and destruction of their cultures.

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