Sunday, January 31, 2010

95. Cuban director Tomas Alea’s "La Ășltima cena" (The Last Supper) (1976): A remarkable, trenchant Cuban classic

Cuban cinema does not often deal with religion; it is more at home with Leftist ideals. Its pro-Communist subjects have probably led prominent Western film critics to stay away from discussing major works of cinema by Tomas Alea and Humberto Solas. Cuban cinema rarely made waves in Hollywood circles. Yet Alea’s 1994 Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate did manage to make the final Oscar foreign film shortlist, which is an unusual milestone for Cuban cinema.

Since many Cubans remain devout Roman Catholics, for any Cuban filmmaker working within the Communist regime any reference to any religion in a Cuban film has to first get official blessings. Tomas Alea, having already made two major films Memories of Underdevelopment and Death of a Bureaucrat, was widely accepted as a Cuban hero of cinema and could afford to play with religious themes without raising the ire of the Communist leaders in Cuba.

So Alea decided to make a film using the metaphor of Jesus’ Last Supper with his 12 Apostles by crafting an interesting feature film around a historical event that took place in Cuba at the end of the 19th century, where a white slave owner with a conscience decides to wash the feet of 12 of his black slaves and host a lavish dinner for them. The event is timed to coincide with the Passion Week Thursday (or Maundy Thursday). The film is broken into the segments--Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The real event was first captured in the historical book written a certain Moreno Fraginals, which I have not read. Alea used the book as the basis of this film. I am not sure how much of the intellectual credit of this cinematic work rests with Fraginals and how much with Alea and his co-scriptwriter Maria Eugenia Haya.

For the Communists, the entire film is a dark tale of slave owners and slaves, of black slaves toiling hard to make their owners rich and powerful. Alea uses the tale as a metaphor for the eventual escape and liberation of one slave on Easter Sunday in line with the Resurrection of Christ. But I found the film offers much more than the simple tale of the liberation of three types of the oppressed--one a slave, one a Spanish priest, and one a cross-bred colored sympathizer of the slaves who earned a living working for the slave owners.

Alea, just as another Leftist screenwriter Robert Bolt did in Rolland Joffe's Hollywood movie The Mission, is able to pinpoint the duplicity of the Church that gave implicit sanction for slavery to flourish. In The Last Supper, Alea seesaws between the somewhat contradictory portrayals of the priest first as a clown (the object of mirth for both women and slaves) and later as a more respectable individual, if he was to be compared to the slave owners. A similar ambiguity can be seen during the opening credits when Alea mischievously zooms in on a religious painting and gets the cinematographer to first show the religious figures in the clouds but later zooms in and lingers on the roses and thorns nearer terra firma. All this is shown with delightful negro voices singing a superb uplifting spiritual classical chorus on the soundtrack.

In the film, Alea presents three types of the Cuban population, the white slave owners, the black slaves and the colored cross bred population (represented by the sugar miller). Alea’s astute script shows the changes in the perception of all three communities during the Passion Week. A slave gains freedom and is able to resurrect in his own way on Easter Sunday. A religious Spanish slave owner who wants to emulate Christ and seek pardon for his sins, soon transforms into a monster when the slaves truly seek freedom that he granted days ago. A Spanish Catholic priest is buffeted between God and 'Caeser' (the slave owners who provide the Church its money). He is shown departing from the sugar estate, a broken man.

However, the real high point of the film is the brilliant dialectical conversations between the slave owner and the 12 slaves during the last supper on Maundy Thursday. It is a thought-provoking debate on what constitutes real happiness. One African slave talks of how he himself sold his father into slavery for the sake of money, and later how he himself was sold as a slave by others in his own family. Similarly, there is a trenchant reference to Judas and his treachery that could have deeper meanings as the slave who is liberated is the Judas equivalent in the film--a comment that would come close to the theological discussions of Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, and St Augustine of Hippo.

While many viewers will see the film as a slave vs. slave-owner tale, the film throws up more trenchant morsels that make you think. Why does an African tribal sell his own father for money? Why does money and wealth corrupt all of us so much that family relationships seem less important? Most tales of slavery put the blame squarely on Europeans and other wealthy races who subjugate others to acquire more pelf. But Alea's film/Fraginal's book shows the evil lurks in all of us, including the African slaves.

The film also encourages the viewer to look at freedom vs. slavery more closely. When a slave is given freedom he prefers his world of slavery--just as a long-serving prisoner is more comfortable behind bars than in the complex world of freedom and its constant demands on life.

Even more interesting is how the European slave owner switches from intellectual piety to extreme cruelty and intolerance. What is this dualism in each of us? The film will provoke many who care to reflect on the contents--the Judas question being the most profound one of all.

This Cuban film is arguably the finest work of Alea on par with his brilliant black comedy The Death of a Bureaucrat. And since Alea is considered the most important Cuban director, this film could well be considered as one of the the finest Cuban works on celluloid. The moot question is whether Alea was deliberately raising moral, theological, and psychological questions beyond the typical "revolution of the oppressed" Leftist chorus or did he stumble on a book/script that asked those questions? In the case of Rolland Joffe's The Mission, it is quite evident that scriptwriter Bolt was the astute thinker while Joffe was quite at sea at how to put together Bolt's vision. In this case, Alea puts across all the questions to the patient and perceptive viewer. But does the credit go to the filmmaker alone or to the historian or perhaps the scriptwriter?

I was viewing the film at the 14th International Film Festival of Kerala (within a section paying homage to the most important works in Cuban cinema) after a time lapse of some 30 years following its screening in Bangalore, India, in the1980 Filmostsav. Alea was present at that 1980 screening and I had the honor of interviewing him as a film critic. Alea kept telling me that as an Indian who who did not know the Spanish language, I was missing subtle innuendoes in the script with the differences in the Spanish spoken by the slave owners (European Spanish) and what was spoken by the others (Cuban Spanish) in the film. For me, the film remains a great work that offers considerable fodder for thought beyond the obvious storyline. It has not paled with time.