Film: ‘The Last Supper,’ A Parable From Cuba:Politics and Religion
¶THE time is the late 18th century Holy Week—and the place—a huge, isolated Cuban sugar plantation owned by a Spanish count from Havana who appears to represent the best of the ruling aristocracy. The Count is middle-aged and has the gaunt look of someone who suffers spiritually, as well as from intestinal disorders.He does not take lightly the responsibilities of power. He is as much concerned for the souls of his slaves as he is for their physical fitness.
¶When his overseer, a brutishly practical man named Manuel, punishes a returned runaway by slicing off the slave’s ear, the Count feels the victim’s pain. The Count doesn’t question the system, of course. Instead, he devotes himself to making it work. To this end he invites 12 slaves, picked at random, to join him for dinner on Maundy Thursday, in effect to re-enact the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his crucifixion.
¶“The Last Supper,” a new Cuban film by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, the director whose “Memories of Underdevelopment” was one of the critical hits of 1973, is a fine, cool, almost detached political parable told entirely in religious terms. In this way it recalls the kind of contradictions that made “Memories of Underdevelopment” so fascinating, and that are, for Mr. Alea, virtually a stylistic method.
¶Though “Memories” looks at the Cuban revolution through the eyes of a middle-class intellectual who can’t bring himself to participate, the film itself is passionately committed. “The Last Supper” is about death resurrection, not only about the death and resurrection of freedom, but also of repression.
¶Like the earlier film, it seems to say more than one ever expects to hear in popular revolutionary literature, where ideas and feelings are supposed to be recognized and accommodated by even the dimmest minds.
¶“The Last Supper,” which opens today at the 68th Street Playhouse, is not an easy film. It has something of the haunted, guilt-ridden manner of the Count, the character who dominates the film and who remains forever mysterious. It’s not, I think, that the director or Nelson Villagra, who plays the Count, withhold information. It is, rather, that the truth of human behavior can never be more than action observed. The rest is speculation.
¶The film’s centerpiece is the extraordinary last supper presided over by the Count, who begins by washing and kissing the feet of the 12 slaves while each, in turn, giggles and panics at the lunatic behavior of the master. In the course of the meal, as the wine flows, the Count attempts to instruct the slaves in Christian mythology and dogma.
¶“Sorrow,” he says, “is the only thing we can give God with joy”—everything else belongs to God anyway. The slaves find this concept confusing, while all, except one former cannibal, are amused at the thought of consuming the body and blood of Jesus in the form of bread and wine.
¶Before the supper has ended, the Count, now thoroughly drunk and in a mood to be pals with the help, has freed one slave and promised no work the next day, Good Friday. When those promises are not honored, the rebellion that breaks out results in the crucifixion of a most unlikely son-of-God and in his resurrection in the person of the Count himself. His wrath is not that of a disappointed God, but of a property owner.
¶My program notes, unfortunately, identify only the actor who plays the Count, but the film has several other memorable performances. There is the man who plays the priest at the sugar mill, a boyish-looking fellow who attempts to meet the needs of the Count and the slaves and fails everyone. There are also the actor who plays the runaway slave, a man who becomes a symbol for eventual revolutionary victory, and the old, old black man who plays the briefly freed slave.
¶Except for the occasional use of the hand-held camera, which is so intrustive as to seem self-congratulatory, “The Last Supper” has been beautifully photographed in color by Mario Garcia Joya, who also shot the black-and-white “Memories of Underdevelopment.” The colors are mostly the colors of depressed rural areas—lots of tobacco browns and the yellows of feeble candlelight. The skies are blue, but they are oppressive, and the greens suggest a landscape of weeds.
Politics and Religion
THE LAST SUPPER, directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea; screenplay (Spanish with English subtitles) by Tomas Gonzalez, Maria Eugenia Haya and Mr. Alea; produced by Santiago Llapur and Camilo Vives; director of photography, Mario Garcia Joya; editor, Nelson Rodriguez; music, Leo Brouwer; a Cuban Film Institute production, distributed by Tricontinental Film Center. Running time: 110 minutes. At the 68th Street Playhouse, Third Avenue at 68th Street. This film has not been rated.
The Count . . . . . Nelson Villagra
WITH: Silvano Rey, Luns Alberto Garcia, Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Samuel Claxton and Mario Balmaseda.