Monthly Archives: November 2019

Films for Class: La Ultima Cena

cena1A classic of Cuban Marxist-inflected cinema, director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s La Ultima Cena offers an intimate portrait of the paradoxes that arise when attempting to reconcile “Western” Christianity and slave life on the plantation. Focused on a slave master’s self-fashioned “benevolence”, La Ultima Cena examines how slave masters’ self-regarding visions of personal sacrifice – their collective belief that they were moral patriarchs sacrificing for their slaves in hopes of “teaching” them “civilization” – couldn’t but require them to engage their slaves in ways which sometimes invited the latter to announce their humanity through means the master wasn’t likely to want to hear. Alea’s film depicts slaves themselves debating real freedom on the sham stage of a master’s faux-freedom, pushing liberation’s meaning well beyond the pale of what their master could possibly imagine.

La Ultima Cena’s centerpiece is its title: a slave master, the Count, picking a dozen slaves and staging a pantomime of the Christian Last Supper, with the master occupying the ostensibly servile role of Jesus Christ. Shielded by his belief that slaves are relatively unthinking “beasts”, the Count negligently assumes that he can use this show of servility and equality to easily colonize the contours of the slaves’ minds, incapacitating their resistant hearts with his own deluded belief in his own humility and morality. He assumes that they will not resist his show of compassion, and that they will abide by his terms.

Throughout this feast, the Count tries to bond with his slaves, his physical position at the table – akin to Jesus’ in traditional images of the Last Supper – all the while asserting his own view of himself as the most religious and pious, as well as the most sacrificing of all. In contrast to the slave driver Don Manuel, who the master argues has no place in Heaven because of his hungry and violent desire for power, the Count fashions himself as a charitable owner, underwriting his position as divine will. The film foregrounds this self-vision in an early shot in which the Count, with a figure of Jesus on the cross in front of him, extends his arms outward to mirror the image of Jesus only so that a servant can finish dressing him. Insofar as the Count here (and throughout the film) offers himself up to the film, to us, to bask in his benevolent charity, Alea undermines and ironizes his piousness by virtue of the fact that he is being served rather than serving anyone but himself. Continue reading


Review: Lincoln

lincolnNo special occasion here, just a re-watch for a course, and because I haven’t updated the site in a few weeks. 

The potential for a movie about Abraham Lincoln to choke on the congestion of history is undeniable, doubly so with Steven Spielberg at the helm. A master craftsman when he lets himself be, he is also perhaps the paradigmatic cinematic gawker, a director most susceptible to basking in the hallowed glory of his chosen object of study. Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing in Lincoln, and he was always going to be. But the powerhouse performance that scrapes the impacted dust of history and breathes hypothetical life onto the screen is as old a cinematic genre as any other. More often than not, the presence of such an actor in such a role is little more than an excuse for the film to go on autopilot, gravely coasting through a figure’s events without perspective, viewpoint, or even a constellation of serious concerns. With Day-Lewis in the titular role, it’s really no surprise that the greatest pleasure of Spielberg’s film is watching one of the world’s best actors do his stuff with one of the most glorified (and consequently least humanized) figures in US history. But that a Spielberg version of Abraham Lincoln’s life would have anything else to offer beyond aggrandizing bromides was always in doubt.

Lo and behold, then: Lincoln is a shrewd, sharp motion picture, pungent and prodding, a quietly exasperated vision of the political process as somewhere between moral meat-grinder and moral compass, a vision galvanized by Day-Lewis’ phenomenal performance but not colonized by his work. Quite like the event it depicts, the film is an amalgam of individual volition and social structuration, of personal courage and destabilizing political wrangling, and quite like its titular figure, the charisma of its storytelling is quietly spellbinding but also pointedly wry and even occasionally destabilizing. Continue reading