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.

While the benevolent master archetype is often understood as a social performance designed to emanate an external vision of compassion, Alea also depicts the master’s type-casting as a genuine internal belief relatively unshaded by doubt. He does not simply reaffirm his own benevolence for the public but offers a defense mechanism for himself, one that seems to blinker him to the thought that the slaves themselves recognize the horrors of slavery and might choose to rebel. Still, there are cracks in his visage. After the Count delivers an impassioned speech about maintaining one’s place in society and bearing the attendant suffering, he begins to cry. When the slaves laugh afterward, his expression hesitantly contorts into a smile when he asks if they understood the moral. But his face seems to quietly fragment in doubt beneath this condescending grin, a testament to the limits of his benevolent self-image and a possible reflection of his own doubt about the clarity of that image.

Still, his position being predicated on an illusion of self-mastery, the Count has to project competence rather than doubt, and even his feigned servility must be backed up with an illusion of supremacy. At the table, he asks the slaves if there are any “Judas’s” among them and tellingly responds himself before any can answer, not granting them the agency to respond – perhaps both because he sees himself as superior to them and because he is afraid of what they might say. The master’s refusal to hear the slaves despite offering up the question ultimately reveals the limits of the Count’s mask of democracy. He simulates a sham democratic practice with his slaves, one that allows for the participation of many voices, and the slaves take the Count up on this offer, rebuking him and offering up their own perspective on slavery, only for his aristocratic and autocratic monologuing to quell them.

All except for Sebastian, one slave who tellingly refuses the dialogue, which he understands as a smoke-screen masquerading as an olive branch. While some of the slaves attempt to offer their critiques of the master, choosing to participate in democracy’s presumption of equality at the table and its rhetorical propagation of a multiplicity of perspectives, Sebastian understands that this democratic injunction so often merely masks the power dynamics still present beneath. That Sebastian is the only slave whose death is not assured by the end of the film should not be taken lightly. Mill manager Monsieur Ducle attributes Sebastian’s resistance early on to his embracement of spirituality descended from Africa, his latent retention of an African culture and refusal to submit to slavery eroding or dispersing that culture through Christianity.  Sebastian himself sees his ability to escape as rooted in his special connection to nature rooted in his spirituality. The ending, which intercuts shots of Sebastian running and birds, horses, and rocks, mirrors these comments and lends credence to their importance, Sebastian being the slave who most directly takes flight from the capitalist, materialist ideological underpinnings of slavery and reconnects internally with nature.

Throughout, La Ultima Cena emphasizes Sebastian’s already-present desire to resist, rejecting the facile argument that the powers themselves are single-handedly responsible for his escape; while the film suggests that the Count unthinkingly offers up an opportunity for slave resistance via his Last Supper, it also reminds us that resistance and resistant minds were brewed in oppression regardless, and that it is ultimately Sebastian who takes it on himself to try to escape time and time again. Sebastian’s more fundamental and consistent rejection of the master’s morality is drawn into clarity when set against two other slaves, the old man Pasqual, and Birico, who at the end believes himself to be sprouting wings and jumps off a cliff. Birico had never truly embraced Sebastian’s spirituality, and his attendant belief in nature is momentary rather than fundamental. He only accepts earthliness in a fit of final desperation as his death seems imminent. When Birico then says he will support that same Christianity by rising to the church bells and dancing, if they were to be rung, and support it for the day, he is still buying into the acceptance of the Christian acquiescence which justified their slavery and failing to commit truly to critiquing the base ideological support of slavery.

Comparatively, the old man Pasqual is granted his freedom by the master during the Last Supper, only to break down when he realizes he does not know what to do with it, since Pasqual remains tragically enthralled with Western standards of materiality. Only Sebastian sees slavery treating slaves as materials rather than humans as an extension of a more general materialism in Western culture, abusing nature and the humans who are part of it for profit. In his fleeing, Sebastian is not simply fleeing the physical constraints of the system but the ideological constraints of the materialist framework which justified it, and the film suggests that he may escape because of this. The film questions the notion that slaves were complacent with slavery, but it also asserts in the character of Sebastian that freedom could only truly come from a more immanent ideological critique of the modern materialist underpinnings of slavery rather than simply the physical status of being a slave.

In comparison to the other slaves’ materialism and Christianity, Sebastian embodies a resistant spirituality that manifests in his folktale orality. While Sebastian is quiet initially during the Last Supper scene itself, once the master falls asleep, the former does offer his own monologue, the story of the African spirit Olofi’s creation of Truth and the Lie. The story ultimately concludes with Truth decapitated, fumbling for a head, and accidentally donning the Lie’s head, walking around with the head of the Lie. While Christian spirituality so obviously oppresses the slaves, and many of them know this, Sebastian’s story suggests that beneath the lie of Christian spirituality lies the truth that spirituality of another variety could set them free. Spoken after the master’s speech on why Africans are more fit for working with nature, or “born for the fields”, Sebastian’s spirituality challenges the materialist ideological underpinning of slavery and, implicitly, Christianity’s claim to representing slave spirituality and laundering capitalist materiality in a patina of transcendence.

This story also bends Catholicism’s Manicheanism, its emphasis on transparently and unambiguously good and evil figures; instead, Sebastian offers a more ambiguous, fluid world where neither truth nor lie is unambiguously “good” and where each can take the form of the other. In part, this sense of disruption trickles into the film and fascinatingly problematizes and complicates its morality. The framing of Sebastian’s speech emphasizes his performative replaying of the Truth and Lie tale. When Sebastian stands up, now wearing the pig head that had served as the centerpiece of the feast, literally donning what the Count metaphorically had, light cascades around him, suggesting a dawning consciousness of truth and symbolizing Sebastian as a new potential messiah far more deserving than the Count.

But if the slave here is offering an illuminated pantomime of the master and unmasking him in the process, this new “truth” also may be ironic on the film’s part. Whether even Sebastian is truly “right”, whether his grasping the master’s lie – the feast masquerading as truth – indicates that we should believe him without concern or, conversely, question him too, encouraging real democracy, remains up for debate. While Sebastian refused participation in the Count’s dialogue, skeptical of the power relations which might condition the nominal illusion of egalitarian conversation, Sebastian’s story does propagate a democratic chaos of perspectives warring with one another. The master temporarily asleep, as though lulled into a stupor of unthinkingness by his own foolish words, the slaves now question good and evil rather than simply overturning them by trading one static notion of “good” (and one messiah) for another equally monolithic, unquestioned one. While some Marxist films can at times seem overly rigidified in their injunction to depict unambiguous truth and disown ambiguity, Alea’s film doesn’t rescind the value of competing perspectives, perhaps suggesting that we should adopt a more democratic viewing process not focused on statically “good” and “bad” characters but on questioning and interrogating all truths.

Score: 9/10

 

 

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