According to John Mraz, “La Ultima Cena” takes its premise from a historical incident in which the Count de Casa Bayona reenacted Maundy Thursday with twelve of his slaves, resulting in an unexpected revolt. While this anecdote was greatly embellished for the creation of the film, its basis in historical fact opens a dialogue between the status of slaves in eighteenth century Cuba and a historical revisitation of the issue shortly after the Revolution.
By the late eighteenth century, Cuban slaves, and especially coartados, were increasingly availing themselves of the legal protections in place. As Alejandro de la Fuentes illustrates, guidelines governing the treatment of slaves were undergoing a series of transitions, often ill-defined and subject to extensive contestation and complaints from slaveowners. The responsibility of ensuring slaves were being well treated was shifting from the slaves themselves to local authorities, who began conducting regular visits to rural plantations and mills in order to assess the conditions of the slaves. Unprecedented challenges to the ultimate authority of the slaveowner created an atmosphere of uncertainty, one in which increased freedoms granted to slaves could easily result in a negative reaction by owners, and limitations were doubtless often ignored or flouted without repercussions.
The fictionalized Count, paying an unusual visit to his property in “La Ultima Cena,” clearly considered himself a deeply pious, even Christlike man. At his table, he lectures his slaves both before and after his intoxication on the virtues of servitude, words that ring hollow even in the intact ears of eleven of those slaves. After witnessing the brutality of Don Manuel earlier in the film, the contemporary audience is made deeply uncomfortable by the seeming mutual exclusivity of morality and slavery, but to the Count, the master/slave relationship is merely an extension of the patriarchal Christian model of the household and country. As Cuban slaves obtain letters of manumission or bought their freedom, and Brazil prepares to debate the citizenship status of freed slaves, the Count relies on tradition to enact his morality play and attempt to reconcile the slaves to a life of servitude and abuse.
“La Ultima Cena” anticipates a modern viewer’s attitude toward the subject of slavery, and builds more on this juxtaposition of contemporary and period morals than an in-depth historical criticism. The foolish, stumbling nature of the Count’s grandiose lectures takes the place of an observation about the patriarchal nature of the Christianity imposed on conquered peoples. A cruel overseer stands in for the complexities of slaves’ legal status in Cuba. Slave rebellions are mentioned only in passing, and the gruesome depiction of the heads on pikes is tempered by Sebastien’s dramatic escape, absent from Manuel Moreno Fraginals’ original account of the 1790 rebellion. While this escape was likely included to break up the unrelenting futility and despair of the account, it also changes the entire impact of the film, transforming the message into one of optimism and eventual success at escaping, if not overthrowing, forces of oppression. For a Cuban audience still remembering Castro’s rise to power, this final addition becomes a necessary game-changer.
For all these simplifications and adjustments, “La Ultima Cena” seems to have a much more historically accurate vision and execution than that of “The Mission.”