La Ultima Cena

Within the world of La Ultima Cena, slavery structures and defines the lives of the elite and dispossessed in contrasting ways, showcasing on a local scale the larger societal clash over slaves’ rights as extensions of masters’ obligations. As Alejandro de la Fuente illustrates in Slaves and the Creation of Legal Rights in Cuba: Coartacion and Papel, the expansion of the rights of slaves at the expense of their masters’ legal authority as property holders enjoyed a long history continually shaped by both local precedent and elite protests about the erosion of property rights.  This history informs the film La Ultima Cena by pitting newly enlightened, or privileged, slaves against the goodwill and anger of their master.

In a move that illustrates the centrality of religion in 18th century Cuban society, twelve slaves are selected to participate in their master’s recreation of the Christian Last Supper.  The overseer chooses slaves based on their relation to the African continent, selecting men from twelve different cultures.  In a way, this can be understood to reflect the diversity of cultures, skin pigmentations, and attitudes that have historically and currently shaped the societies of South America, and Cuba specifically.  Since some details of these events of 1790 remain unknown, liberties were undoubtedly taken to enhance the cinematic quality and storytelling power of the film.  However, the film’s portrayal of structural inequalities, the importance of religion, and the many conflicts over the activities of the slaves in late 18th century Cuban society showcases the patriarchal and paternalistic control endemic to that era, especially as it relates to the institution of slavery and the slave’s position within the Cuban social hierarchy.

Even though Shultz’ paper centers on Brazilian slavery, the attitudes of the elite concerning the proper conceptualization of the slave in Brazilian society can be understood to mimic that in Cuba.  Paternalistic attitudes shape the thinking of both the Assemblymen of Brazil and the Count of La Ultima Cena.  Corporeal mistreatment of slaves is condemned throughout the film, as confirmed by 18th century Cuban judicial accounts.  However, there does not seem to be much recourse available to slaves on the Count’s plantation; papel and coartacion are never mentioned as possibilities for slaves wishing to escape the harsh mistreatment of the overseer.  To run away seems the only option in the film, but to no lasting effect: Sebastian fails to escape again and again.

The film also omitted a historical reality by absenting women in the plot.  Women appear briefly in the beginning of the film and again during the tumultuous rebellion during the latter half, but only as extras, not integral to the action of the plantation culture or rebellion plot.  The film effectively ignores the existence and experience of slave women, perpetuating a patriarchal perspective that mirrors the patriarchal society of 18th century Cuba, but nevertheless precludes the importance of women in slave society.

For the most part, La Ultima Cena successfully communicates the realities of a late 18th century Cuban sugar plantation, but in some respects, most especially as relates to women and recourse for mistreatment, falls short of an inclusive and authentic delineation of the history.