La Ultima Cena

La Ultima Cena is the story of a slave master who attempts to reenact the Last Supper with himself playing the role of Jesus and the role of the Apostles being filled by 12 of his chosen slaves.  The movie’s story is based on an account written by a prominent Cuban historian, Manuel Moreno Fraginals, in which a slave-holding count recreates the Last Supper with his slaves (Mraz).  The account is brief and with little details.  It merely tells of the recreation of the Last Supper, the washing of the slaves’ feet, and the end result of the slaves’ riot/rebellion.   Guttierrez Alea uses this simple story as the basis of his movie’s plot and takes advantage of the lack of detail by creating a very interesting feast.

According to Mraz the film was historically quite accurate.  The contrast between the count and the overseer displayed two typical points of view toward slavery at the time.  In Cuban law it seems that slaves actually had more rights than one would expect.  Mistreating, starving, abusing or improperly caring for a slave was actually against the law.  However, this obviously happened quite frequently.  When these injustices did occur slaves were actually able to present their cases in a court of law.  If the slave owner was found guilty of these trespasses, the judge could order the slave to be sold to someone else (de la Fuente).  In La Ultima Cena the count represents the law’s stand on treatment of slaves.  The count does not agree with the overseer’s abuse of the slaves, however he does not press the matter so as not to interfere with the production of the sugar mill.  Although there are accounts of slaves taking their masters to court, winning their cases, and even gaining freedom or the ability to buy their freedom in the future, it is not easy to find exactly how common such an occurrence was.   In fact, this was more likely the exception rather than the rule.  Also one would be inclined to believe that more often than not white slave owners found more sympathy in white judges than did African slaves.

On the subject of slaves obtaining freedom, one may look to the debates of Brazil’s constituent assembly presented by Kristen Shultz.  In this article Shultz discusses the process of the drafting of the Empire of Brazil’s constitution in 1822. Most hotly debated were the requirements for obtaining citizenship.  Some believed that slaves should only be granted citizenship if they had a trade or some kind of job.  Otherwise they would only become a burden and threat to the state.  Others strongly disagreed.  In La Ultima Cena the issue of slaves and freedom is addressed with the slave Pascual.  He is a very old slave who is no longer fit for the harsh manual labor required at the mill.  He asks the count to grant him his freedom so he may die a free man.  The count generously grants him his request.  Not too soon after Pascual begins to see the implications of his new-found freedom.  He has been a slave his whole life and while it was a harsh and unforgiving life he was provided with food and shelter.  Now as a free man what will he do?  How will he support himself?  He has no skills other than those needed for the mill nor has he any money to start some kind of business of his own.  Needless to say he has no options and as attractive as freedom sounds it comes with no securities.  This scenario seems to be exactly one that Brazil’s representatives would have considered during the drafting of their constitution.  What will be become of these people poorly prepared for the life of a free man?

All in all La Ultima Cena was both an engaging and accurate portrayal of the Cuban slave system.