Director Tomas Gutierrez Alea successfully portrays a remarkably historical depiction of rural Cuba during a transitional period at the end of the 18th century in his film La Ultima Cena. The movie captures some of the problems surrounding the institution of slavery and it’s clash with growing liberalism while simultaneously demonstrating the clash between a multicultural slave population and the indoctrination of Chrisitanity. The movie demonstrates a close representation of the hierarchy found within the lucrative buisness of running a sugar plantation. Backed by several historical researchers, Alea maintains authenticity while using creative ingenuity to suppose what life could have been like for those living through this period in time.
The ideals of liberalism, born out the French and American Revolutions, began to echo as far as the Spanish-American colonies. Liberalism embodied the ideals that all men are created equal and have individual rights.The ideals of liberalism, of freedom for all men, clashed with the instituion of slavery. Slave populations in the colonies had grown to be the stark majority and increasing dissention between slaves and their owners had spurred many slave revolts. Slave owners struggled to maintain control of slaves and used religious rites and often fierce brutality to keep slaves in positions of subordination. As found in the film, Alea depicts these harsh conditions with cutting the ear off a recaptured run away slave and also in the relentless overworking of the slaves by the overseer, Don Manuel. In a discussion with Don Manuel, the mill lord nervously talks of plans to prepare for ” the blacks rising up” side shadowing the slave revolt that took place in St.Dominique (modern day Haiti) where slaves killed their white French owners. This reality is mirrored in John Mraz’s analysis of La Ultima Cena and The Other Francisco stating that, ”The Haitian revolution had left Cuban slaveholders trembling in fear…”.
As the ideas of liberalism began to reverbrate to the Spanish-American colonies, it slowed in its progression into the rural areas. Slaves in urban areas were somewhat protected by legal codes as noted in Alejandro de la Fuente’s report of Slaves and the Creation of Legal Rights in Cuba: Coartacion and Papel that states ” In addition to religious instruction, the master’s most important duty conerned the physical well-being of the slave…But he was not to wound, kill, or mutilate his slaves…”. However, those in rural areas like the slaves depicted in the film were often cut off from the power of courts by geography alone and often suffered brutalities like those in the film without hope of recourse.
The main scene of the movie where the Count sits with the 12 chosen slaves symbolizes the Last Supper where Jesus took in his 12 apostles. This scene shows the Count trying to teach the slaves that to do right by God they need to obey their masters and that this is the way to real freedom; a freedom won in death with passage into heaven.The Count seems to struggle with his ability to make slavery fit with his ideals of christianity. In turn, many slaves seem to find his explanations laughable. The Count’s struggle to humanize slavery demonstrates on a small scale what had to be happening on a much larger scale in the colonies at this time.