La Ultima Cena

    The 1976 film La Ultima Cena, directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea tells the story of a slave-owner turned “religious savior,” as he invites 12 of his male slaves at random to diner in order to recreate the last supper. His motivations for this seemingly act of kindness, however, become rather dubious as he attempts to instill willful obedience and submission in the slaves to their plight. He simply uses religion as a means to this aim, rather than being the truly pious man he portrays. As John Mraz points out the La Ultima Cena is derived from a story of slaveholder Count de Casa Bayona washing the feet of his slaves before feeding them supper.  In this account, the slaves use their status to start a rebellion, eventually leading to their deaths. In the film, the mutiny starts more as the result of the actions of only a few of the slaves before spiraling out of control. This is likely done in order to still capture the nature of a slave mutiny, while allowing the film to still act like a film, and have some characters that are more sympathetic than others. Overall, this works quite well both in its historically accuracy, and storytelling.

Firsthand documentation of typical slave life is limited, and as such La Ultima Cena attempts to depict more of the psychological impacts of slavery, both on the slaves themselves and the slave owners, rather than the exact living and working conditions of slaves in the Caribbean in the late 1700’s. It does this through placing one person from each of twelve tribal backgrounds in Africa at the table for supper. Obviously this alone would not account for there personality differences, but is used more as a gimmick for the movie. What seems likely to be true is that the twelve dinner mates would have various degrees of table etiquette, likely verging on little to none, which separates them from their host despite his willingness to eat with them. The slaves are reminded of their status when the Count begins to talk to them of the Christian religion and how despite God’s love for them and their ability to get to heaven, they were made to  be slaves. It is this that is the underlining point the film is trying to make: There is an inherent hypocrisy to being both a Christian and a slave holder. The immorality of holding another man in bondage, and defending that practice by alleging that you are doing him or her a favor by saving their immortal soul is incongruent with both the natural laws of man and of God. This is very historically relevant, as it formed a major philosophy in the slave trade from its inception. This is further highlighted, by the Count going back on his promises of freeing one of the slaves and giving them the day off on Good Friday.

Some of the slaves see through this deception and openly rebel, killing their immediate overseers and burning the compound. This is very typical of most slave rebellions, and like most uprisings the slaves were quickly put down. The twelve men invited to supper are hunted down and killed as an example to the others. As a whole, the story is not uncommon to slaves and their Christian masters. What is particular to this historical example is the dinner itself, and the remarkable symbolism of the supper and how little impact it had, or intended to have other than to feed into the ego of the Count himself. La Ultima Cena is also interesting as the impact of slavery is all to often viewed through solely an American perspective that largely ignores countries in the West Indies such as Cuba where it is set. As it was the Caribbean where the majority of slaves from africa were taken. Overall, the film accomplishes what it set out to highlight in the history of slavery and its unholy relationship with Christianity.