La Ultima Cena (And it really was...)

    La Ultima Cena brings to light the transformation of the institution of slavery as it took place in late 18th century Cuba. Based from the account from historian Manuel Fraginals, the film depicts the sugarmill of Count de Casa Bayona, who, as a symbol of piety, washes the feet of twelve chosen slaves and dines with them. Throughout an inebriated evening, the count attempts to relate their master-slave relationship to that of the disciples and Christ. Instead the count’s attempt is misconstrued by the slaves as a sense of entitlement thus resulting in an uprising against the sugarmill’s cruel overseer, Don Manuel. The count retaliates gruesomely by having the slaves hunted down, and the heads of most of the disciples were thrust upon pikes as punishment and an example.

    From the beginning, pious and patriarchal traditions are pitted against an ever-growing industry. John Mraz notes that the tremendous pressure to produce more and more sugar brought with it technological advances, such as Don Gaspar’s suggestion to move to a horizontal sugar press and the use of bagasse as flame fuel. These advances served to place even more stress on the slave population due to the intermingling of manual labor and mechanics. Even the small advances put into the mill cause Don Gaspar to note their current manpower would not be sufficient to handle the current workload. Count de Casa Bayona sees himself as a deeply religious man, but is still willing to ignore abuse and mistreatment of his slaves because of the results the overseer can produce. In bringing slaves together to dine with him, the count likens his relationship with the slaves at that of Christ with his disciples at “The Last Supper.” His sermons on Christian doctrine fail to move the slaves, as the count’s suggestion they should be happy with their toils and punishments seemed to conflict with the deepest realms of common sense. However, while drunkenly making empty promises, he did manage to win their worship. After the slaves revolt, the count, inflamed, passes judgement on his “disciples,” calling for their death. He even demands the bodies of dead slaves be removed from the church, seeing them as lesser than the cruel Don Manuel, whose sins the Count continuously dismissed. The Count uses his religion to assert his place as master, by the end of the film displaying more of a twisted righteousness than piety.

    The film does indirectly the evolution of slaves’ rights and status during the 18th century. Count Bayona’s mill keeps with a traditional structure, with the master exercising an absolute power with little to no oversight. Despite his pious mannerisms, he turns a blind eye to the atrocious treatment of his slaves by the overseer. As Alejando de la Fuente explains, the increase of ordinances and codes saw more regulation and legal protection for slaves during this time. Local officials were charged with making visits to farms to ensure that slaves suffered no excessive abuse or punishment. The mutilation and beating of Sebastian and the brutal murder of eleven of the count’s chosen slaves would have most definitely caused the count to be subject to legal discipline. However, any law beyond that of religion and that of Count Bayona himself is absent. Instead of seeking a judge to press a complaint, the chosen twelve slaves look toward their master for law. When the promises of the “law” went unfufilled, the resulting revolt put forth their complaint instead. Unfortunately, the absence of local authorities left only the master as judge.

    La Ultima Cena, while slightly exaggarated in a historical context, still gives some good insight into the evolution of slavery as it transitioned from the traditional absolute power of a master to a regulated institution that provided legal protection and even some rights to slaves.