Venice Classics 2020: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s The Last Supper is a political allegory painted in explicitly religious shades
The Last Supper was a portrait of Cuba’s ambivalent attitude towards slavery. But the film’s title makes the religious statement equally obvious. Religion makes “slaves” of us.
By the time you read this, the Venice Film Festival will be underway, though not the Classics section, which was screened — due to COVID-related seating-capacity reasons — at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna.
One of the most fascinating films in the programme is a restored version of La última cena (The Last Supper), a 1976 Cuban drama by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. It’s a rare creature: a political allegory painted in explicitly religious shades. It’s about a (white) sugar mill owner in eighteenth-century Havana and his (black) slaves. It’s also about the Holy Week, the seven days that lead to Easter Sunday, during which the events seen here are set.
The Last Supper, as painted by Leonardo da Vinci, shows Jesus with his 12 apostles: it’s the turbulent moment when the Son of God reveals that one of his apostles will betray him. The most (in)famous filmic appropriation (see video above) of this Biblical event is in Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), where the da Vinci painting is replicated with a bunch of beggars. The man in the place of Jesus is blind, which may be the director’s comment (attack?) on “blind faith”. The sequence ends with a woman flashing the people assembled at the table.
The replication of the da Vinci painting in La última cena is much milder, in the sense that it isn’t blasphemous and it didn’t lead to denunciations from the Church, as was the case with the Buñuel film. But here, too, some very important commentary is being made. The owner of the sugar mill, a religious man known only as the Count, decides to invite twelve slaves to his home for supper. This sounds warped, but then, so is the way the people in these surroundings interpret religion.
Consider the speech the local priest gives some of the slaves, in an early scene. He talks about heaven as a place you can be with God, live in His house, eat at His table, with the Virgin Mary, and all the angels and saints. It’s a place where nobody gives orders, nobody is bad, nobody fights or gets mad. It’s a place where nobody says this is mine or this is yours, because everybody’s got enough. It doesn’t occur to the priest that this equality — this idea of heaven — could very well be implemented here, if the master-slave relationship were transformed into, say, an arrangement where these men are paid for their labour.
A most horrible thing happens even as these words are being uttered. A slave who attempted to run away is brought in and seated with the others. One of his ears has been chopped off, as punishment. But all the priest says is: “You want to go (to heaven)? Well, to go, you have to be pure and keep all the Commandments. The slave has to be good and serve his master, because God says so. God says to love your master very much.” The priest has essentially invented an eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt be a loyal slave.
The Last Supper is too real to be called satire, too ridiculous to be termed real.
But during the “last supper” stretch, the lunacy truly hits the fan. The Count begins by bathing the feet of the invited slaves, feet that are covered in blisters from working all day. One of the slaves spits on him, and yet, he curbs his rage. Wiping his face, he says, “Christ humbled himself before his disciples, so a master can humble himself to his slaves.” Slowly, the eating and drinking get underway, and we get to the most brilliant stretch.
The Count narrates a fable whose moral is this: Of all the good things Christ gives, the best is to suffer pain and injury for His divine love. “The other things aren’t ours, they belong to God. Sorrow is the only thing that is really ours, the only thing we can give to God with joy.” The slaves snicker. One of them asks if he should be happy when the overseer thrashes him. The Count says, “Yes, that’s it. If you understand this, you will be happy, happier than whites.”
Where do these strange beliefs come from? Religion, of course. The Count is convinced that Nature has made the black man more resistant to pain. No white man sings when he cuts sugarcane, whereas the black man always sings. “And, by singing, he forgets what he’s doing. He becomes joyful. The white man suffers more than the black.” In other words, God “arranged it” for the black man to have innate qualities for cutting cane. The black man was practically born for the field, and thus, born to suffer.
There is a political statement in this, obviously. The Last Supper was a portrait of Cuba’s ambivalent attitude towards slavery. But the film’s title makes the religious statement equally obvious. Religion makes “slaves” of us. We are asked to silently accept suffering because “God has willed it that way,” and the more we suffer, the greater the chances of being rewarded with a place in heaven. The slaves call out this bullshit. They rebel.
And that’s the point of the film, which was produced by the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC, Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry). This organisation was like what the Dravidian movement was in Tamil Nadu. It recognised that to reach the masses, to educate them, and for social betterment, cinema was the most powerful medium.
Did films like The Last Supper help? Did they do what they were meant to do? I don’t know. But for the rest of us, today, these films are important socio-cultural documents. Even if we believe all men are created equal, they make us question the fact that the world around us is still filled with so much inequality. And maybe this is why so many people still believe in God. For if there was no promise of heaven, what would be the point of all this suffering? How could we even begin to bear all this living?
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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