It’s refreshing to come across a “postcolonial” film that is about much more than postcolonialism (or “neocolonialism,” if you prefer). Tomás Guttiérrez Alea had a clear and legitimate political bent in The Last Supper (La última cena), addressing historical as well as historiographical injustices. Because of this content, the film has been labeled “revisionist history” by some, including Gilberto M. Blasini, in his article “Cinema, History, and Decolonization.” While this is a fair term to use at some level, it implies something about narrative film – especially this narrative film – that is not accurate. Revisionist history recalls certain propaganda groups, such as Holocaust deniers and hard-core American Confederacy supporters. The former group relies on an alleged lack of evidence and the latter group insists on hidden evidence, but both tend to be in the business of conspiracy theories. In cinema, the most popular (and, somehow, subtle) form of revisionist history has to be the biopic, a favorite whipping boy here for all things distasteful. These films tend to “paint a portrait,” in the popular vernacular, of Genghis Khan, William Wallace, Martin Luther, Ray Charles, Harvey Milk, or whomever, that constructs a formulaic image of a past person in terms ranging from the extremely simplistic to the only-somewhat simplistic. (A well-executed exception to this would be Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette – an exception precisely because it didn’t pretend to be historical. Coppola put a heavily autobiographical/postmodern spin on the story, the history of which was used only as a bare-bones template.) One will notice that the human-interest factor demands that most of these revisionist films be centered on a single person.
Alea’s film, however, observes history poorly written in the first place and only pretends to rewrite it. This suggests, of course, the big historiographical problem(s): who writes the history books, and how? The Last Supper doesn’t attempt to revise anything, though; it cinematically conveys that colonialist history still undergirds contemporary ideologies, whether consciously or not. And the film does this quite artfully. The Last Supper is something beautiful, which often can’t be said of postcolonial films. This isn’t to put these films down, particularly, but to say that the filmmakers are often so emotionally engaged with the subject matter that the films can come across as propagandist. (Another exception would be Claire Denis’ Chocolat.) Alea uses the Last Supper as a fascinating starting point, an image of extremely Western proportions. Despite the historical event of the Last Supper having taken place in the Near East, da Vinci’s painting, like so much Medieval and Renaissance art, appropriated the image of the event into its own culture. Europe’s embrace and adaptation of the Christian faith led to its claim to ownership of the tradition, despite those pesky Orthodox, with their ikons and mysticism. One wonders if there could be a more classical image, not of Christianity, but of the European Christian tradition, than the Last Supper. It preceded the grandiosity of Michelangelo but embodies everything of the Renaissance Man in da Vinci. It is a revisionist history in itself, a fact that has become ironically confirmed so many times over in its most recent run in popular culture, thanks to a Mr. Dan Brown. This all relates very directly to Alea’s film, which takes full advantage of the baggage of the Last Supper image in the context of an anecdote from 18th century Cuban history. This previously unacknowledged story centers on a count who supposedly gathered twelve of his slaves to reenact the Last Supper. The gesture had an unintended effect: the slaves, having enjoyed their taste of freedom, revolted shortly thereafter but all ended up killed.
Integrating numerous traditions within African culture and illustrating the diasporic effect of slavery at the time, the film presents an utterly backwards picture of the Last Supper from the biblical account. Instead of the twelve being clueless and/or foolish, the Christ-figure is the true fool here. Rather than a meager meal of bread and wine, we have a gastronomical orgy. The Judas figure here is wronged by his master, and not vice versa. Above all, the original twelve were not slaves. “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Since the original history of this story ended with a horrific injustice (the master killing his slaves), Alea’s film had to change it: the slaves revolt and kill one of their masters (though not the count). What the film calls into attention, however, is that its own repainting of history is quite parallel with the “true story”; it is not the opposite story, the one suggested by the painting. As to who kills whom, this is a minor point beside the larger one: master and slaves, a relationship based on an inequity perpetuated by the superior strength of the master. The Roman Catholicism depicted in this film is Roman Catholicism in a distinct time and place. By referring to the representation of da Vinci’s mural through multiple camera techniques recalling the mural as well as its very title, The Last Supper connects itself with the Last Supper as a representation; with one historical, cultural, religious, and very moral ramifications. As da Vinci appropriated a history for his own purposes, so here is Alea, who is also aligning himself with appropriation through representation but, more than that, re-politicizing facts, persons, and events who were stripped of political meaning. The film gives the idea of “politics” its due respect, so rarely done today, as encompassing the whole of human existence in all its rights, privileges, and rampant injustices.