CABEZA DE VACA  (1991)

Scene Analysis
0:58:16

Man-eating Blue Women:
An Unlikely Means to Reach a Higher Intention

by
Daniel Spangler

[1]  Cabaza de Vaca is a film that attempts to recreate the unimaginable experience of a group of Spaniards who became lost in sixteenth-century North America for nine years.  The director’s goal is to present the audience with a film that conveys the conjunction of Spanish and Native North American cultures.  While the film is based on truth, liberties are taken to ensure that the audience has a full understanding not just of the facts, but also of the social implications of the cultural convergence.  Near the center of the film, there is a scene in which Cabeza de Vaca, among others, almost becomes the victim of a savage cannibalistic ritual.  The scene is dominated by women of a hostile tribe who seem more like demons in a nightmare than actual human beings.  Three of the women are painted entirely in blue, commanded by a woman painted chalky white.  The women do not exist as earthly individuals, but as chaotic entities bound by the paint, flames, and primal emotions that engulf them.  The entire scene is one climax of terror and confusion for Cabeza de Vaca and the ceremony’s other unfortunate victims.

[2]  Critics have flocked to this scene in their analyses of the film, most of them condemning it as over-exotic, unhistorical, and detrimental to the portrayal of Cabeza de Vaca’s nine-year journey.  While it is true that Cabeza de Vaca does not describe an occurrence anything like this scene in The Account, I think that the scene is very relevant to the cinematic production of Cabeza de Vaca’s transformation in the “New World” because we see two characters -- Cabeza de Vaca and Esquivel -- in the same dire situation developing in two different ways.  Both men originated from the same society and underwent similar tribulations in their failed expedition.  The background absurdity of the scene, however, shows how one man accepted his situation, resulting in personal transformation and growth, while the other rejected the world he found, decaying into a hopeless life of self-destruction.

[3]  Impending death creates a unique experience for humans.  Thin character facades are shed, revealing the true essence of a person’s being.  Cabeza de Vaca, Esquivel, some other Europeans, and some natives (who were captured by the cannibals) are tied to posts while the bizarre ritual takes place around them.  The situation is perfect to juxtapose the characters of Cabeza de Vaca and Esquivel.

[4]  Esquivel was a member of Cabeza de Vaca’s original expedition but was separated from him up until they were both captured.  He looks extremely well fed and represents the director’s archetype of the effects of Spanish culture on the individual.  Unlike Cabeza de Vaca, Esquivel has degenerated into a blithering mass of flesh, whose only goal is to fulfill physical desire.  Absent from familiar Spanish and cultural norms, Esquivel has nothing to live by.  He has no morals or ethics when separated from those placed on him by others.  This man resorted to cannibalism to survive, however this simple act is not as bad as how he reacted to the necessity.  Instead of simply acknowledging the fact that he ate human flesh to survive, Esquivel jokes about it and pats his plump stomach (he obviously didn’t “just survive”).  When Cabeza de Vaca looks at him disgracefully, Esquivel yells “Don’t plague me with that look.  I still have a Christian’s hunger.”  He then throws dirt at Cabeza de Vaca.

[5]  These words and actions show that Esquivel’s idea of Christianity is not so much inner spirituality but outward power separating himself from the world in which he lives.  The act of throwing the dirt implies that he sees the earth and the physical environment as meaningless, something to abhor.  Cabeza de Vaca obviously doesn’t like dirt being thrown at him, but it does not affect his dignity.  “Europeans, despite their strong Christian tradition,” says Mark Ebel, “are shown to be vulnerable to performing acts of savagery usually associated only with ‘uncivilized’ non-Christian societies (105).  Cannibalism is a core ritual of the tribe, so it is understandable why they practice it.  However, Esquivel’s Christian culture forbids cannibalism, yet he remorselessly indulges in it.  This shows that Esquivel does not find personal meaning for himself, that his culture actually means nothing to him when he is not engulfed in it.
 
[6]  Cabeza de Vaca represents the opposite of Esquivel’s senseless being.  In the midst of a world utterly foreign to him, he still has a sense of self.  Though he has shed his culture, Cabeza de Vaca still holds basic human ethics.  He is physically thin and rational in his demeanor.  This chaotic scene serves as a test for Cabeza de Vaca’s integrity as a human being.  A man with no sense of self would naturally break down.  However, he still has emotional feeling and recognizes right from wrong.  Richard Gordon analyzes this scene by writing, “What appears on the screen is a function of Cabeza de Vaca’s shock, his exoticizing and sexualizing perspective”(105).   I agree that Cabeza de Vaca was shocked by the chaos around him, as anyone probably would be, however I totally disagree with Gordon’s analysis of Cabeza de Vaca’s perspective.

[7]  In the scene the “blue women” wear nothing but thongs and paint, as they taunt the captive men by brushing against them and dancing around them.  In spite of this, Cabeza de Vaca shows no interest in the sexuality they imply, but rather his reaction is more like the natives.  He and the natives realize that the display only paves the way for their demise.  He fears what is occurring and sees past the sexual.  Esquivel is the only one who seems to enjoy the display, gazing wide eyed at the all-but-naked women.  As Esquivel is led away, he still only sees the erotic.  He laughs out, “welcome to the land of the drowned,” like he is already dead, being “drowned” by culture that is still nothing more than exotic for him.  However, his face does change for a second after this to one of anguish.  Esquivel has possibly come to the realization of his terrible plight.  Seconds later his skull is shattered with a club, spraying blood on Cabeza de Vaca, who screams with horror.  Cabeza de Vaca reacts to the death of his fellow man, as well as to the proof that his suspicions of the situation are correct.

[8]  In the minuets of this scene the audience sees the extent of Cabeza de Vaca’s transformation.  Despite the shock of cultures alien to his own, he has not just stayed alive, or even maintained sanity, but has been transformed into a different person than when the film began.  He is now a respected Shaman, and through this scene the audience sees that this is not just a thin veneer of his personality, but a core addition to his being.  This scene seems at first glance to be disruptive to Cabeza de Vaca’s story but proves to give credibility to the rest of the film and to the director’s overall goal.
 
 

Copyright (c) 2002 by Daniel Spangler, Undergraduate Student at Lehigh University.

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