CABEZA DE VACA  (1991)

Scene Analysis
1:42:37

Happy Ever-After

by
Jaime Miller

[1]  According to Paul Galante, “Echevarria's representation of Cabeza de Vaca portrays the liminal state of consciousness which serves as a prototype of the mestizo in Mexican national identity.”  He goes on to quote Juan Bruce-Novoa’s claim that "Cabeza de Vaca is the New World mestizo voice spoken for the first time. . . . having acculturated to survival, Cabeza de Vaca was no longer the Spaniard who set out on the voyage, but a hybrid New World man."  One key way in which Echevarria dramatizes Cabeza de Vaca’s transformation is to show him in relationships with individual natives unimaginable if he retained the conquistador mentality.  Though the real Cabeza de Vaca must have formed some close relationships during his ordeal, none are documented in his account.  In fact, no natives are even named.  In his film, though, Echevarria creates two characters, Malacosa and Cascabel, to dramatize the possibility of cultural brotherhood.

[2]  The relationship between Cabeza de Vaca and Cascabel develops through three scenes, ending here on the most emotional point of the film: the healing of Cascabel (1:06:16), the bonding with his tribe (1:10:40), and his death (1:42:37).  The brotherhood first forms in the scene where Cabeza de Vaca heals the wound Cascabel received from the cannibalistic Blue Woman (1:06:16).  Literally and figuratively, Cabeza de Vaca touches Cascabel’s heart in this scene.  In addition, Cabeza de Vaca carries Cascabel through the water, much like a brother would carry a brother.  This scene sets the rest of the movie up for an emotional climax.

[3]  Next, Echevarria creates a scene in which Cabeza de Vaca and his men are welcomed into Cascabel’s tribe (1:10:40).  Cabeza de Vaca participates in an initiation ritual, Dorantes sleeps with a woman, and Estebanico plays with children.  After this bonding the Spaniards and the natives travel as one unified tribe, and when it is time to part because the Christians have been sighted, the older brother Cabeza de Vaca has to physically shove and verbally chase the reluctant “little brother” Cascabel away from him.

[4]  This last scene in which we see Cabeza de Vaca and Cascabel together is the most emotional scene of the movie (1:42:37).  In this scene, we see the full force of Cabeza de Vaca’s transformation.  Echevarria portrays Cabeza de Vaca struggling to re-adapt to Christian and Spanish society after being abandoned for so many years.  To add to his self-torment, he finds his brother, Cascabel, on a wagon, dead.  And there is nothing he can do; no magical power he has will bring his friend back to life.  Perhaps Cabeza de Vaca knows better than to practice shamanic rituals in front of the Spaniards.  If he does practice them, he will be charged for heresy.  Or perhaps the shamanic powers do not work when a Spanish bullet is the agent of death.  Whatever the reason, Cabeza de Vaca is utterly traumatized.  His words are so simple: “Why? Why?”  Yet the power in Cabeza de Vaca’s voice makes the simple words understood by the audience as well.  It is evident that the transformed Cabeza de Vaca has lost a brother.  And that we feel the loss of a truly new world.  Why?

[5]  The death of Cascabel especially “tugs” at the heartstrings because Cascabel wore Cabeza de Vaca’s cross.  When the Spaniards kill Cascabel and bring his body past Cabeza de Vaca, he finds the small wooden cross – which Cascabel must have retrieved after Cabeza de Vaca threw it away as he shed the outward signs of his shamanism -- the final definitive sign of their brotherhood.   That small wooden cross the shrieking Cabeza de Vaca holds in his hand alludes to the extremely large, overbearing cross in the final scene of the movie – the cross that answers the question why.

[6]  Echevarria’s portrayal of friendship between Cabeza de Vaca and Cascabel may have not been entirely fact, but the powerful emotion generated by the chemistry of the characters really made me think.  Our culture has provided us with a steady diet of images of hostility between natives and whites, but this film provided a welcoming change as native and white befriend one another.  Even though the film ends tragically, Echevarria showed that friendship can be created despite barriers and that made me hopeful about cultures living in harmony.  Through realizing the importance of their friendship, Echevarria gave me a “happy ever-after.”
 
 

Copyright (c) 2002 by Jaime Miller, Undergraduate Student at Lehigh University.

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