CABEZA DE VACA  (1991)

Scene Analysis
0:29:26

Poetry in Motion

by
Jason Sebok

[1]   The scene in which Cabeza de Vaca attempts to escape from the Shaman and Malacosa is one of the most powerful in the film because this is where his acceptance of cultural assimilation begins.  Previously in the film Cabeza de Vaca seems to act as their slave, constantly tied down and performing acts of labor for his captors.  While feeding Malacosa, whom he obviously despises, the Shaman suggests spitting food back in Cabeza de Vaca’s face.  This single act of disrespect finally makes something snap in him.

[2]  Cabeza de Vaca stands up to the pair by running away from their camp very quickly.  The Shaman then performs a complex ritual involving a lizard tied to a pole, representing  Cabeza de Vaca’s bondage to him.  After the Shaman performs a series of elemental obstacles to hinder Cabeza de Vaca, Cabeza de Vaca returns to the clearing physically exhausted right where he started.  Now Cabeza de Vaca is mentally and physically drained, with nothing left to give.

[3]  As Mark Ebel says, “Cabeza de Vaca’s belief systems, including his faith in the love of God and its power over evil, are being severely challenged by the seemingly superior power of his aboriginal captors and their use of sorcery” (107).  Having never been put in this powerless position before by European society, Cabeza de Vaca begins to assess his situation by stating all of the typical European misconceptions about the Natives.  He states, “I am more human than you,” because he is experiencing culture shock caused by the completely different aspects of every facet of life in the New World.  The lack of an organized religion and the familiar signs of a physical cathedral and regular masses prompts him to say “I have a God” before closely examining the shamanistic rituals.  The lack of any organized governing body such as a King or Church Inquisition to destroy the armless midget Malacosa makes him vocalize his fantasies of having the physically deformed man “impaled in [his] country” because of his handicap.  Of course all of this is wishful thinking on the part of Cabeza de Vaca because he is stuck in the New World with no way to ensure his survival but cultural assimilation.

[4]  This systematic listing of European stereotypes has a profound effect on the first-world audience.  The culture shock Cabeza de Vaca experiences is very similar to the one the first-world viewer experiences.  “Estrangement is created in several ways,” says Ebel.  “The omission of historical information, the scant dialogue, the conversations in untranslated indigenous languages, the reliance on visuals in unfamiliar scenes and the use of unusual thematic material tend to produce distancing and alienation in the film viewer” (5).  As the de-bunking of these myths unfolds throughout the rest of the film, it has the effect of changing the audience’s views as well.  Cabeza de Vaca gradually becomes acquainted with the complex cultures of the Natives throughout the film.  He seems to discover that “being human” is more than wearing clothes, or living in stone buildings, or attending church on Sundays.  “Being human” is defined as the relationships one develops with others on a daily basis, and the intense survivalist situation of daily life  in the New World only enforces a sense of a human bond or connection.  This survivalist mentality also seems to be the governing factor on keeping behavior in check.  The harsh environment eliminates the need for a church or government to set standards for appropriate behavior.  The “church” the Natives attend is inside their minds, with their own personal relationship with a spiritual identity.  Cabeza de Vaca discovers this during the various healing scenes throughout the rest of the film.

[5]  At the end of the scene, Cabeza de Vaca recites a poem about the Moorish conquest of Granada.  “The speaker,” says Ebel, “is King John II, who ruled Castile, a north and central region of the Iberian Peninsula, at that time.  Many Kings, long tormented by the Moorish occupation of Spain, had sought to expel the Moors but could not wrest the Moors’ grip from southern Spain, especially from their stronghold in Granada” (108).  After the Christians regained Granada, it was ruled briefly by a Moor named Abenamar.  In this poem King John II is speaking to Abenamar and the citizens of Granada.

[6]  Here is the poem Cabeza de Vaca recites at his moment of deepest despair:

The sea was calm,
The moon was waxing;
Moor under this sign was born
Never a lie must utter…
While growing from candle to man
My mother always said
There was no greater evil
Than to falsehood prey:
Therefore I ask my King,
That the truth I shall tell thee.
Though my life be at stake
Should thee be willing
I would wed thee, Granada,
Endow thee with Cordoba
And Seville.
Married,
Married, not widowed.
The Moor who holds me
Loves me beyond measure.

This poem is extremely important in foreshadowing and illustrating Cabeza de Vaca’s change.  The Moorish occupation of Grenada was a friendly one that brought together two beautiful cultures, the Spanish and the Arabic, and they combined to form another just as beautiful and elaborate culture.  Unfortunately, when the Christians took Granada over again, they tried to erase any evidence of the Moorish culture completely.  Architecture, tapestries, and literature were destroyed.  The Spanish in the New World were similarly engaged in demolishing what they considered an alien culture.

[7]  The poem’s theme emphasizes combining cultures to create a new one, and this is what Echevarria is trying to achieve in his film.  Cabeza de Vaca weds the Spanish culture and the Indian culture to create a new, Mestizo culture -- what Echevarria sees as the beginning of the Mexican or Latin American culture.  This is most apparent when Cabeza de Vaca is performing healing rituals on Indians.  In the book he combines shamanistic techniques while praying to his Christian God and making the sign of the cross on his patients.  In the film Echevarria relies greatly on visual imagery to represent the combination of cultures.  Cabeza de Vaca performs shamanistic rituals while wearing a cross.

[8]  Mark Ebel elaborates on the combination of Christian and Indian culture:

In spite of the obvious disparity of the two worlds and two cultures, Cabeza de Vaca seems to form a bond with his captors.  Hechichero grants Cabeza de Vaca his freedom after the latter heals an Indian upon whom Hechichero had induced a supernatural malady.  Hechichero gives him back his cross necklace and utters, “mano,” communicating the importance they both may now recognize in the spiritual power which can be transmitted through their hands.  Their mutual involvement in shamanism and healing has bridged the cultural barriers and they are communicating in a common language.  (110)
When Cabeza de Vaca says “Should thee be willing, I would wed thee…,” he wishes he could combine the Spanish and Indian culture since he sees the value in both.

[9]  The poem also relates very well to the end of the film when it talks about lying being the greatest evil.  Dorantes is telling of golden cities and a fountain of youth, and Cabeza de Vaca seems to want to be truthful, though he knows if he is, he will lose his life.

[10]  As Cabeza de Vaca discovers the culture of the Natives, so does the audience.  This creates a powerful form of empathy in the viewer.  Upon viewing various Native rituals a second time, the viewer is not nearly as shocked as he or she was upon the initial viewing.  This is because Echevarria successfully stresses the similarities of mankind over the differences between cultures.  Through familiarity with the Native culture, the European viewer realizes it is different but not an inferior, evil one.
 
 

Copyright (c) 2002 by Jason Sebok, Undergraduate Student at Lehigh University.

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