THE LAST SUPPER (LA ÚLTIMA CENA) (1976)


Issue Essay

THE LAST SUPPER -- THE STORY OF CONDONING SLAVERY
by
Charlene Aquilina and Marissa Williams

(see a video about the treatment of slaves)

The Support of Slavery in the Bible

[1]    The Last Supper condones slavery through the use of the Bible.  The whole movie is the relation of a religious event that took place in the time of Christ to a period in the history of the Americas when slavery was commonplace.  The Last Supper scene at the core of the film is an exact replication of Leonardo DaVinci’s painting of the actual Last Supper, which consisted of Christ and his twelve disciples sitting at a table for the last time together.  (Click here for images and audio.)  Christ knew that it would be the last supper because one of them would betray him.  The Count acts as Christ had and brings twelve slaves to sit with him at his table.  This reenactment of a religious event was to persuade the twelve black men, through Christianity, that their positions as slaves were God’s wish.  As the Bible states in Ephesians 6:5-8:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.  Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.  Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
This part of the Bible is the basis for all of the Count’s actions during the movie.  While at the table the Count informs the slaves that “Christ called together ‘the saints, his disciples, who were his slaves,’” referring to the Bible and the reasons for calling the plantation workers to his dinner table (Davis 58).

[2]    The film takes place during the five days of Holy Week.  It begins on Holy Wednesday and lasts till Easter Sunday.  The Last Supper meal occurs on Holy Thursday in concordance with the Bible (Davis 57-58).  When the Count speaks with the Priest about the preparations for the supper, he says how difficult it is to teach Christian truth to the blacks.  They attempt to teach the Christian doctrine by reenacting several religious practices.  The scene in heaven is described to the slaves in preparation for their upcoming meal with their master.  The Priest reminds them, however, “that here they must serve and love the Master” (Davis 58).  The Count then washes and kisses the slaves’ feet in the Church before they sit at his table.  He acts as Christ in every aspect throughout the meal by constantly making references to the Bible.

[3]    The Count religiously refers to the Bible during dinner to show the slaves how relevant Christianity is to their lives.  During dinner the Count asks Sebastian, the runaway slave, “Who am I. . . . I ask you in the name of Christ, who am I?”  Sebastian refuses to answer, his only response being to spit in the Count's face.  “The Count wipes his face and says that, like Christ, who was spat at and stoned, he can humble himself before his slaves” (Davis 59).  His false humility is becoming to the slaves.  He furthers his good standing by telling them they don’t have to work on Good Friday.  However, this is just a ploy to get them to appreciate and follow Christian laws.  He has no intention of interfering in the Overseer’s job.  The Count acted in such ways because the New Testament “acknowledged slavery’s existence, instructing both Christian masters and slaves in the way they should behave” (gospelcom.net).

[4]    Statements recorded in the Bible perfectly depict the actions taken against black people in early American history.  The Bible states, “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property”  (Exodus 20: 20-21).  This directly corresponds with the treatment of Sebastian.  After retrieving him from his attempted escape, Don Manuel continuously beats Sebastian, but Sebastian always recovers.  Therefore, under the rules of the Bible, Don Manuel’s treatment of him is acceptable.  The Count acknowledges Don Manuel’s ferocious actions towards the slaves but accepts them because it is allowed in the Bible.  This is an extreme example of how the Bible was interpreted in the Americas at that time.

[5]    Noah’s proclamation, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” was the first mention of slavery in the Bible (Genesis 9:25).  “[Noah] said this after waking up from a naked, drunken stupor and learning that he had been mocked by his son Ham” (gospelcom.net).  The Count experienced the same type of treatment after getting intoxicated at dinner with the slaves.  While he was sleeping, the slaves talked about him and the promises he had made.  The next day, disregarding his promise of no work on Good Friday, the Count left the plantation. When he heard of the upheaval, he got mad and took the side of the Overseer.  He said, “the Overseer commits necessary sins and he will be punished by Someone higher than I” (Downing 293).  The Bible was used to justify slavery and its economic benefits.  Having slaves created easy labor for the Masters and lessened their responsibility on the plantation.  It was easier for them to command workers than to do the slave labor themselves.  That is why the Master didn’t have to work on a Holy Day but the slaves did.

The Count’s Betrayal

[6]    During the Last Supper meal the Count tells the slaves that they don’t have to work on Good Friday.  He says under God’s rule there should be no work on a holy day and all shall rest.  The Count wants to portray the importance and significance of religion; however, this proves to be hypocritical as a result of his actions the next day.  When the Count is making promises to the slaves, he does so to form temporary harmony with them.  This harmony is superficial because the Count doesn’t respect any of the slaves’ feelings.  If he had any respect for them, he would have told the Overseer that they didn’t have to work the next day.  The Count obviously did not feel committed to the words he spoke the night before.  On Good Friday the Overseer went to wake up all the slaves for work, but those who were at dinner with the Count contested that they were given permission to rest.  The Overseer was furious and threatened them to get up immediately, yet the slaves would not obey.  They were convinced that the Count was on their side and genuine in his words.

[7]    To their dismay the slaves soon found out that the Count had broken his promises and lied to them the night before.  When asked if the slaves could take the day off, the Count leaves the decision to the Overseer, knowing full well that they would have to work.  He does not recognize his inconsistencies in treatment of the slaves.  In his drunken stupor the Count tries to appease the slaves, but when he awakens he disregards what he previously said.  The Count is caught up in his role of Christ during dinner, causing him to do and say anything to create a friendship, but this turned out to be a farce.  His true identity is seen on Good Friday when he revokes all that he said.

The Pious Priest

[8]    The closest figure to God on the plantation is the priest.  “He complains about the overseer’s brutality, and his refusal to allow proper religious rights to the slaves.  This complaint reflects the long battle for control between the clergy and the plantation owners in this period” (Downing 289).  The Count and the priest both use the Bible to condone slavery, but they do it in different ways.  The Count lets the Overseer use brutality knowing that he will be punished by God later, whereas the priest isn’t against slavery -- he just wants the slaves to have more rights when it comes to religious practices.  The priest thinks slavery is acceptable, but he doesn’t think that unnecessary brutality is right.  He also thinks that, if the slaves are to follow the Christian teachings, they should be allowed to follow them fully.  Meaning, they should be able to take off on holy days that every white Christian would take off.  He thinks that these practices are vital to the growth of Christianity within the black community.  The Count, however, uses the Christian teachings for a different reason.  He thinks that it should be used to his advantage and according to his rules on the plantation.  Christianity to the Count means keeping his slaves in control, and Christianity to the priest is acknowledging the benefits of following the religion wholeheartedly.  There is a major difference in the two teachings, but both are still condoning slavery through the use of the Bible.

[9]    The most religious action of the priest was when he tried to stop Don Manuel from making the slaves work on Good Friday.  He thought that it was immoral and that it hindered their religious learning and their respect for Christianity.  He tried “to persuade the Count to limit the overseer’s violence and to allow the slaves their holy days for prayers” (Davis 63).  Don Manuel didn’t consider the priest's appeal to allow the slaves a day off.  Here the priest decided to go to the Count for support, and the Count turned him away, claiming that “the mill is the ‘overseer’s world’” (Davis 61).  The priest is very agitated but doesn’t have the power to stop the Overseer.  His religious beliefs do not get in the way of the Count’s control over the plantation.

The Revolt

[10]    Because of the Count’s betrayal, the slaves are forced to revolt.  They fight for what the Count told them was their right.  The slaves at the Last Supper meal believe the Count and are angered when they find out he lied.    The transition from slave-owner in control to slaves in control shows the power of Christianity and the Count’s teachings of the night before.  This revolt never would have happened had the Count not informed them that one shouldn’t work on a holy day.  The slaves learned about the religion and therefore had enough knowledge to use it against the Count and the Overseer.  This showed the Count to be even more contradictory because he was stopping them from practicing religion as he taught them to do.  He told them during the meal that they should obey their master in the eyes of God in order to get into heaven.  This was exactly what they were doing the next day, and the Count now said their actions were wrong.  The contradictory actions of the Count caused the slaves to be enraged, and they lost even a remote interest in Christianity.

[11]    As a result of this extreme fury, “Sebastian . . . led the slaves in an uprising, killing one of the overseer’s men and putting Don Manuel in the same wooden stocks in which he punishes slaves” (Davis 61).  The slaves run about with torches burning all parts of the sugarmill; they are determined to express their anger to the Count.  Sebastian wants revenge on Don Manuel for the cruel treatment he suffered.  He treats Don Manuel as Don Manuel would have treated a slave, beating him and confining him in the stocks.  Sebastian then kills the Overseer on Good Friday, at the very hour Christ had died.  This is significant because the religious Last Supper led to the crucifixion of Christ.  This relates to the revolt scene, because Don Manuel is put into a Christ-like position when he is killed.  The Count had not wanted this to happen, which is why he reenacted the Last Supper scene to begin with.  Just like Christ was betrayed by one of his disciples, the slaves he invited to his table betray the Count.  The difference here is that the Count lied to the slaves in the first place, whereas Christ never lied to his disciples.

[12]    When the Count hears of the revolt and sees the death of Don Manuel, “He orders his men to seek out the treacherous twelve slaves who had supped with him and to mount their heads on posts” (Davis 61).  On Easter Sunday the heads of the slaves are placed on the sticks, but there is one missing, that of Sebastian.  He was the strongest slave and the only one who escaped.  These heads were displayed just as Christ’s body was on the cross.  He kills his slaves for setting his plantation on fire and killing Don Manuel.  The Count will not accept upheaval from people he owns.  There has to be an example set for the rest of the slaves.  There are to be no further upheavals within the plantation.  It seems as if the Count completely forgot what he talked about with the slaves at dinner the night before.  He saw his economic value drop as a result of the revolt, and that is what is most important to him.

Conclusion

[13]    The Last Supper, by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, depicts a religious take on slavery. The Counts actions are “all in the name of Christ” (Downing 295).  He uses the Bible to condone slavery and specifically the Last Supper scene to convince the slaves to follow Christian rule.  This movie can be used as a source for the study of slavery in the Americas at the end of the eighteenth century.  There were many arguments over the Bible’s role in slavery, and for many years plantation owners and many other people thought it was alright.  This movie shows the Bible as condoning slavery and its significant role in the master’s control of the slaves.  Alea represents the struggle that slaves had with trusting their overseers and masters, basically that they couldn’t be trusted.  The Count tries to teach the slaves the Bible but fails because he is too caught up in the economics of his plantation.

Works Cited

Davis, Natalie Zemon.  Slaves on Screen.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.

Downing, John D. H.  “Four Films of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.”  Film & Politics in the Third  World.  Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1987.  279-301.

http://www.gospelcom.net/rbc/ds/q1109/q1109.html

http://www.Christian-thinktank.com/qnoslave.html
 
 

Copyright (c) 2001 by Charlene Aquilina and Marissa Williams, Undergraduates at Lehigh University.

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