Reviewers of Nicolas Echevarria's Cabeza de Vaca offer a broad range of opinions about the film's merits or deficiencies. Most reviewers note that the film contains powerful visual imagery and compelling evocations of Native cultures. But there is a decided lack of consensus about the film's merits as an accurate representation of Cabeza de Vaca's original narrative of his eight-year sojourn in the American South and Southwest. Several reviewers criticize the film's slow pace and the acting of Juan Diego who plays Cabeza de Vaca, claiming that Diego tends to overact. The main critique about the movie by the critics who note disappointment about the film's depiction of the historical subject is that the film fails to offer little narrative at all compared to the rich narrative of Cabeza de Vaca's original work. The cinematic evocation of Cabeza de Vaca's profound sense of psychic dislocation during his captivity by natives draws a positive response from most of the critics. Most note that Cabeza de Vaca is director Echevarria's first feature film and reflects his past work in Mexico as a ethnological documentary film-maker. The emphasis on native mysticism in the film draws praise from many reviewers, as well as Echevarria's detailed depiction of exotic, alien natives and shamanic rituals. Several critics, however, take issue with what they claim is the film's underlying "politically correct" pro-native / anti-Spanish imperialism message. The overall sentiment is that Cabeza de Vaca is an uneven but highly compelling film.
Arnold, William. "Foreign Adventure Movies Leave Much to Be Explored." Seattle Post-Intelligencer 14 August 1992: 11.
Arnold offers a negative review of the film. He suggests that the movie is based on a compelling historical premise, but is an overall exercise in tedium for the viewer. Arnold's main critique is that the film fails to develop Cabeza de Vaca "as a fascinating character." The reviewer says that director Echevarria lacks the necessary storytelling and visual skills to create a compelling cinematic experience.
Billings, Thomas. Rev. of Cabeza de Vaca. Internet Movie Data Base. 1997. <http://us.imdb.com/Reviews/09/0997> (31 January 2000).
Billings's review traces briefly the historical background to the film and notes that it is the first feature film of director Nicolas Echevarria. Billings says that the film is noteworthy for its depiction of Native American culture but suggests that the film has several major flaws which detract from the over-all story. He points out abrupt editing and "huge gaps in the story" as the main weaknesses of the film. Billings concludes that the film has interesting qualities but lacks entertainment value for the viewer.
Canby, Vincent. "On the Road with Cabeza de Vaca." The New York Times 23 March 1991: C12.
Canby offers a mixed review of Echevarria's film. Canby describes the film as "sometimes straightforward, sometimes pageantlike, and sometimes hallucinatory." He suggests that the film would be best appreciated by those who are familiar with Cabeza de Vaca's original story, but concludes that the film is not difficult to follow. Canby points out that a central issue in the film is the depiction of a man who "learns to appreciate the sustaining mysticism of a culture" that the Spanish conquistadors "have sworn to wipe out." Echevarria's previous experience as a documentary filmmaker is noted by Canby, who notes that the film is most effective when it "observes people and events at an impartial remove." Canby ends his review by suggesting that despite actor Juan Diego's attempts at capturing Cabeza de Vaca's state of mind, he "remains an unknown and chilly character."
Carr, Jay. Rev. of Cabeza de Vaca. The Boston Globe 21 September 1992: 32.
Carr, in a highly favorable review, calls the film "one of the great anti-imperialistic epics." He compares the film to the "silly Columbus movies that have come and gone," and suggests that unlike the two 1992 movies 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, director Echevarria's film evokes powerfully the sense of terror and wonder that the Spanish conquistadors must have felt seeing "the New World" for the first time. The film is not only "politically correct" but also "artistically correct." The film not only captures the mystery and profound sense of "dislocation" that Cabeza de Vaca felt, but also emphasizes the tragic outcome in the New World as a result of "the irreversible European presence." Carr concludes by saying that the film "has greatness in it."
Denby, David. Rev. of Cabeza de Vaca. New York 8 June 1992: 59.
Denby, in his mixed review of the film, states that the movie is "a mix of brilliant scenes and maddening boredom." He notes that director Echevarria captures cinematically "the bewildering strangeness" of a European's contact with an alien culture. Denby suggests that the film's confusing moments are possibly designed to reproduce the bafflement of Cabeza de Vaca during his eight-year sojourn in the wilderness. The reviewer asserts that the film's depiction of the "intermingling of Christian and Indian religions" may hold "some clue to the modern Latin American consciousness."
Fernandez, Enrique. Rev. of Cabeza de Vaca. Village Voice 26 May 1992: 72.
Fernandez expresses his overall disappointment with the film by suggesting that the original historical narrative of Cabeza de Vaca is "one of the greatest stories of all time," and the film version offers "few attempts at narrative." The reviewer says that it should have been a great film "because it's based on an awe-inspiring story" but fails to deliver much story at all. Fernandez cites the fact that the film also has little dialogue, and the acting is "exaggerated and unfocused." The movie seems to have been well researched and contains some powerful images but "spends all its energies" on the protagonist's psychic transformation. Fernandez claims the film needs some "Western realism for grounding," in order to "string the psychedelic experiences along." The reviewer concludes that the film has a "noble intention" but leaves the viewer with "a frustrated desire to see a richer film."
Grenier, Richard. "Politically Correct Conquistador." The Washington Times 16 May 1991: G4.
Grenier offer a very sarcastic review of the movie, noting that with the release of the film "political correctness has arrived in a big way in Mexico." He points to the historical narrative on which the film is based and notes that while Cabeza de Vaca's original text depicts "the miserable poverty" of Indians, Echevarria's film is full of "sumptuous rituals and dances" straight out of "coffee-table books." The reviewer says that a choreographer is included in the film credits and claims that the film leaves viewers wondering "how Cabeza de Vaca could bear to leave his coffee-table Indians in this choreographed paradise" and return to Spain. He concludes by saying that the "political correctness in the shape of this movie" is "driving me nuts."
Guthmann, Edward. "Mystical Film of Spanish Explorer's Trek." The San Francisco Chronicle 10 July 1992: D5.
In a mixed review, Guthmann applauds the lush look and recreations of native culture in the film but offers the complaint that the pace of the movie is too slow and that the actors tend to overact. He is especially critical of Juan Diego who plays Cabeza de Vaca in the movie, claiming that Diego "overacts like an opera diva playing to the second balcony." Guthmann says that the film is "short on words and long on spectacle" and lauds Echevarria's efforts to depict the mystical traditions of the North American natives. He also notes that the final scene in the movie of a giant cross carried by Indian slaves across the desert is a powerful symbolic evocation of the "imminent genocide" of "hundreds of indigenous" cultures and tribes in North America after the European conquests.
Kempley, Rita. "Cabeza de Vaca : An Explorer's Self-Discovery." The Washington Post 20 November 1992: C7.
A positive review emphasizing the film as "a good yarn" which portrays "how many things you can do with mud." Kempley points out that the film demonstrates director Echevarria's interest in the mystical rites and ritual of Native American tribes. Actor Juan Diego plays Cabeza de Vaca with "a loony passion," which translates on film into a good enactment of the protagonist's "bizarre enlightenment." The film's underlying intention is to portray the victimization of New world natives by "greedy, cross-kissing Euro-savages," but she lauds Echevarria's ability to create a "living diorama" of tribal life filled with "rich and varied details."
Tallmer, Jerry. Rev. of Cabeza de Vaca. New York Post 15 May 1992: 32.
Tallmer begins his mixed review of the film by noting that the movie's ending of a gigantic cross "as big as the Waldorf" carried across a desert by native slaves "brings out the fabulous in cinematic imagery." Tallmer, however, complains that the movie's pace is excruciatingly slow, despite the powerful cinematic images that appear throughout the film. After recounting some historical facts about the real Cabeza de Vaca, Tallmer claims that the film turns Cabeza de Vaca into a saint-like "anti conquistador" who is portrayed "pretty creepy" by actor Juan Diego. He also notes that the film is choppy at times and lacks a "rudimentary continuity." Tallmer ends his review by again noting the powerful final image of the film.
Thomas, Kevin. "Mysticism and Wonder Prevail in Cabeza de Vaca." Los Angeles Times 3 July 1992: F17.
Thomas's review is overwhelmingly positive. He calls the film "a bold, stunning feat of the imagination that transports us to another world." Thomas notes that the film, however, makes more demands on the viewer's attention than most films but rewards the audience with "fresh meanings with each viewing." He is particularly impressed with the films evocation of Cabeza de Vaca's "nightmarish sense of dislocation" during his eight-year wanderings through the American Southwest. Thomas notes that the film successfully portrays the native shaman's profound mystical links with nature, which Cabeza de Vaca taps into in the film. The reviewer also praises the work of cinematographer Guillermo Navarro's ability to capture on film "limitless vistas of unspoiled nature."
Hartl, John. "Voyage of Discovery." The Seattle Times 14 August 1992: 20.
Jackson, Kevin. Rev. of Cabeza de Vaca. The Independent 13 September 1991: 16.
Seymour, Gene. Rev. of Cabeza de Vaca. Newsday 15 May 1992: 72.
Strauss, Bob. "Cabeza de Vaca Focuses on the Sensational." Minneapolis Star Tribune 14 August 1992: E2.
Taylor, Noel. "Spaniard Meets Indian in Powerful Drama." The Ottawa Citizen 12 May 1992: D10.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Paul Galante, Graduate Student at Lehigh University.
This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of the U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.