Scene Analysis
The Mystical Transformation and Shamanic Initiation of Cabeza de Vaca

Paul Galante

with comments by Rosanny Bello, Lauren Eisner, and Timothy Guida

(see film clip)

[1]  The film Cabeza de Vaca, according to director Nicolas Echevarria, is a depiction of "the creation of a new man--a man who is not European, who is not Indian, who is right in the middle" (Della Flora H2). Echevarria says that a central element in his film, which is based on Cabeza de Vaca's written account of his experiences in the sixteenth century American wilderness from 1528 to 1536, is a portrayal of the forces that "turned him [Cabeza de Vaca] into a mystic" (Della Flora H2). According to Echevarria, "this is the main story of the film, the transformation of this man" (Della Flora H2). The film portrays not only Cabeza de Vaca's initial contact with alien native cultures but his connection with a mystical force that results in his initiation into shamanism and spiritual bonding with the native people.  A crucial scene in the film which depicts the mystical transformation and shamanic initiation of Cabeza de Vaca occurs about midway through the film (0:44:28), when he assists his shaman captor in the ritualistic healing of a wounded native's eye.  During this scene, Cabeza de Vaca is depicted as experiencing a direct, profound spiritual experience.  He is overpowered by a spiritual force that both transcends and unites the underlying spiritual reality of Christian and Native religions.  Cabeza de Vaca enters the village as a slave to his native captors, but after this mystical experience and demonstration of healing power, he leaves the village as a free man with shamanic authority.

[2]  Echevarria's film is short on dialogue and narrative but emphasizes in powerful visual imagery the contact between Spanish conquistadors and indigenous peoples. Cabeza de Vaca's written narrative account, Relacion, is the basis of Echevarria and Guillermo Sheridan's screenplay, but the events of the narrative are compressed into a series of scenes that never operate from a strictly chronological or linear narrative. The overall structure of the film is circular, beginning and ending in 1536, and telling Cabeza de Vaca's eight-year journey through the American wilderness in a flashback to 1528 and a series of scenes that largely compress the original story. The film offers the viewer a powerful sense of the psychic dislocation of contact with an alien culture that Cabeza deVaca experiences and his deepening assimilation and identification with native culture.  Most of the depiction of Cabeza de Vaca's eight-year sojourn among native tribes as slave, servant, and shaman is told in visual terms rather than dialogue or narrative. The mystical connection and shamanic initiation scene which I will examine contains very little dialogue but powerful imagery that dramatically portrays the transformation of Cabeza de Vaca from captive servant to free shaman.

[3] Earlier in the film, Cabeza de Vaca is captured by natives and enslaved by a tribal shaman and the armless dwarf Malacosa after the surviving remnants of the lost Narvaez expeditionary force, lands by raft on Galveston Island. After a period of humiliation, slave labor in service to Malacosa and the shaman, an attempted escape, and a total psychic breakdown, Cabeza de Vaca appears to bond with his captors and functions as more of a servant than slave. He accompanies the shaman and Malacosa to a lakeside location, where the shaman begins a ritual that involves chanting and the drawing of a huge figure of a man in an outline of chalk near the water's edge (0:35:24). Cabeza de Vaca watches the shaman very closely and reveals in his facial expression a growing awareness of something which obviously perplexes him.  He touches each of his hands, seemingly aware that he senses in his hands the spiritual powers that the shaman is evoking in the shamanic ritual.  The camera focuses on Cabeza de Vaca's momentary perplexity as light-filled smoke swirls lightly around his head.  It appears as though he is having a precognition of mystical awareness.

[4]  Cabeza de Vaca and Malacosa watch the shaman complete his ritual by stabbing the eye of the giant chalk figure. In the next moment a native is seen rising from the water in another part of the wilderness screaming in agony and holding his eye. Cabeza de Vaca, Malacosa, and the shaman watch as the wounded man staggers to his village in extreme pain.  Evidently, the shamanic ritual induces the injury. The reason for the shaman's ritualistic infliction of the eye injury on this man is never made clear in the film, but it appears to provide a pretext for the subsequent healing ritual of the man by the shaman.

[5]  As the man screams in agony and is lead into his hut by four women who attempt to relieve his suffering, the film flashes back and forth between the suffering native, whose eye seems to have sustained a traumatic injury, and another shamanic ritual (0:40:05). The shaman, Cabeza de Vaca, and Malacosa sit around a fire over which a brewing pot is suspended, as the shaman chants and dangles a small skull over the pot. Cabeza de Vaca watches with great openness and curiosity. The shaman draws a potion from the pot in a small cup (possibly peyote), drinks a little, gives it to Malacosa who takes a small sip, and offers the cup to Cabeza de Vaca. Cabeza de Vaca hesitates briefly, but takes it, cups his hands over the potion in a posture of prayer, closes his eyes, and slowly and reverently drinks deeply. The scene is portrayed as a type of communion ritual between Cabeza de Vaca, the shaman, and Malacosa (comment by Lauren Eisner). Cabeza de Vaca daubs his hair with streaks of mud and looks upward into a light source that illuminates the top of his head as light-filled smoke swirls around him--a reoccurring image in the film that indicates a spiritual presence. Cabeza de Vaca appears slightly dazed and puzzled, as though he senses something.  The sound of the shaman's ritualistic calabaza is heard in the background, linking Cabeza de Vaca's dawning awareness with the beginning of the shamanic healing ritual.

[6]  Cabeza de Vaca and Malacosa enter the village following the shaman who is shaking the calabaza(0:44:28).  In his Relacion, Cabeza de Vaca notes that the calabaza or "hollow gourd with pebbles in them" is a sign of "great solemnity that is used for healing ceremonies" (92). The camera follows the trio and the villagers as they march in a circle around the hut of the wounded man. The shaman offers an invocation, hurls red dust over the doorway, and enters the hut.  The native women touch Cabeza de Vaca, who appears dazed and distracted, as though he is a being that they have never seen before.  He appears to be in the first stages of a trance.  Cabeza de Vaca slowly enters the hut. A low camera angle emphasizes the smoke and slant of sunlight from above that cuts across his head, indicating again the presence of a spiritual power. The shaman orders Cabeza de Vaca to assist him in the healing ritual and gives Cabeza de Vaca his medicine bundle to unpack. Cabeza de Vaca unpacks the bundle, seemingly aware of the significance of the items inside. This indicates that he has witnessed or assisted in a healing ritual before this occasion. The camera stays focused on the shaman, Malacosa, and Cabeza de Vaca, who hovers in great curiosity over the wounded man who lies in agony on the floor of the hut. Cabeza de Vaca hands the shaman a bamboo breathing tube.  The shaman begins the ritual by blowing through the tube over the man's body, while natives circling the inside of the hut begin a chant. The central figure in the scene is Cabeza de Vaca, who seems to be reacting inwardly to the ritual.

[7]  The camera angle shifts to a bird's-eye view looking down on the ritual from above.  There is a clear sense that this new perspective signals the entrance of a spiritual force or spirit into the scene.  Cabeza de Vaca seems to be contorting in reaction to the new presence. He is reaching or trying to grasp something with his right hand over his back as he crouches over the wounded man, clearly sensing a force that is affecting or possessing his body. The camera shifts back to a low angle and focuses on Cabeza de Vaca as the shaman stops his ritual and stares at Cabeza de Vaca in amazement. The background music slowly swells as Cabeza de Vaca is obviously shaken by an unseen power.  His hand is moved by an invisible source slowly towards the wounded man, and he convulses in a trance-like state as he lays his hand on the man's eye. Cabeza de Vaca appears utterly dazed, and the shaman continues to stare at him in utter amazement. The shaman and Cabeza de Vaca's reactions indicate that this spiritual moment of power is a complete surprise.

[8] Shamans are often initiated into shamanism unexpectedly.  The authors of The Sacred, which examines Native American religious practices, suggest that "usually the most powerful shamans are individuals who are forced by illness, a compelling dream or vision, or some other need to become shamans whether they want to or not," and that "at first, the individual does not understand what is happening" (97). A shaman is a person who "uses a direct approach to experiencing the mysteries of life" (97).  In this scene, Cabeza de Vaca is experiencing a direct, unexpected, and mysterious spiritual intervention into his life.

[9]  Cabeza de Vaca is clearly in an altered state of consciousness and under the influence of a powerful spiritual force as he staggers backward from the man on whom he has laid his hand. The shaman continues to stare at him. A transformation seems to be taking place as Cabeza de Vaca staggers in a circle. The camera angle is low as light-filled smoke swirls all around him. Cabeza de Vaca slowly rises spreading his arms out like a giant bird flapping his wings in slow motion.  As he rises, his posture momentarily appears to resemble the outstretched arms and crossed legs of Christ on the cross. He appears to be perplexed as he rises in the illuminated smoke like a phoenix rising from the ashes--a symbol of resurrection (comment by Rosanny Bello). The mingled image of the crucified Christ and rising bird indicates the syncretism of shamanic spirit possession (often by animal or bird spirits) and the redemptive spiritual power of the crucified Christ. Throughout the rest of the movie and in Cabeza de Vaca's historical narrative account, Cabeza de Vaca's shamanic healing work involves a mix of Christian and Native symbols and rituals (comment by Timothy Guida). In his review of Cabeza de Vaca, David Denby suggests that "it's hard not to feel that in this intermingling of Christian and Indian religions . . . there lies some clue to the modern Latin consciousness" (59). This notion is a central concern of filmmaker Echevarria, who claims to be depicting in the movie both the transformation of Cabeza de Vaca "into a mystic" and "the creation of a new man" (Della Flora H2).

[10]  Cabeza de Vaca's profound disorientation from this unexpected mystical experience is emphasized in the scene as he begins to spin and careen like a drunken man, while natives rhythmically strike the sides of the hut. The camera slowly pans upward in a circle as Cabeza de Vaca swings from two vines near the hut door, bellowing like a monkey--another allusion to shamanic spirit possession.  He staggers in jerky, birdlike circular movements, obviously under the influence of a powerful spiritual force. Cabeza de Vaca gazes upward as the camera focuses on the smoky intense illumination of sunlight pouring through the hole in the roof. The camera spins in a dizzying evocation of Cabeza de Vaca's inner state. The light-filled hole in the roof is an image of the center of the spiritual cosmos, the axis mundi, from which Cabeza de Vaca seems to be receiving divine healing power. Cabeza stands immersed in smoke filled light, hands raised, looking upward, and slowly circling in tune with the swirling cosmic center. The scene ends with Cabeza de Vaca collapsing on the floor of the hut, as though the powerful force has let go of its hold on him.

[11]   The wounded man is completely healed after Cabeza de Vaca lays his hand on him. The shaman, who has watched over Cabeza de Vaca as he lay in exhaustion after the healing, initiates Cabeza de Vaca into shamanism (0:48:42). He paints a red mark in the middle of Cabeza de Vaca's forehead marking him as a shaman, and places the crucifix, which he had taken from Cabeza de Vaca earlier in the film, around Cabeza de Vaca's neck.  The crucifix is decorated with feathers-- another image that mixes native and Christian symbols of spiritual power. The shaman (who until now has only spoken to Cabeza de Vaca by giving orders) communicates directly with Cabeza de Vaca. As he places the crucifix on Cabeza de Vaca's neck, Cabeza de Vaca touches the shaman's hands. The shaman says in Spanish, "Hands. My hands." Cabeza de Vaca replies, "My hands." This verbal exchange indicates that the shaman identifies the healing power in Cabeza de Vaca's hands as evidence of Cabeza de Vaca's shamanic authority. Cabeza de Vaca raises the crucifix to his lips, closes his eyes, and kisses the crucifix.

[12]  Director Echevarria and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro are clearly evoking a profound but disorienting moment in Cabeza de Vaca's life when he is dramatically initiated into shamanism through a direct spiritual experience, which is marked by both Christian and native symbolism. The outcome of Cabeza de Vaca's spiritual experience is freedom from his native captors and a deeper sense of humanity in his soul for natives. This scene, however, is completely invented by Echevarria and fellow screenwriter Guillermo Sheridan, but is based on Cabeza de Vaca's own references to his shamanic healing activities in Relacion. The movie emphasizes mystical elements of Cabeza de Vaca's initiation into shamanism that are absent in the historical account. There is no specific record of a singular, profound mystical experience that transformed Cabeza de Vaca's inner world and outer experience among the native tribes. The historical Cabeza de Vaca, however, does become a healer and a shaman and evidences an interest in the general welfare of the indigenous tribes in his appeal to the Spanish crown for tolerant policy towards the natives in his narrative account.

[13] The film offers a representation of Cabeza de Vaca as a man who is profoundly transformed by his sojourn in the American wilderness from Spanish conquistador to a completely new "New World" identity forged by his mystical bonds with the native peoples. There is also a strong sense that his wilderness experience has altered his view of spirituality, from a restrictive culturally constructed religion to a unifying, transcendent mystical spiritual reality.  In an essay about the trends in contemporary Mexican films, David Maciel suggests that Cabeza de Vaca, along with other Mexican films from 1985 to 1992, "glorifies the indigenous heritage and condemns its Spanish legacy" (39).  Maciel describes Echevarria's Cabeza de Vaca as a film which "offers a revisionist view of the conquest and the colonial legacy of Spain in Mexico, attempting to sensitively portray the perspective and world vision of the indigenous people" (39). The mystical connection scene in Cabeza de Vaca, which is an important moment in the creation of his syncretistic Spanish / Native new world identity, suggests that Mexican identity is not merely a result of physical, cultural, and social elements but involves what Joanne Hershfield calls "a transformation of consciousness on both sides of difference" (16).  The scene portrays a spiritual union marked by both Christian and native religious symbolism.

[14] The portrayal of Cabeza de Vaca's discovery of a transcendent spiritual unity with the natives disrupts the traditional notion of the discovery and conquest of America by Spanish conquistadors.  It is a portrayal of a profound moment of alien contact, not only between a European and indigenous tribes but between a human and transcendent spiritual reality. Cabeza de Vaca in his wilderness experience merges his old world European Christian identity with native culture and transcendent spiritual reality.  Cabeza de Vaca depicts the moment of contact, connection, and ultimately, as filmmaker Echevarria suggests, "the creation of a new man" (Della Flora H2).

Works Cited

Beck, Peggy, Nia Francisco, and Anna Lee Walters. The Sacred.  Tsaile: Navajo Community
College P, 1995.

Della Flora, Anthony.  "Film Follows Life of Cabeza de Vaca." Albuquerque Journal 14 June 1998: H2.

Denby, David.  Rev. of Cabeza de Vaca. New York 8 June 1992: 59.

Hershfield, Joanne.  "Assimilation and Identification in Nicolas Echevarria's Cabeza de Vaca."
Wide Angle 16 (1995): 7-24.

Maciel, David R.  "El Imperio de la Fortuna: Mexico's Contemporary Cinema, 1985-1992.  The Mexican Cinema Project.  Ed. Chon A. Noriega and Stephen Ricci.  Austin: U of Texas P, 1994.  33-44.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Paul Galante, Graduate Student at Lehigh University.

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