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This summer begins with one of the most exciting repertory series Film Forum has programmed in ages, a welcome respite from the conventional art cinema canon. The Hour of Liberation: Decolonizing Cinema, 1966-1981 assembles essential works of political filmmaking from countries that were once referred to as the “Third World.” From Palestine to the Philippines, the series takes an internationalist approach to its exploration of liberation movements, historical revolutions, and the worldwide struggle against oppression and empire. Though some entries are staples of New York’s repertory scene, many are rarely screened, and all are deserving of your time.
One of the most under-seen films in the program is Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s The Last Supper. A Cuban filmmaker, Gutiérrez Alea is best known to Western cinephiles for Memories of Underdevelopment (also playing in the series), which was recently added to the Criterion Collection. Underdevelopment is a milestone of Cuban cinema, but it also fits snugly within the niche that Criterion and Janus Films cater to their consumers. With its verging-on-vérité cinematography, elliptical editing style, and constant interior monologue, it matches the aesthetic parameters of the French New Wave and other modernist film movements. That sensibility is absent in The Last Supper, which instead features a quieter, almost classical style. It has an immense historical sweep and a grand period aesthetic that might confound your expectations of “decolonized” cinema. It looks like a Hollywood-style historical epic (a genre that has advanced the aims of imperialism like few others), but the film’s surrealism disarms any sense of convention.
It’s Easter Weekend in Cuba in the 1790s. A Spanish count is celebrated for his devotion to the faith, and sincerely believes he is a benevolent slave master. Hoping to spread the word to the slaves who work his plantation, he invites 12 of them to join him on Maundy Thursday for a recreation of the Last Supper. In an extended sequence that comprises the middle third of the film, the Count listens to the stories of his slaves for the first time. Gutiérrez Alea’s camera slowly tracks the weary faces of these men, skeptical of the good tidings their master claims to bring. As the Count consumes more wine, the guilt all colonialists must suppress or delude themselves out of feeling begins to creep in. When the evening comes to an end, he promises the slaves that they won’t have to work on Good Friday and emancipates an elderly man — a small penance to make his shame subside.
A painful hangover comes the next morning. As he does every dawn, the taskmaster furiously rings his bell, unaware of the master’s promise. When awakened, the now-sober Count reneges on his offer. He wants his slaves to work, and he refuses to let the old man go free. The myth of the “kind master” is fully shattered; benevolence is not part of the equation when the ownership of human beings is at hand. Before the Count has a chance to say his morning prayers, the plantation is overrun by a rebellion triggered by his feigned attempt at Christian charity. The film’s last act is a tragic free fall as the inevitable executions are carried out one by one. The plantation’s priest instructs the remaining slaves to raise a cross. As the camera pulls back, we see the symbol of Christ take its place among a series of spikes, each bearing the head of a man who dared ask for the day of rest the Good Book says they are owed. The force of Gutiérrez Alea’s anti-colonialist argument comes from ironic juxtaposition — the Count’s drunken stupor set against the tableau of the Last Supper, or the island’s lush forests poisoned by the gospel of gun smoke and genocide.
In this series of subtle contrasts, the film peels back the myths which to this day excuse away the European colonial project. There are no kind masters, no saints among the owner class. Gutiérrez Alea has an intense compassion for the enslaved men fighting for a small piece of what they’re owed, and there’s a righteous anger as well. The Count speaks of “humbling” himself before his slaves, but the cross he hopes to join them under is just another means of control, the promises of salvation just another shackle. Because of his devotion to a dogma that preaches brotherly love, the Count believes that he’s doing these men a favor, maybe even saving their souls. But the only beneficiaries are his own coffers and the Spanish crown, and the only thing saved is another gold doubloon.
Perhaps even more than Gutiérrez Alea’s earlier work, the vast scale and historical resonance of The Last Supper express the rich possibilities of cinema freed from the demands of empire and industry. The various films and filmmakers featured in Decolonizing Cinema, 1966-1981 are united across borders and cultural boundaries in their struggle to reveal suppressed history, challenge Western aesthetic conventions, and call viewers to arms. The vary from the steady classicism of The Last Supper to the almost Borat-like absurdism of future Herzog protege Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare, from Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo’s vibrant musical epic West Indies to the overwhelming Argentine agitprop of The Hour of Furnaces. In every case, the motivating desire is the same: the true and total liberation for all people.
The Hour of Liberation: Decolonizing Cinema, 1966-1981 is playing at Film Forum (209 West Houston St, New York) through June 13. The Last Supper screens June 11.