The Other Conquest is a secret beauty of contemporary Mexican cinema, luckily released to us last year through a marketing blip spurred by the commercial success of Apocalypto. Immediately after watching the film, which I had been led to expect as a low-budget, “home-grown” retooling of Gibson’s pornographically post-Columbian chase flick, I quickly realized that Salvador Carrasco has been the victim of a seriously botched marketing campaign.
Far from an epic of “apocalyptic” conquest, The Other Conquest is a highly personal and subtle inquiry into the cultural clashes instantiated by colonialism which persist into contemporary Mexico. All in all, by making The Other Conquest more widely available, US distributors have done a great boon to the widening of international film horizons, and should be saluted.
The film, set in 1520, a year after Cortes’ military conquest of the Aztecs, explores two key relationships; the relationship between Aztec codex-keeper Topiltzin (Damián Delgado), and the Spanish Friar sent on mission to the New World (José Carlos Rodríguez), and to a lesser degree, the relationship between Hernando Cortes (local benevolent despot) and his lover Techuichpo, the daughter of the now-dead emperor Moctezuma. While the first half of the film depicts the violence of the cultural encounter, the second half of the film moves periodically into dream-like montages to represent Topiltzin’s inner religious struggle.
The more historically situated segment of the film is masterfully done, even on its shoestring budget. (Even though the film ended up one of the highest grossing feature films in Mexico, it was completely independently funded, and painstakingly shot over the course of six years.) During the initial movement of the Spaniards into the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, a mere handful of gruff and buffoonish soldiers confront an equally small band of Aztec worshippers. The massacre, which I think we are to understand sets in motion the entirety of Latin America’s history is not spectacularized, though it is brutal.
Long, slow shots depicting a nervous meeting between two alien parties captures a very human core to the confrontation. As one set blinks confusedly over the nude, ritually painted body of a recently sacrificed girl, the other set of bearded, fully armored conquistadors stand squirming and clanking. Each party is perfectly natural and yet fully aware of their appearance to the other.
During another particularly resonating moment of the film, the bronze breast-plated Capitán Cristóbal Quijano confronts a doe-eyed monk who has criticized his lack of piety and cooperation in the aim of conversion. The captain turns back and spits, “The only result of the Crusades has been that Muslim ideas entered the Christian world.” The resulting expression on the Friar’s face is priceless, and is one of many moments where actor Jose Carlos nails a portrait of well-intentioned and fragile piety thrown into confrontation that oozes of Conradian darkness.
“The other conquest” that occurs in a conquered state is, inevitably, the cultural conversion that follows military occupation. The film, appropriately, is released with a tagline that claims that we can only witness “a conversion that is never finished”. Topiltzin, as the historian keeping the Aztec’s beautifully illustrated codex-images, shoulders the burden of preserving an increasingly deformed culture, and perhaps becomes the vehicle for a literal exploration of an unfinished conversion. After a series of quelled rebellions, Topiltzin (renamed Tomas) is sent as prisoner to a Franciscan monastery to be converted by the ever-faithful Friar Diego.
As the narrative progresses, the film itself becomes a “codex” of images dominating this period of cultural formation, offering hallucinogenic cuts in and out of Topiltzin’s mind as he attempts to forge in the cracking smithy of his soul some hybrid of Catholic and Aztec religious symbolism. The slow, beautifully composed symbolist shots are particularly complemented by the original score by Samuel Zyman, Jorge Reyes and renowned vocalist Placido Domingo, though to be fair, the final meanings of the network of signs are elusive.
The Other Conquest, admittedly, is the work of a developing filmmaker. To my surprise, IMDB indicates that while he has been writing and is currently teaching, Carrassco’s only directing activity in the last ten years has been work on an episode of The Brothers Garcia. I find that immensely difficult to believe given this film’s brilliance. Anyone who watches the movie will likely agree that it would be a farce if Carrassco’s directing career were to stop there.