Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s ‘The Last Supper’ Feeds Your Mind with Ambiguity

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s The Last Supper has the wonderful ambiguity of the socialist-historical genre, which can be read differently by different viewers.

Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s The Last Supper is set on a sugar plantation in late 18th Century Cuba during the Easter Holy Week. In the first part, we glimpse the world of the plantation owned by a Count (Nelson Villagra), complete with his employees, overseers, and African slaves.

In the long, extraordinary middle section, the Count picks 12 slaves at random to share a feast with him in honor of the Last Supper, with himself as the benevolent Christ figure, to teach the slaves a lesson in the humility and grace of our Lord. The final section, inevitably, depicts a rebellion among the slaves, who had been promised a holiday and given a taste of equality and which must be put down in a brutal inversion of the outcome of the original Last Supper.

The 47-minute section at the supper table is its own mini-play, constructed as a theatrical set-piece but filmed fluidly and cinematically as a chamber symphony of close-ups and medium shots, with the camera now moving about to accompany one character or another delivering a kind of aria, or panning across the table to catch a detail of behavior or to follow a conversation. Despite the scene’s length, it compactly conveys the sense of a whole evening spent with food and, increasingly, wine, as tongues are loosened and various slaves talk about their backgrounds while the master delivers lectures and favors.

Stories are told, and after the Count falls into a doze, the slaves argue various points of philosophy among themselves. This is more than The Last Supper‘s centerpiece; it’s the main course, a distillation of the forces that drive the melodrama.

But there is that drama, and much of it is handled in the immediate, vital style of historical films from Eastern Europe, which are, without exception, the most fluid and immediate in cinema. It involves using a handheld camera that carries the viewer subjectively into the milling crowds. The camera is always active rather than a passive recorder, and always races along with people along paths, through doorways, across the forests with branches and bits of underbrush hitting against the camera’s “face”. The camera virtually wields a machete at one point to implicate the viewer in a revolutionary murder. It also involves using wide-angle lenses at strategic points to provide subjective effects of distortion, such as when the master wakes with a hangover the next morning in his room.

It’s relevant to bring up this “Iron Curtain” style of living history because, although Tomás Gutiérrez Alea was trained in Italy during the neo-realist 1950s, there was much fruitful cooperation between Cuban and Soviet film, most notably the production of Mikhail Kalatozov’s monumental I Am Cuba. It’s also relevant because of the wonderful ambiguity of the socialist-historical genre, which can be read differently by different viewers according to their own pre-conditioned politics.

Gutiérrez Alea usually made contemporary films that addressed problems of post-revolutionary society, such as Death of a Bureaucrat and the amazing Memories of Underdevelopment (essentially a counterpart to Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution), which easily can claim a place on the shortlist of great ’60s cinema and which I often consider among the 100 best of all time. But as the winds of change and exegesis blow, such topics risk falling out of favor.

On the other hand, historical subject matter is always safely in the unenlightened past, and although it can be presented in solidly Marxist terms of the struggle of the working classes against the oppression of capitalist power – there can be no more stark example than slavery – there’s a built-in auto-critique of any society whose leaders love the people and are prepared to decapitate them at any moment. Resistance is presented in safely historical terms, such that a wounded, determined slave with his machete can emblemize the historical struggle in a context that doesn’t draw official fire. Please note that in Hollywood, valorizations of violent uprisings most commonly occur in the context of Westerns or science fiction; no one ever goes to another planet without fomenting a revolution.

And please note also that such “subversive” readings needn’t necessarily be ascribed to Alea’s intentions, or at least not at the forefront of them. Yet he was certainly aware of his paradoxes. His films are paradoxical in that although they criticize and satirize the shortcomings of the Cuban revolution, he also believes in that revolution, at least in its potential. He often described his intentions in somewhat Brechtian terms as provoking the viewer in the new society to analysis and action. He says as much, for example, in the interview reprinted in the film notes, where he observes that this 1976 film extends in certain ways the historical-revolutionary subject matter of his earlier period film, Una Pelea Cubana Contra los Demonios (1972, A Cuban Fight Against Demons), which apparently hasn’t been widely seen outside Cuba.

An example of The Last Supper‘s ambiguity is that although the manifest moral of the film’s approach to organized religion, specifically the Catholic Church, is to expose the hypocrisy of those who use theology to reinforce class-based ideology, the film also turns out to be a serious examination of questions raised by the example of Christ, and there are several would-be, accidental and ironic Christ-figures in the movie.

The cover is graced with a quotation reducing Penelope Gilliatt’s New Yorker review into a typical elliptical blurb: “Dazzling . . . startlingly beautiful . . . like Rembrandt’s portraits.” Yes, the natural-light effects in night scenes, involving candles and lanterns amid the shadows, do evoke Rembrandt, but this print doesn’t show the film to best advantage.

It doesn’t seem to be restored, digitally or otherwise, nor from a negative, but rather has uneven color tones that vaccilate within and between shots, and there are even blotches and other flaws. It’s difficult to tell if the slight softness of image is deliberate. It’s certainly watchable and hardly a disaster, but something like this wouldn’t show up at Criterion.

One of the film’s pleasures is Leo Brouwer’s excellent score, which alternates the majestic, portentous, martial and lively.

RATING 7 / 10