Political Film Society - Newsletter #71 - May 1, 2000

May 1, 2000


Credits at the end of the Mexican film The Other Conquest (La Otra Conquista) tell us that the movie is about events during the first years of the Spanish conquest of México -- from the arrival of Don Hernán Cortés (1519) to the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe (1531). Written and directed by Salvador Carrasco, The Other Conquest is an epic film in Spanish and the Aztec language of Náhuatl, with the following tagline:

An encounter that is not forgotten.
A conversion that is never finished.
The spirit of a people transcends any conquest.
The spirit of a people can never be conquered.

The film deals with the two forms of conquest by the Spaniards in attempting to subjugate the Aztecs -- the physical conquest completed in 1521, in which eight million lives were lost (some through butchery but most by succumbing to diseases brought by the Spanish), and the spiritual conquest, in which the Spanish succeeded in "converting" nine million Aztecs to Christianity within two decades. The movie opens with the death of an old man in Spain clutching a Bible, evidently ambivalent about something; the man is Fray Diego de La Coruña (played by Tomás José Carlos Rodríguez), who tried to convert the most brilliant of the Aztec priests to Christianity. (Here the film refers to a document placed in the Bible known as the Valeriano Relation, written in 1560 by Nicán Mopohua, who was renamed Antonio Valeriano by the Spanish, to record the events surrounding the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe.) The film next focuses on the Spanish conquest led by Cortés (played by Iñaki Aierra), who overwhelms the Aztecs while they are engaging in the ritual of human sacrifice at the capital of Tenochtitlán. Soon, Topiltzin (played by Damián Delgado), an Aztec scribe, is being flogged because of his defiance of the Spanish.

Aztec princess Tecuichpo (played by Elpidia Carrillo), whom Cortés has renamed Doña Isabel, pleads for mercy for Topiltzin, but Cortés not only forces himself on her sexually but also insists on the brutal flogging, first with a whip and later with a chain. The Aztec, however, does not cry out, as he perceives that the eye in the icon of the Virgin has miraculously blocked his pain and healed his wounds. Topiltzin is then transferred to a monastery, where Friar Diego attempts to convert him to Christianity and to accept the Spanish name of Tomás. Topiltzin represents the primordial Mexican (as it was Quauhtlatoatzin who saw the Virgin of Guadalupe and insisted that a Catholic church be constructed over the ruins of the Aztec religious shrine). He then engages in a theological debate with Friar Diego, resembling a very simplified version of The Disputation (1986), a television movie featuring a dialog between a Christian theologian and a Jewish theologian in Spain during the 1200s. Topiltzin, however, commits only his body to the Virgin, as he insists on keeping his mind free. Nevertheless, Topiltzin's desire to hug the life-size Virgin icon becomes such an obsession that he is first denied access and later dies when able to do so. Before Topiltzin dies, however, he evidently convinces Friar Diego that there is a higher God than the God of Christianity, as the Friar's last words in Spain are that he will go to the place where all souls (thus not necessarily only Christians) go. The film has many epigrammatic lines, a film score with Aztec music, and much symbolism. The film clearly celebrates the survival of the pure Náhuatls after more than 400 years, though the cinematography features Tenayuca in Mexico City and Xochicalco in Morelos. Through the resistance of Topiltzin, we can better understand why the politics of México has been so anti-clerical although most Mexicans are Catholics. La Otra Conquista, which was first released in México during 1999, began its run in Los Angeles on April 19, 2000. The film truly inspires pride in being Mexican. MH