Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Cabeza de Vaca (1991) >> Scene Analysis >>

The Mingling of Two Cultures, The Rebirth of Two Men

By Rosanny Bello, with comment by Kim Weber

[1] In the 1991 film Cabeza de Vaca, Director Nicolas Echevarria recounts the story of a man on a journey of spiritual transformation. Cabeza de Vaca, taken captive by the native tribe, finds himself influenced by their spiritual tradition and the power of shamanism. On his travels along the path of further spiritual conversion, Cabeza de Vaca later finds himself trying to heal Ariano (or Cascabel), a young Indian man who has been wounded by one of the women of a hostile cannibal tribe. In this scene Echevarria shows how through his healing practice as a shaman, Cabeza de Vaca forms a bond with the Indians. At the same time, however, Echevarria exposes how Cabeza de Vaca's Christianity still plays a major role in his life despite his new-found beliefs.

[2] Standing over Ariano's body, Cabeza de Vaca puts his hands together and looks up at the sky as if in traditional Christian prayer. He is seen making this same gesture throughout the movie (in the scene in which he resurrects the dead woman, for instance), suggesting that his beliefs are still deeply rooted in reverence to the Christian God. He then proceeds to submerge Ariano's body into the water, "presenting an image reminiscent of Christian baptism" (Ebel 93). Not only, then, does he bring the near-dead Ariano a physical healing but also spiritual salvation as well, which is what many Europeans felt was their role in the New World.

[3] Following the recovery of Ariano, Cabeza de Vaca is brought to Ariano's village, where members of the tribe surround him, as if paying reverence to the gifted healer. Cabeza de Vaca, says Mark Ebel, "comes to see the Indians as his brothers. He heals them, travels with them, speaks to them in their language" (96). This connection with the people presents Cabeza de Vaca almost as a Christ-like figure. The Gospels tell about Jesus' travels, in which He was always being surrounded by mobs of people who witnessed the miracles He had performed, the way Cabeza de Vaca is portrayed in this scene.

[4] Is Echevarria trying to portray a view of Christianity as superior to the Indians' belief in shamanism by showing its consistent influence on Cabeza de Vaca? Or is he trying to fuse the two traditions together, revealing the possibility of bringing these two cultures to a common ground, bringing together "people from different cultures [as] part of a brotherhood of man" (Ebel 95)? The latter is the more likely answer.

[5] After Cabeza de Vaca's initiation into shamanism (00:48:42), the shaman puts the cross, now covered with feathers, around his neck, showing a merging of the two cultures. When Cabeza de Vaca attempts to heal Ariano, he says, "en la vida de ese indio va la nuestra" [in the life of this Indian is our own] (Ebel 93), something that would be expected from a shaman, but perhaps not a Christian. Echevarria shows in this way that both the shaman belief in the common spirit of man and the Christian baptism revive Ariano and, in the spiritual connection, Cabeza de Vaca as well. His words alone show how Cabeza de Vaca feels that, although culturally different from this young man, all man is the same in spirit. (see comment by Kim Weber)


Kim Weber 2/21/12

I would have to respectfully disagree with Bello’s reading of this scene. I found Echevarria’s emphasis on Cabeza de Vaca’s Christianity to be completely downplayed throughout this scene and for the majority of the film. Cabeza de Vaca’s cross necklace is taken soon after he encounters the shamans, and he begins to take on more and more physical characteristics of the shamans (body paint, dress) as he spends time with them. The times that Cabeza de Vaca is “praying” (or what a viewer might assume is praying), the film does not translate with subtitles what the actor is saying, which seems to be significant since most of the rest of the film is translated. To me, this is Echevarria’s way of downplaying the praying because the viewer is forced to infer that that is what Cabeza de Vaca is actually doing. Cabeza de Vaca is healing in this scene, and he looks like the shamans. The viewer is unsure what he is saying when he is “praying” (and we certainly can’t assume the natives understand this at all, either), and he is respectful of the shamanistic traditions as he goes through his healing process. I don’t necessarily see the lauding of Christianity that Bello considers, especially when this scene is considered in the larger scope of the overall suppression of Cabeza de Vaca’s Christianity throughout the rest of the film.