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

Really for the Reel?

By Megan Snyder, with comments by Jaclyn Ulman and Kelsey Cannon

[1] In his Relacion, Cabeza de Vaca charts his transformation from conquistador to shaman during his eight-year sojourn in native culture. One of the key signs of this transformation is a characteristically curt scene in which Cabeza de Vaca describes raising a seemingly dead man back to life: "This caused great wonder and awe, and nothing else was spoken about in the entire land" (80). Nicholas Echevarria --whose purpose, as Paul Galante says, is to depict the transformation of Cabeza de Vaca into the "mestizo in Mexican national identity"-- also has a key resurrection scene. But Echevarria spends a lot of time on the scene and makes the subject a woman. The question I would like to ask is, does the difference in how Echevarria presents his "Raising the Dead" scene [1:14:08] detract from the sentiments from which they were originally recorded? (see comment by Kelsey Cannon)

[2] Echevarria makes an effort throughout the entire movie to depict the "new man" in Cabeza de Vaca; however, it seems as if he uses significant "artistic license" when depicting this scene. First, the scene depicts a woman. Quite simply, this is the opposite of Cabeza de Vaca's actual account; he describes the person as being a "sick man [who] was dead" (80). It seems that throughout this movie Echevarria uses women in conjunction with Cabeza de Vaca's shamanism to inject sexual tension into scenes. For example, there is a scene not in the original text in which Cabeza de Vaca and his "crew" are held captive by a cannibal tribe [0:58:16]. This tribe happens to be led by quite an exotic and erotically painted group of women. Similarly, the dead woman depicted in the movie is naked; there is a full frontal image of her when she arises and walks out of the tomb. This is starkly different from the fully clothed men around her.

[3] Moreover, when Cabeza de Vaca is applying the restorative rituals over her body, he goes about doing so in a very sexually ambiguous way. The woman is correctly portrayed wrapped in what Cabeza de Vaca notes in his book as a mat (80). However, he then inserts his hands into the mat, and the audience is left wondering where his hands are. In addition, Echevarria's camera slowly pans across her body, finally settling at her genital area. It seems that these licenses are what drive the wedge between the real and the reel, thus making it a more audience-appealing account than what Cabeza de Vaca records in his matter-of-fact statements. (That is not to say that this movie is entirely flawed; I don't believe that is the case. Echevarria is a very skilled director who is exceedingly fluent in the native traditions in Mexico.)

[4] To answer the question I posed above, this "artistic-choice" completely detracts from Cabeza de Vaca's original intentions in the Relacion and ultimately does a disservice to what Echevarria is trying to achieve himself throughout the entire movie: the theory of a "new" and enlightened Cabeza de Vaca. To further strengthen my point, I must bring in Richard Gordon's thoughts on Echevarria's exoticism. He states that by portraying women in the way he does Echevarria "reproduces Hollywood's traditional objectification of women….[and] through [this] detrimental representation…the director is simply trying to 'get a rise' out of his audience" (109). (comment by Jaclyn Ulman)


Jaclyn Ulman 2/26/10

In her essay, Megan explores the resurrection of a dead woman. In his chronicles, Cabeza de Vaca claims to save a dead man, not a woman. This leads her to ask if this change detracts "from the sentiments from which they were originally recorded." Although many of my peers in class today didn't think the choice of resurrecting a woman instead of a man made much of a statement, I completely disagree. Whenever an artist decides to take liberties and change history within a film, there is a reason. I think it's necessary to envision how this scene would have been different if a man had been resurrected, just as is chronicled. The scene would not have been nearly as sensual. The panning of the woman's body, the shots of her genital area, and the focus on her chest as she begins to breathe again creates a lot of sexual tension. If a man had been resurrected, it would have been filmed very differently, probably not focusing on the genital area or panning the body quite as much. I don't know if I agree with Megan that this was exploitation of women, but Echevarria certainly chose to make this scene sexier, and he needed a woman to be resurrected in order to do that.

Kelsey Cannon 2/21/12

I think it is important to ask this question because this film is supposed to depict a historical account -- any motion to change facts runs the risk of being labeled inaccurate or detrimental to the original story. In some senses, like the sexualization highlighted by Snyder and Ulman, the replacement of a male with a female does tamper with the historical quality of the account because it adds another element to the scene. A previously unsexualized recording of a medical and/or spiritual miracle is now clouded by elements of sexuality; however, the scene is still powerful and still conveys the actions of Cabeza de Vaca. It also stays true to the fact that he did not applaud himself for the resurrection, he remained humble and level headed, which I believe is the most important element of the original account. The story is about the explorer, so as long as the director stays true to his character, it's forgivable if he takes artistic license with other elements of the film.