Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Otra Conquista, La (The Other Conquest) (1998) >> Scene Analysis >>

A Willing “Victim”

By Alexander Vernak, with comment by Kelsey Cannon

[1] In The Other Conquest, one of the most graphically violent scenes occurs when the Aztecs participate in human sacrifice. Although this scene is violent, the underlying sense of both normalcy generated by the Aztecs and willingness projected by the woman sacrificed creates a bizarre sense of calm for most of the scene. Only when the knife is lifted does the tension build up to its peak at the moment when it is plunged into the woman’s chest. This ability of the film to build feelings of serenity and tension during this graphic scene makes it one of great import when generating an opinion about the traditions and culture of the Aztecs.

[2] One element that helps the building of serenity in the scene is the preparation of the woman for sacrifice. As she is being prepared, she is fed a mushroom and is told to “take and eat the great mushroom not to feel today or in the morning.” In no way is the language or actions of those involved in the sacrificial preparations indicative of violence or savagery. They adorn the woman with decorative paint and pay homage as they prepare her for death. This decoration of the woman gives the sense that she is more than a simple entity to herself: she is a symbol as much as she is a sacrifice. She symbolizes their enduring support of the goddess they worship. In Aztec religious tradition, it seems, it is an honor to be sacrificed. The process ensures the one being sacrificed honor in the community and unity with their embodiment of the divine. In no way was she forced into this position, she volunteered to become one with the Mother Goddess they worship.

[3] The dialogue between the woman and Topiltzin bolsters the position of willingness and honor that can be found in this sacrifice. Topiltzin, who has some affection for the woman being sacrificed, says to her, “I want you to become one with our Mother Goddess, but I also want you here.” He comes to a realization that her unity with the Mother Goddess is more important than his personal fondness for the woman. She tells him not to “suffer” and asks that he does not “forget” her. The violence this scene should entail is secondary to the ritual importance of the sacrifice for the Aztec people. To us, human instinct suggests that the woman get up and run to preserve her life. Her actions, however, betray her ultimate dedication to the Mother Goddess and the institution of the sacrifice. “This is what I desire,” she says. For the Aztecs, sacrifice was not only a critical element of their religious system, but it was also the manifestation of a union with the Mother Goddess. This union made the sacrifice martyrdom rather than a murder. Their ultimate goal was union with the Mother Goddess and being offered as a sacrifice was one way to assure that union took place.

[4] Even the woman’s death seems to be surrounded by an element of serenity. The tension of the scene builds up to the removal of the heart and is subsequently released once the heart is in the shaman’s hands. Amazingly, however, the woman’s face only changes expression once the knife is lifted only seconds before her death. Until this moment her face is tranquil. Once the knife is lifted you can see the fear of death for the few brief moments before her death. After her heart has been removed, her face once again reveals a particular tranquility as the shaman stands over her with her heart is his hands. As her life leaves her, all the tension that the sacrifice has built up to is suddenly released. As all of the Aztecs look on at the sacrifice with all the reverence that is to be expected at a religious ritual, the Spanish come in and immediately betray their horror.

[5] As Fray Diego and the other conquistadors walk in and see the sacrifice just as the heart is being removed, he makes their cultural dissimilarities completely clear. “You really do come from another world,” he says. This movie concerns itself primarily with this great cultural rift between the Aztecs and their Spanish counterparts. The sacrifice is indicative of this rift and portrays the Aztecs as a violent people. In the scope of this film, however, their violence becomes less of the focus of The Other Conquest as their subjugation at the hands of the Spanish reveals a savagery that they projected onto the Aztec people. The crime they committed against humanity by enslaving the natives is a much more savage behavior than the religiously motivated death of a willing victim. Before she is to die, the woman says, “Do not suffer. This is what my heart desires.” Her desire to be killed places the responsibility of her death on her hands. Her life was not taken unwillingly into bondage, but rather given willingly to the goddess she worshiped. (see comment by Kelsy Cannon)

[6] The initial horror of the death of one human at the hands of another makes this scene a very difficult one to look at objectively. When the motivations for the sacrificial killing are made clear, however, the ritual function of this death comes to the forefront. A willing victim is killed for her own glory and the glory of her goddess. She hopes to be remembered not only by those who witnessed her sacrifice, but also in her prospective unity with all she holds sacred. Though the gore is disturbing when witnessed (especially the first time), the ritual beauty of a practitioner of any religious tradition to be willing to give their own life for what she believes in should not be lost on the viewer.


Kelsey Cannon 2/14/12

Watching this scene closely I found the juxtaposition of the Europeans and the Aztecs rather interesting -- the scene cuts back and forth between the graceful adornment, preparation, and ultimate sacrifice of a woman, and the clunky, clumsy, fumbling of the heavily armored Europeans. From the outset, the director distinctly separates the two cultures visually, but instead of highlighting their ideological differences, their opposing appearances and demeanors serve to demonstrate their intrinsic similarities. The woman about to be killed, says Vernak, is willing to be sacrificed. She states "Do not suffer. This is what my heart desires," and Vernak advocates that "Her desire to be killed places the responsibility of her death on her hands. Her life was not taken unwillingly into bondage, but rather given willingly to the goddess she worshiped." She is willing to die in honor of the gods, as a way to please them and preserve her people on earth. Sound familiar? The Christian Europeans simultaneously horrified by this action fail to see how it parallels the acts of their own revered savior, Jesus Christ. Forced to bear the burden of violence, and ultimately death, Jesus volunteered to be sacrificed to the Father God as a way to please Him and preserve His people on earth. It's curious, then, what the director accomplished with Friar Diego's statement towards the Aztecs of "you really do come from another world." At first glance it's easy to see the immediate differences between the cultures, calling to the mind all of the ways in which they are different, but the director's carefully crafted opposition actually serves to show how the cultures are, in fact, so similar at the heart.