Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

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

The Other Conquest's Mary Moments

By Zachary Carter

[1] The Other Conquest has a powerful scene in which the Spanish Captain Quijano publicly flogs Topiltzin. This scene is a major turning point in the film, for Topiltzin is forced to “renounce” his heretical ways. The Captain ruthlessly and effectively breaks Topiltzin down, showing the evil heart that epitomizes Spanish conquest. The scene is jam-packed with interesting shot choices that create a multiplicity of interpretations. However, in this essay I will focus specifically on the role of the Virgin Mary.

[2] Mary is portrayed as the most important character through the carefully chosen camera shots, angles, and movements. Low angle shots make Mary seem important and powerful by forcing the audience to look up to her. Topiltzin and the Indians watching are generally shot from a high angle, showing their submissive role in relation to Mary and other important characters. Most importantly, the camera also gives Mary attention during the four dramatic and climactic “Mary moments” of this scene, suggesting that she provides the scene’s structure.

[3] First, Mary is brought down by a rope and pulley from the highest part of the building. The camera draws attention to Mary by making her appearance in the scene very dramatic and drawn out. Even Cortes, who is on the balcony of this building above everyone else, also has to look up to Mary as she descends. It’s as if the Queen of Heaven is majestically coming down to Earth. The camera follows Mary’s journey all the way down in a slow and deliberate manner intentionally to make this moment more dramatic. That drama is intensified as, in her descent, Mary moves through the flame of the Captain’s torch, subtly suggesting here as the scene opens that, as Quijano says earlier, “we serve the Virgin.”

[4] The meaning shifts, however, in the second Mary moment, once she is on the platform facing Topiltzin. As the whipping begins, Topiltzin grimaces in pain and the camera moves in to show his face. He looks up to Mary, who is looking down at him. We then hear a feminine voice speaking in Nahautl as the camera focuses on Mary’s face. Though it is actually an Indian mother holding a white baby speaking, this juxtaposition suggests that it is Mary intoning the comforting “this is my body, this is my blood” that, as director and writer Salvador Carrasco says in his DVD commentary, “invokes Christ’s original message of regarding all human beings as equal.”

[5] In the third Mary moment, Mary and the Captain lock eyes after Topiltzin’s brother tries to kill the Captain. The distressed Captain looks down at the ground very confused, either looking at the severed head of the assassin or at Topiltzin -- we are not sure which. He then slowly looks up and holds a gaze straight ahead -- presumably at Mary, who is shown in the next shot looking straight back at the Captain. The Captain is still shown from a low angle, but he looks confused and concerned. He then calls for his translator and seems to snap out of it, yelling at the crowd to behave, explaining forcefully that Topiltzin’s ceremonial renouncement is being done in the name of the Virgin Mary. In that moment eye-locked with Mary we see weakness, we see the Captain questioning his role and his actions. Carrasco remarks that a forced conversion is “a contradiction of terms because one’s sovereignty, free will, or dignity is compromised” and, thus, an inherent quality of being human is broken. This idea is conveyed when the Captain looks into Mary’s eyes, which appear to be chastening him. The Captain could be asking himself if he is really doing the right thing by whipping and being excessively violent in her name. And the pause fosters audience consideration of the morality of the moment as well.

[6] In the last Mary moment, we see Friar Diego with his hands on Topiltzin’s head, he having collapsed after Quijano has savagely torched the soles of his feet. The friar, distressed, looks up to the Mary, who sheds a tear. Carrasco comments on how the tear may break the rules of realism, but the message he’s trying to convey here is: “If she had a say, she wouldn’t approve of what’s being done in her name.” Mary’s tear is the climactic moment of a scene in which Mary shows her compassion for all human beings, including the Aztecs, and disapproval of the flogging held in her name.

[7] As a whole, then, the interactions with the characters in this scene reveal the power of the statue of the Virgin Mary. These pivotal moments show her impact on both the Captain and Friar Diego. The way in which Carrasco chooses to frame and angle the Virgin also connote her as a powerful figure imposing her will on the Captain, Cortes, and all other characters. The director does a good job of giving a mute statue a voice.