Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

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

Face to Face: The Power of Non-Diegetic Sound

By James (Alec) Murphy, with comment by Eddie Strumfels

[1] Since the mastery of audio synchronization in the early 1900’s, sound has acted as a vital complement to all cinematic productions. Not only does it facilitate the transmission of diegetic audio (sound that takes place within the story of the film), but it also allows cinematographers to add ornamenting audible detail, called non-diegetic audio (sound that the audience can hear but the actor cannot). The use of non-diegetic audio has opened a myriad of doors for directors worldwide, giving them the capability of creating an emotional environment independent from that produced by the inherent content of the film. Coupled with ever-improving camera techniques, directors were quick to recognize and exploit the uncanny emotional vulnerability of the now audio/visual viewer. In the scene titled “Face to Face” of his recent film The Other Conquest, Salvador Carrasco demonstrates how a strong message can be conveyed without the use of character dialogue or movement.

[2] Before analyzing Carrasco’s extraordinary ability to paint a vivid cinematic picture with sound, it is crucial to first examine the canvas upon which he does so (in other words, the dramatic action itself). Following a tumultuous near two hours of genocidal violence, fruitless rape, and emotional torment, the audience is witness to complete tranquility and resolve for the first time. The aforementioned contrasting sequence is a director’s tool used to bring emphasis to a particular moment. In this case, less is more, as loose ends created by past actions of the film are suddenly tied tight.

[3] After having been taken from his home, tortured in the name of spiritual conversion, and forced to live in a Christian monastery, Aztec Topiltzin stands face-to-face with the statue of the Virgin Mary, a symbol that represents everything that has destroyed his past life. For an entire minute of the film, a minute that feels like a lifetime, he stands eye-to-eye with the statue in silence. The beauty of this method of story telling (focusing on the absence of action) is that it leaves the viewer primarily in control of what to believe. In this case, one might conclude that Topiltzin has finally accepted the Christian belief system and is coming to the Virgin Mary as a hope for salvation, or, on the contrary, one may view his eye-lock as a confrontation of detestation and unwilling acceptance of her reign. Regardless of the conclusion the viewer has come to, it is heavily reinforced by use of sound and camera work by Carrasco and his team. In this way, Carrasco sneakily allows the viewer to place the nail in the coffin before he hammers it home for good.

[4] Where the dramatic action leaves much for the viewer to discern, the accompanying use of the presence and absence of non-diegetic music creates an air of extreme importance and uncertain resolve -- so strong that it certainly influences the thought process and maybe even determines the ultimate conclusion of the audience involved. The moment Topiltzin opens the doors to the sacristy where the statue of Mary resides, Carrasco initiates a choral recording so impressive that viewers are immediately aware that what they are about to witness is of overwhelming importance. The high vocal line, opening with the sopranos, is complemented by a brass and string section that plays unison with the choir. Rather than providing ornamenting harmonies, this compositional technique stresses the dramatic intervals of a simple melodic progression. Carefully crafted, this progression starts on the 4th note below the tonic, jumps an octave, and hits the high tonic (the note of any sequence of tones where melodic tensions are alleviated). As the sopranos sing the high tonic, the tenors softly sing a minor third above. While the female voices belt the tonic, issuing an aggressive resolve, the use of male voices on the minor 3rd (the highest and most dramatic note of the composition) sets a musical tone of dramatic uncertainty.

[5] This beautiful musical contrast of pungent resolve followed by light uncertainty is a perfect reflection of Topiltzin’s current state as he approaches Mary. Confident, like the tonic tone of the soprano’s, but naturally nervous, like the minor third of the tenor, he approaches the Virgin. As they lock eyes, the choral music meanders on the minor scale, occasional hitting the comfortable tonics and more often hitting the uncertain minor 3rds, until suddenly the music stops, and we see Topiltzin in his rawest form. As the intense choral music resonates in the viewer’s head and is innately reflected back into the now silent scene, what remains is a three-way stare off, a manifestation of the action-less pursuit of truth, not only between Topiltzin and the Virgin Mary, but between the audience and Topiltzin.

[6] In this way, Carrasco uses music not only to imply the importance of a specific cinematic moment, but also to mirror the mental tensions withheld by the protagonist. As the remainder of the scene plays out in silence and the camera slowly circumnavigates the eye-locked duo, Carrasco has poised us to examine the meaning of the scene on our own level. Having been influenced by the drastic melodic progressions, which can so often sway reality, the music stops, and our morality is stripped to the bone; and for a half a minute, Christianity, the Aztec culture, and the viewer are left to sort things out in silence. (see comment by Eddie Strumfels)


Eddie Strumfels 2/27/12

In addition to the music, it is important to note the single line of dialogue from Topiltzin's death with the Virgin Mary. While he is completely silent from the moment he escapes the ropes to the decrowning of the statue leading up to his fall, we hear one final cry -- "Mother!" Not only is this the very first line of dialogue in the film, it is ambiguous in who it is addressing. "Mother" is cried out between flashes of the traditional Mother Goddess and the Virgin Mary seconds before Topiltzin's death. To whom is he calling? Perhaps it is really the same person. The ambiguity in the address forces the viewer to really question, who is the mother, must the two possibilities (Mother Goddess & Virgin Mary) be different? The total absence of speech in this final scene draws all the attention to that single line, and in that one line is one of the crucial questions of the film -- what was the other conquest, and who really survived it?