Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Otra Conquista, La (The Other Conquest) (1998) >> Issue Essay >>

Friar Diego’s Death Bed

By Krystal Kaai

[1] Throughout the film The Other Conquest, cultural clash between the Aztecs and their Spanish conquerors manifests in many ways. This cultural discord is particularly evident in scenes that juxtapose contrasting images of the Aztecs and the Spanish--images that simultaneously emphasize the differences of and blur the distinctions between these seemingly antithetical civilizations. Perhaps the most concrete embodiment of the physical and psychological clash between these two cultures emerges through the characters of Topiltzin and Friar Diego, whose interactions throughout the film reveal not only the distinct differences between their cultures, but also the similarities that their cultures share. Although there are many scenes throughout the film that combine contrasting images of Topiltzin and Friar Diego--the Aztecs and the Spanish--nowhere is this juxtaposition of contrasting images more poignant than in Friar Diego's deathbed scene.

[2] The scene opens with a shot of Friar Diego on his deathbed in La Coruna, Spain, seventeen years after his initial encounter with Topiltzin in Mexico. As Friar Diego reflects upon his interactions with Topiltzin, the audience is presented with a series of contrasting images that force us to compare the two men--and, by extension, the two cultures that they represent--in order to determine whether they are truly as different as they initially seem. Rather than highlight the differences between these two cultures, the juxtaposition of contrasting shots in this scene complicates the cultural and religious distinctions between the Aztecs and the Spanish. Although history encourages us to believe that the religious conversion was one-sided, with the civilized Spanish converting the "heathen Indians" to Christian ways, director Salvador Carrasco blurs the distinction between the Aztecs and the Spanish so much so that he compels us to question who is really converting whom. Thus, I will argue that, through the juxtaposition of contrasting images in this scene, Carrasco frames the "conversion" as a reciprocal process that affected the Spanish as much as the Aztecs. In so doing, he illustrates the way in which the two cultures are much more similar--much more intertwined--than they initially seem.

[3] Because the old, ashen Friar Diego we meet in the beginning of this scene looks nothing like the young and passionate friar we see throughout most of the film, one can see how Carrasco uses this contrast to establish the basis for other contrasting images that unfold throughout the scene. As Friar Diego lies on his deathbed with a large, wooden cross around his neck and his Bible clutched over his chest, his closed eyes and shallow breathing indicate that he is close to death. Off screen, we see a priest talking to another priest about the dire state of Friar Diego's condition. We learn that Friar Diego has not spoken since his return from Mexico, and that it has been over a week since he last ate. It seems that Friar Diego wants to die. This image of a frail and dying Friar Diego--a dejected man who no longer speaks nor wishes to live--contrasts starkly with the image of the determined and fervent young friar who goes to Mexico for the sheer purpose of spreading God's word to savage natives. From this first juxtaposition of contrasting images, Carrasco encourages us to consider the way in which Friar Diego's experiences in Mexico affected the rest of his life. The drastic change in Friar Diego's character after his encounters with Topiltzin, therefore, illustrates the way in which both men--both cultures--influenced each other through their respective "conversions" of the other.

[4] Contrast again emerges in the juxtaposition of the two "conversion" shots in which the silhouettes of two men--Friar Diego and Topiltzin--are outlined against a bright, red-orange backdrop reminiscent of the sun. As the scene unfolds, we realize that Friar Diego is imagining his religious conversion of Topiltzin. Shortly thereafter, Friar Diego imagines a similar conversion scene; however, this time, it is Topiltzin who appears to be converting Friar Diego. In the first "conversion," Friar Diego makes the sign of the cross over Topiltzin before touching Topiltzin's head, as if to bless the Indian and to formally seal his religious conversion. It is interesting to note that during this conversion scene, Friar Diego either pushes Topiltzin's head away from himself, or Topiltzin voluntarily jerks his head away from the friar's hand. Although it is difficult to discern the source behind Topiltzin's movement, the fact that Topiltzin's head moves away from the Friar's hand seems to indicate that the religious conversion has failed--either because of Friar Diego's inability to accept Topiltzin or vice versa.

[5] In contrast to this first conversion scene, the second scene depicts Topiltzin's "conversion" of Friar Diego. During this scene, we see Topiltzin touching Friar Diego's head in the same manner that Friar Diego touched Topiltzin's head in the previous scene; however, unlike Topiltzin's head--which jerks away from Friar Diego's hand--Friar Diego's head is bowed, as if to indicate his acceptance of Topiltzin's "blessing." According to Carrasco:

The interplay between the shadows of Friar Diego and Topiltzin summarizes what Friar Diego went through in Mexico. He set out to convert the alleged savages, but he ended up being converted by them. This doesn't meant that he went native; but, rather, that he got back in touch with the essence of Christianity in that all men are equal. (Director's Commentary on the Scene)

Therefore, by analyzing these two conversion scenes, one can see how Friar Diego's interactions with Topiltzin led to a bilateral exchange in which both men influenced each other through their respective "conversions." As Carrasco indicates, Friar Diego's encounters with Topiltzin alter the very fabric of his being and shake the very core of his orthodox Christian beliefs. For this reason, Friar Diego does not cling to his traditional Christian faith in his final moments, but, rather, embraces the "essence of Christianity," the essence of humanity, whereby all people--regardless of their superficial cultural and religious differences--are equal.

[6] It is important to note that only after Friar Diego envisions these juxtaposing "conversion" scenes does he finally accept the fact that he and Topiltzin essentially share the same religious belief. After reaching this epiphany, Friar Diego says, "Peace at last . . . the final journey." Baffled by Friar Diego's sudden outcries, one of the priests inquires where this final journey will lead, to which Friar Diego replies, "to where all mortals go." According to Carrasco, "Friar Diego's statement that, in their final journey, all mortals go to the same place is highly progressive, almost blasphemous" (Director's Commentary). Friar Diego's assertion that all mortals (rather than just devout Christians) go to the same place clearly reflects a change in his religious beliefs. The fact that these are both the first and the last words that Friar Diego speaks after his return from Mexico illustrates their freeing effect on him. After seventeen years of silent torment--seventeen years of both questioning and grappling with his faith--Friar Diego's acceptance of Topiltzin's claim that the Aztecs and the Spanish share the same belief enables the friar to have "peace at last."

[7] Another important moment of contrast appears in the final moments leading up to Friar Diego's death. As the background music swells to an eerie climax, we see the montage of contrasting images that Friar Diego sees before he dies. These images include a skeleton, the Friar's own deathbed scene, the crying Virgin Mary, the crucified Christ, and, lastly, an angry looking Virgin Mary holding what appears to be either a sword or a cross. This final image of the Virgin Mary transforms into the familiar shot of the sun, symbolic of the Aztec Mother Goddess, which emerges as a common motif throughout the film. After this shot of the sun, the screen goes white, indicating the Friar Diego has died.

[8] The juxtaposition of contrasting images leading up to Friar Diego's death, particularly that of the Virgin Mary and the Aztec Mother Goddess, reflects the profound way in which Topiltzin influenced Friar Diego's life. Although Topiltzin and Friar Diego worship their respective "idols"--The Mother Goddess and the Virgin Mary, respectively--in different ways, Topiltzin emphasizes that he and Friar Diego share the same belief. Friar Diego does not seem to accept Topiltzin's belief initially; however, the montage of images leading up to Friar Diego's death suggests that he does come to accept Topiltzin's belief before he dies. According to Carrasco, "Friar Diego's encounter with Topiltzin and with the devastation of the conquest has led him far away from anything resembling an orthodox Christian faith" (Director's Commentary). As viewers, we clearly see the hybrid form of cultural understanding and religiosity that emerges in Friar Diego's mind in the final moments of his life. The juxtaposition of contrasting images in this scene, therefore, affirms the fact that Friar Diego's religious faith in the end does not resemble the orthodox Christian faith through which he initially sets out to conquer the Aztecs; instead, his faith becomes a conglomeration of his former beliefs and the beliefs of those he originally set out to conquer. Because the final image that flashes through Friar Diego's mind before he dies is that of the sun, representative of the Mother Goddess, one can see that Friar Diego's faith has indeed changed because of his experiences in Mexico.

[9] The scene ends with one of the priests opening Friar Diego's Bible in which he finds a piece of Topiltzin's tattered codex--the scene's final illustration of the contrasting cultures; however, by ending the scene with the image of a piece of Topiltzin's codex embedded in the pages of Friar Diego's Bible, Carrasco illustrates the way in which the two cultures were quite literally intertwined. The juxtaposition of contrasting images in this scene--which elucidates both the distinctions and similarities between the Spanish and the Aztecs--therefore encourages viewers to contemplate not only the differences between these two cultures, but also their similarities; for, as director Salvador Carrasco states, "[t]he purpose of this scene is to show that the conquest was a bilateral process that in many ways affected Spaniards as much as Mexicans."

[10] The juxtaposing images in this scene ultimately forces viewers to challenge their understanding of who is converting whom, not just in this particular scene, but in the remainder of the film as well. Although Friar Diego spends much of the film trying to convert the "heathen" Topiltzin to Spanish notions of cultural and religious identity, this scene indicates that Topiltzin's insistence that he and Friar Diego share the same belief ultimately prevails as the winning creed. The images that run through Friar Diego's mind in his final moments, coupled with his belief that the final journey is a place "to where all mortals" go, further indicates that the conquest was indeed a bilateral process. The juxtaposition of contrasting images in this scene thus exposes the superficial differences between the Aztecs and the Spanish, and, in so doing, downplays these differences in order to stress the way in which both cultures ultimately share the same belief--a belief that transgresses their cultural differences and binds them to a common humanity.