The crux of this two-edged satire is the colonizer who rationalizes both Christianity and slavery, St. Francis's parable presented to equate tyranny with divine will ("When overseer beats me, I must be happy," a captive deduces, and guffaws). Tomás Gutiérrez Alea presents it as a philosophical argument and grounds it in sardonic urgency -- the doors slam open at the sugar mill in 18th-century Havana, a runaway slave is caught and has an ear severed as punishment, it is Holy Wednesday. Presiding over it is the Count (Nelson Villagra), peruked and pallid while surveying caldrons manned by African slaves, racial hierarchy is reflected in the extraction of white powder from black sugar-cane brew. Yet he feels a void, the "maze of darkness" he fills with piety; twelve slaves are brought to his table, although not before he compounds his evangelical paternalism by bathing their feet, only the ceremonial hush gets shattered by giggling as the icy water hits their toes. Alea's adroit handheld camerawork in the fields is traded for an elegant zoom at the dinner table, dollying back for a rectangular composition and then forward again to the center, where the Count is passing himself off as Christ: "This is all for you," he announces to his guests, but it's really all for him, a way of alleviating the subjugator's guilt while reinforcing his superiority. Wine is the great equalizer, as Chaplin and Clair understood, so both castes speak their piece during the meal, oral history modulated into debate -- African anecdotes are vividly acted out, Villagra counters with the idea that freedom is not happiness and dozes off after casting as the supper's Judas the maimed runaway (Samuel Claxton), who refers a tale of decapitated Truth. Good Friday brings rebellion, and the sobered Count's embracing of "necessary sins." In one of Alea's angriest films, revolutionary awareness emerges from the ashes of the mill of rationalized oppression; the camera cranes away from the cross raised in heroic memory of a vicious foreman, but the mythical montage of freedom has the final word, bridging resurrection and insurrection on Easter Sunday. With Luis Alberto Garcia, Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Mario Balmaseda, Idelfonso Tamayo, and Julio Hernandez.
--- Fernando F. Croce