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A Secret Film and a secret Novel: The Last Supper and Georges

02.07.2016

Secret Films and Novels: The Last Supper and Georges


 In the Film Club at GRNW on 1 July, the film viewed was the Cuban film, La Ultima Cena, The Last Supper by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, shot in 1976. It was curiously structured – over the course of the Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Saturday. And it was beautiful visually, almost tapestried scenes of faces, as in The Last Supper by Leonardo de Vinci. Set in 1700s slavery-time Cuba, the similarities were so vivid with Mauritius that it was almost as if we were watching a film about a sugar plantation in slave times in Mauritius.


 And yet, the film is not known here.


 And this despite having won prizes at the time it came out.


 In the course of discussion afterwards, the subject arose as to how some films, and some novels, too, succeed in remaining secret. It is as though too many vested interests want them to remain unknown. The Last Supper is obviously not kind to the sugar oligarchy in Cuba, or anywhere else, nor to any aspect of the use of slave labour. In fact, the very fact that slaves were “labour” is often hidden. Sometimes, a high school student exposed only to mainstream media, might be forgiven for thinking that European colonial slavery was invented in order to express racism, rather than as a framework for labour law, in particular for extraction of surplus from human labour. The film, as you can guess from the title, also shows how the very narrative of Christianity lends itself to a justification for suffering, and is thus not very kind to the Church. In addition, while the plantation owner is the one who decides to act like Christ, inviting twelve of his slaves to a last supper and also washing their feet, by the end of the film, it is the villain of the film, the contremaitre or slave foreman, who is crucified during the course of the rebellion – as slaves had routinely been – and then sanctified right in the last scene. And thus the pun in the film’s title: The Last Supper (Cene) and The Last Scene (escena). The narrative of the sacrament is also humourously decoded as a canabal-like ritual.


 But what makes the film a masterpiece is the way in which the slaves are so individuated, treated with such gentle recognition of each one as a particular, special individual human being – each with a unique and different past, and with unique and present roles as well as personalities – without in any way softening the horrors of slavery being a form of labour extraction that reduces the producer to the status of a chattel to his master.


 And why the film is so “hidden” is clearly because it shows a slave rebellion, and the slave rebellion has the high moral ground, on its own terms.


 And a discussion around this after the film, brought up the subject of a hidden novel, Georges, set in Mauritius around 1812 - 1824 or so, and written in 1843 by the most famous, bar Shakespeare, of all writers of all times, author of Les Trois Mousquetaires and Le Comte de Monte Christo, none other than Alexandre Dumas. What Georges has in common with The Last Supper is that it is also about a slave rebellion, this time led by a non-slave, from a slave-owning family who are, in the terms of those times, “mulâtres”, and who takes on the oligarchy in a finely built up set of attacks against their prejudices. The novel takes part of its strength from the fact that Alexandre Dumas was himself from a family that was “mulâtres”, and the novel draws on his own father’s experience having been brought up in St. Domingue (Haiti), and carries all the weight of the successful slave rebellion there (1791 to 1803), and of is father’s having become the world-renowned General-in Chief of the French army (Thomas-Alexandre Dumas).


 And both the film about the slave rebellion seen from the point of view of people who were slaves, and the novel, seen from outside the powers-that-be, have remained largely “hidden”. 


 The value of a film club is that we find and discuss hidden gems like The Last Supper. And can relate it to things like deep censorship, or keeping important films and books (even facts and people), marginalized, not-noticed or quickly forgotten. And we can thus begin to repair the harm done by the “keeping secret” of realities that need to be understood.