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‘Cabeza De Vaca’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 20, 1992


Nicolas Echevarria
Juan Diego
nudity and violence

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"Cabeza de Vaca" chronicles the torturous spiritual journey of a Spanish conquistador, a devout Catholic who is converted to native American shamanism when shipwrecked in 16th-century Mexico. A labored film by Mexican ethnologist Nicolas Echevarria, it dramatizes the director's interest in tribal magic and mysticism while concluding, as did "The Mission" and "Black Robe," that the aboriginal peoples of the New World were the victims of greedy, cross-kissing Euro-savages.

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, played with loony passion by Juan Diego, was among five survivors of a 600-man expedition that foundered off the east coast of Mexico in 1528. An aristocratic member of the Spanish king's entourage, Alvar becomes the slave of the powerful shaman of a river-based tribe and his assistant, the armless dwarf Malacosa. The Spaniard nearly goes mad in lowly service to this creepy duo, but regains his wits and begins to learn magic from the shaman. When Alvar cures a blinded chief, the shaman recognizes him as an equal and frees him from servitude.

His hair covered in mud, his loins in rabbit fur, Alvar sets off into the wilderness, increasing his powers through physical exhaustion and emotional deprivation. And maybe a couple of peyote buttons. After a time, he stumbles into an Indian encampment, where he finds the other survivors tied to stakes along with two princes from a neighboring tribe. A pre-sacrificial shindig is going great guns and Alvar, now tied down himself, prepares to be an entree for the blue mud-covered women in charge when he is liberated by the princes' tribe.

One of the young princes, Araino, is shot during the escape and appears near death when Alvar goes into a trance and removes the arrowhead from his chest. Now a beloved holy man, Alvar is followed by hundreds as he continues his journey from village to village. At the end of eight years he comes to the Pacific coast of Mexico, where he is reunited with his countrymen -- who to his great sorrow have enslaved the natives, including his friend, Araino, to build a cathedral in the desert at Culiacan. Intuiting the holocaust to come, Alvar raves and prays.

Alvar's bizarre enlightenment makes for a good yarn, even if it isn't clearly or grippingly told by the writer-director, whose background is in making documentaries. What Echevarria does best is create a living diorama, bringing the period to life in the rich and varied details of the costumes, crafts and customs of the native people. It's amazing how many things you can do with mud.

Cabeza de Vaca, at the KB Janus in Spanish and native American languages, is rated R for nudity and violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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