Briefly Noted: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (via Wikipedia)Recently four Americans were kidnapped and killed by Somalian pirates off the cost of Oman. Two of them — Jean and Scott Adam– spent the past decade, sailing the oceans offering Bibles and doing missionary work. In 2004, Kim Sun-il, a Korean missionary was beheaded in Iraq. In 2007, 23 Korean missionaries were held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan and two killed. In the 16th century too, missionaries made such suicidal trips to hostile places motivated by religious fanaticism and imperialism. Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God tells the tale of one such mission in the Peruvian rain forest in 1560 CE.
The movie starts with a convoy of Spaniards and their slaves snaking their way across the high Andean passes with women on palanquins, a priest, animals, heavy canons, and the Bible. Under the leadership of conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro, they are off to find the mythical El Dorado as well as save some souls. As they go through humid jungles, muddy terrain and reach the Amazon, Pizarro decides that they cannot proceed further. He sends a scouting party on four rafts through the rapids. One raft gets separated and the next day all people on it are found dead, killed by mysterious attackers.
From this point the lunacy starts. The leader Don Pedro de Ursúa decides that they should go back to Pizzaro while the second in command Don Lope de Aguirre disagrees. Aguirre argues that if they move forward, they will discover El Dorado and become rich like Hernán Cortés. The mutiny becomes violent: Ursúa is shot and wounded and a nobleman is chosen as the emperor. Aguirre reads a proclamation that  Don Fernando de Guzman is the emperor of the New World and not Philip II of Spain.
Following this they set off on the raft and rest of the movie happens on this raft. While the crew starves, Emperor Guzman feasts. The movie moves at the leisurely  pace of the Amazon and is disrupted a few times when they see native villages and  find that some of their missing compatriots had been used as food. They move in constant fear of being attacked but do foolish things like letting their horses go. Some enervated Spaniards want to escape from Aguirre and return to Pizzaro. But the crazy leader, who took over after Guzman was killed, would not tolerate any talk of retreat.  One day they see two natives on a boat and the first question the priest has for them is if they have heard of Jesus Christ. Even in the hostile atmosphere where their survival is at stake, their bigger concern is in Christian burial and after life.
The cruise along the river continues and finally, everyone is killed by the natives who fire arrows from the river banks. Undeterred, Aguirre goes forward claiming he is the Wrath of God and will gain untold riches one day.
This movie is considered a classic and is on Time Magazine’s Top 100 movies, but it was quite boring. There are many loose ends in the movie. For example, why is Aguirre such a crazy guy? Did they know he was crazy and still let him be in command? Unlike Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise there is no back-story to explain his behavior. Another point: Why did “Emperor” Guzman forgive Ursúa after the mock trial which sentenced him to death? Even Aguirre who hoisted Guzman as the emperor looks surprised at this verdict, but does nothing. When Aguirre takes over as the leader one of his first acts is to hang Ursúa. Much later in a disconnected scene Ursúa’s wife walks off into the forest and disappears.
The movie at 100 minutes is not long, but since it is done in an artsy/symbolic way, even the dramatic moments do not seem dramatic. There is a scene when the members of the team are collecting wood and iron. Since Ursúa had not given the order, he is sure that Aguirre is behind it. In a confrontational scene they both stare at each other reminding you of  all those award winning Malayalam movies of the 80s. There is another scene when one of the slaves tells his story — about how he was a prince and was converted by the Spaniards — in an unemotional monotonic narrative as if he is reading from a piece of paper during the script reading session. In approximately 90% of the scenes, there is no emotion in the face of any of the characters.
But the movie makes up for all this by providing by some stunning visuals and it is no surprise that it has influenced film makers like Santosh Sivan. Right from the initial scene of the over the Andes to the raft journey along the Amazon, you experience the grandeur of the landscape. In his review Roger Ebert wrote that  the movie was supposed to provide a feeling and not deliver artificial action. Since the movie is like a documentary, it does not provide much feelings. The only thing that stays with you is Aguirre’s madness.

Movie Review: 1492: Conquest of Paradise

When Ridley Scott’s 1992 movie on the voyages of Christopher Columbus starts, Columbus(Gérard Depardieu)  is seen pitching his idea of a voyage to the Indies to the people of University of Salamanca. Marco Polo had traveled to and written about the gold and spices of the East. By trading and conquering the East, Columbus argues, that Spain can be an empire. But his logic of sailing West — because the land trade is controlled by the Arabs and the voyage around Africa takes too long — does not find supporters. They doubt his calculations and think he is a spoony dreamer. Also, what Columbus did not know at that time was that the Americas lay in the path between Spain and the East.
Someone asks him to meet Queen Isabella (Sigourney Weaver) and he succeeds in creating a favorable impression in her mind. To her suggestion that his voyage is an impossible one, he retorts if she thought Granada would ever fall. Isabella and her husband Ferdinand had just conquered the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula. Impressed, she overrides the concerns of her advisors and remarks that it would be quite a loss if Columbus decided to be a monk.
In the next scene, we see sailors saying farewell to their families and boarding the Santa María, Pinta and Niña. The Spain Columbus was leaving was mired with religious wars and superstition; there is a brutal scene where he witnesses Christians burning witches to death. Economically, Europe was not a major power and had nothing valuable to contribute to Asia. A few years later when Vasco da Gama reached Calicut and displayed the gifts he had bought, my ancestors in Kerala laughed.
In all, Columbus made four voyages to the New World and the movie spends time on the first three. In the first voyage, he reached Bahamas and claimed it for Spain. From there he went to Hispaniola and after leaving some people there, he returned to Spain as a hero, taking with him some of the indigenous people. As he is about to leave Hispaniola, Columbus tells the local chief that he would come back with more people. When asked why he would be back, Columbus explains, “to bring the word of God.” “But I already have a God”, the chief replies. Columbus, then says, he will bring medicines and chief replies that he has enough medicines too. This conversation continues in Spain when a curious Ferdinand asks Columbus about the God of the natives.
In the colony, the relationship between the colonizers and the indigenous people proceed like any such relation. The Spaniards had arrived expecting gold and other riches, but were shocked to find neither. So they made the indigenous people, who lived freely so far, to scavenge for gold. In one incident, when a man turns shows up without any gold, one of Columbus’ crew members chops off his arm. On hearing about this, Columbus imprisons him, but this forces a split in the camp. Soon every one is at each other’s throat. Columbus goes on a rampage — like the British in 1857 — and kills the natives as well as his mutinous compatriots.
He is unflinching in his goal: He wants to build a New World, he tells a priest who is sickened by his cruelty and wants to leave. But his New World does not last. In one storm, everything is destroyed. Complaints against him cause the Ferdinand and Isabella to send a replacement. Columbus is jailed and the credit for discovering the mainland goes to another Italian – Amerigo Vespucci. He is eventually pardoned and sent on a voyage by Isabella.
Columbus’s life was very eventful and this movie does not capture the entire drama. For example, initially, he spent quite some time wandering in various countries trying to get funding for his voyage. Towards the end, his fourth voyage turned out to be a disaster. He got caught in various storms and hurricanes and got stranded for a year. But if these were included, the movie would have been extended by a few days.
When it comes to such movies, you also have to pay attention to what is not said. Isabella was not being magnanimous by partially financing Columbus’ first voyage. She had no other option. The wars against the Moors had bankrupt the empire and they had to find new lands to plunder. In the movie, Isabella comes across as this wise motherly figure which she was not. One important event, which happened few months before Columbus’ voyage and not shown in the movie is Isabella’s expulsion of Jews from Spain by the Alhambra Decree and the forced conversion of the Muslims of Granada.
Even the portrayal of Columbus is not without issue. The movie is quite sympathetic to him and his spirit of adventure. To counter Columbus, a troubled soul by the name of Moxica is introduced. Moxica is the one who tortures the indigenous people and is greedy while Columbus acts like a statesman. What is missing is a critical look of the influence of the Papal Bull of 1493 on later voyages and what effect the Conquistadors had on these people. The movie ends with Columbus narrating the voyage of his tales to his son to redeem his name. That scene should have been interspersed with what happened to the indigenous people.