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A Story of Tolerance Across the Ages

Movies: Director Salvador Carrasco strives to tell of Mexico's past through a universal prism in his 'The Other Conquest' at the AFI fest.

October 23, 1998|GUY GARCIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The mind-jarring clash of cultures--and the traumatic birth of a new nation--is the subject of Salvador Carrasco's "The Other Conquest," a historical drama that explores the religious and political roots of Mexico through the prism of the human soul.

"The Other Conquest," which is the first Spanish-language film ever to be entered in competition at the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival, is described by its 31-year-old director as "a parable about cultural tolerance."

It's a theme with which Carrasco is personally acquainted. Born into an affluent family in Mexico City, Carrasco studied film at New York University, where, he recalls, "I constantly found myself, without having set out to do so, changing people's misconceptions about Mexico."

It was at the university that Carrasco began making short films with fellow student Alvaro Domingo, the son of classical singer Placido Domingo. Alvaro would eventually become Carrasco's business partner and the producer of "The Other Conquest." The six-year effort to fund and film the $4-million production began in 1992, when Alvaro showed the script to his father, who agreed to be a co-producer (he also sings an aria during the closing credits).

Shot in Spanish and Nahuatl with English subtitles, the story is set in 1526--five years after the conquest of the Aztec empire by Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes. Arriving at the site of a remote Aztec pyramid, a column of Spanish soldiers interrupts a gruesome ceremony of ritual human sacrifice. For a few seconds, the Spaniards--sheathed in their skins of gleaming armor--and the Indians--bedecked in feathers, animal skins and fearsome masks--can only gawk at one another in utter amazement.

"You really do come from another world," marvels Friar Diego, a Spanish missionary who has come to convert the natives. Yet the ensuing slaughter shows that the European invaders were no less bloodthirsty than the Aztec sun god, Huitzilopochtli.

Horrified by the brutality of his countrymen, Friar Diego saves the life of Aztec scribe Topiltzin, an illegitimate son of deposed emperor Moctezuma, and resolves to save his soul as well. "The Other Conquest" chronicles the tragic events that follow as Friar Diego tries to replace Topiltzin's gods with his own.

For Carrasco, who has long been fascinated with the resilient power of human faith, the spiritual struggle between the Spaniard and the Aztec scribe was an irresistible story for his feature debut. "The premise resonated deeply within me because it embodies a simple truth: Life makes more sense if you have something to fight for," says the director, who also wrote and edited the movie.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is its meticulous attention to historical detail, from the decision to have the Aztec characters speak in their native tongue to the authentic 16th century furnishings used for scenes in the palace of Cortes.

"Our goal was to narrate a passionate story, one based on a careful imaginary reconstruction of what things might have been like during the decade between the fall of the Aztec Empire, in 1521, and the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Indian Juan Diego, in 1531," Carrasco explains. "It is a period fraught with complexities and ambiguities which are still relevant today, 500 years later."

Indeed, Carrasco believes that the issues raised in his film will resonate strongly not just with his own countrymen, but with all audiences, including Latinos living in the multicultural environment of the U.S.

"This picture is not just about Aztecs and Spaniards," he says. "The topics it explores are relevant to all ethnic or national identities that were formed in the crucible of colonization, conversion and syncretism. 'The Other Conquest' is an invitation to dialogue, an opportunity to reflect on our origins and respect our differences."

* "The Other Conquest" will screen at Mann's Chinese Theater on Saturday at 7 p.m. and Monday at 4:45 p.m.

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