No Borders

Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

It took filmmakers Salvador Carrasco and Alvaro Domingo almost a decade to complete their first feature-length film. Once they had accomplished that, The Other Conquest, which focuses on the Spanish takeover of the Aztec Empire, became the all-time highest-grossing Mexican-produced film in Mexico. Now, after faring well in festivals and garnering rave reviews, The Other Conquest faces its toughest challenge when it opens this weekend across the Southland and tries to become the first Mexican film since the early 1990s to conquer U.S. filmgoers on a mass scale.

The last Mexican-produced movie to do well in U.S theaters was Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate. With some exceptions, such as Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos, no Mexican film has enjoyed commercial success since Like Water. Excellent Latino-themed films such as the Mexican-produced Santitos, directed by Alejandro Springall, or the Jimmy Smits–led The Price of Glory, have recently bombed. Critics say these films didn’t do well with mainstream audiences because too much of the marketing was geared to the Latino community and too little advertising was done prior to the openings. Whatever the reasons, films with predominantly Latino casts have not done well at the box office, despite the recent hype of all things Latino.

Ambitious and lavish, The Other Conquest will open on close to 60 movie screens in the Southland. It will be distributed by Hombre d’Oro, which is headed by the former president of marketing and distribution of New Line Cinema, Mitch Goldman. The film’s promoters have mounted an aggressive publicity campaign that has been under way for the last six weeks, placing radio and TV advertisements in English and Spanish markets, as well as distributing fliers and posters in video stores and entertainment venues all over the city, especially in areas heavily populated by Latinos. In print alone, three full-page ads will have run back-to-back in the Sunday L.A. Times before the film’s premiere on April 19. Although The Other Conquest seems tailor-made for art-house audiences, Carrasco, the film’s director, and Domingo, its producer, insist that it has enough mainstream appeal to be shown in commercial theaters. If the film lives up to its name and captures a mainstream audience, the distributor plans to slowly open the film outside California.

The Other Conquest begins in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1520, a year after the arrival of the conquistador Hernán Cortés, who would lay siege to the city that same year. Historians agree that the Mexica Empire (better known as the Aztec Empire), which stretched from coast to coast in what is now central and southern Mexico, was, along with that of the South American Incas, the most advanced society in the Western Hemisphere at the time of the European arrival. By all accounts, Tenochtitlán was a floating city like Venice, sophisticated and beautiful enough to rival any European city.

It is against this historical backdrop that Topiltzin (played by Damián Delgado), an Aztec picture-writer of historical records, emerges during a rainy night into what was known as the “The Massacre of the Great Temple.” There, amid stacks of dead bodies, a stunned Topiltzin wakens to an entirely new world, ruled by the Spaniards. He quickly becomes the spiritual object of desire of Fray Diego (Jose Carlos Rodriguez), a Spanish friar bent on converting the natives to Catholicism. Topiltzin, the intelligent and rebellious illegitimate son of Moctezuma, one of the last Mexica emperors, is a former participant in Aztec human sacrifice, and a worthy candidate to test Fray Diego’s zeal. The Spaniards, shocked to see an Aztec priest extract a heart from a young virgin, do not hesitate to kill or torture the natives as a means to “conversion.”

The film focuses on the lethal consequences of the spiritual tug
of war between the Aztecs and the Spaniards, yet Carrasco and Domingo also acknowledge that the geographic conquest of Mexico exacted as high a toll. “What happened in Mexico was a real holocaust,” says Carrasco. “Eight million Indians died in the decade following the conquest. Sure, most of them due to illness, but my God! The population was completely decimated. It was one of the worst ecological tragedies ever, and it’s very important that we know what happened.”

The idea for the film began about 10 years ago, when Carrasco and Domingo met while undergraduates at New York University. The newfound friends were dismayed by the 1992 celebrations in honor of the 500 years since the discovery of America by Columbus. As the director and producer sit in a Hollywood hamburger joint, the 32-year-old Carrasco, who was born and raised in Mexico City, explains in perfect English that they felt what was needed was an indigenous version of the Mexican conquest. (Domingo, who is busy on his cell phone taking care of last-minute details about the film’s premiere, lets Carrasco do most of the talking.) “We really felt that it was time to tell the story from the other side, to imagine how an Aztec Indian might have experienced and perceived the conquest. We usually hear the story told from the conqueror’s standpoint. We get the European version of it.”

The son of legendary tenor Plácido Domingo, the New Jersey–born, Spanish-raised Domingo, 31, financed the film, while Carrasco wrote the script and directed. Domingo’s wife, Andrea Sanderson, who studied photography, was its production designer and second-unit director. In 1992, Carrasco was able to persuade a Mexican philanthropist to partially finance the first part of the film, which was shot that year. The cameras continued to roll until there was no more money. Now based in New York, Domingo traveled Mexico for three years making phone calls, throwing fund-raisers and showing potential investors a 30-minute videotape of the unfinished film. He would shortly after bring his father on board as executive producer. Additional moneys came from other private investors, foundations and Mexican institutions, and, in 1995, Carrasco and Domingo were finally able to reassemble the cast and complete the film.

Pope John Paul II’s recent apologies for the Catholic Church’s past sins — including the forced conversions of indigenous peoples — seems to have come just in time for the film’s U.S. debut, says Carrasco. He adds that a recent screening for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was very well-received. Louis Velasquez, the director of the Archdiocese’s Hispanic ministries, praises the film for its portrait of “the great courage displayed by the Indians, who were able to be self-controlled and in turn act more civilized than the Europeans. They stayed with the Catholic Church even though they had seen the behavior of some of its members. It is a miracle so many [of their descendants are] Catholic after so many centuries.”

“The stories of the conquest and its repercussions are very much present today, even five centuries later,” says Carrasco. “Not only in Mexico, but all over the world. I mean, what country in the world hasn’t undergone colonization or conquest?” Although the film is a work of fiction, he and Domingo went to great lengths to secure its historical accuracy. For example, the indigenous characters speak in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and many other peoples of their time. But what the filmmakers believe to be their greatest accomplishment is The Other Conquest’s main message, that given a degree of wit and resiliency, a nation can be conquered physically, but not spiritually. “I think that’s the great discovery of both Fray Diego and Topiltzin in the movie,” says Carrasco, “when they realize that they are talking about the same things by different names. That there is this force, this higher principle that unites them rather than separates them.”


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