Friday, March 16, 2018

Matthew Restall's "When Montezuma Met Cortés"

Matthew Restall is Sparks Professor of History and Director of Latin American Studies at Penn State. He is the author of Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. He has had numerous conversations over the last thirty years with screenwriters and filmmakers in the US and Mexico interested in making a feature film, mini-series, or documentary on the Conquest of Mexico.

The challenges they faced are similar to those Restall considers here, as he dreamcasts an adaptation of his latest book, When Montezuma Met Cortes: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History.
It would seem simple to cast three central characters in the epic tale of the Spanish invasion of the Aztec Empire: Benicio del Toro playing Hernando Cortés as a ruggedly handsome, fascinatingly flawed hero; one of the current Latina rising stars, like Ana de la Reguera (already a telenovela star in the Spanish-speaking world) to play Malinche, Cortés’s native interpreter and lover; and a Native American actor like Zahn McClarnon or Raoul Max Trujillo to play a brooding, doomed Emperor Montezuma.

But it is not that simple. Such a casting reflects the racist romanticism of the traditional narrative, in which Montezuma surrenders his empire and Malinche her heart to an irresistible Cortés—a metaphor for the providential inevitability of Spanish triumph. Such a movie might have worked in the mid-20th century, but today it would seem absurdly and offensively outdated. The reality of the co-called Conquest of Mexico was a brutal war of invasion, marked by massacres, mass enslavement, and horrific mortality rates among combatants and civilians. The true tale was dark, not romantic.

Cortés should thus be played by an actor who can foreground his flaws and insecurities (if it must be a star, Gael García Bernal or Diego Luna); in fact, the conquistadors should be an ensemble cast, with Alvarado, Sandoval, and several others given equal screen time (so, ideally, García Bernal and Luna). Malinche was a child of 12 or 13 when conquistadors acquired her as part of a grim trade in sex slaves; it would be a travesty to cast an adult star, especially a “hot” one, in the role. Both her and Montezuma should be played by native speakers of Nahuatl, as they should be speaking that language for most of their screen time. Trujillo spoke passable Yucatec Maya in Apocalypto (2006), so I’d enjoy seeing him manage Nahuatl as Montezuma or another of the Nahua protagonists, such as Ixtlilxochitl—an Aztec prince to whom I would give a central role, as he was more of an architect of Tenochtitlan’s fall than was Cortés.

In an endnote in When Montezuma Met Cortés, I speculate that one reason projected movies of the last thirty years on this topic were never made was because of the logistics and costs of re-creating and then destroying the Tenochtitlan of 1519. Advances in CGI now make that technically possible, but perhaps no less expensive. Two potential solutions that would also avoid the trap of the traditional narrative would be either to structure the movie as a Rashomon-style series of survivor perspectives (placing much of the movie in a more manageable post-Aztec early Mexico City, and reducing the screen time of the traditional big three characters), or to borrow the artifice used in También La Lluvia (2011), which was partly a film about making a film set in the Spanish Conquest era. In several scenes the actors playing actors debated the treatment of native peoples, permitting an airing of contrary perspectives that would be anachronistic in a movie set entirely in the 16th century. If When Montezuma Met Cortés were to be structured that way, García Bernal could reprise his También La Lluvia role as a Mexican film director, and Benicio del Toro could be deliberately miscast as Cortés.
Learn more about When Montezuma Met Cortés at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: When Montezuma Met Cortés.

--Marshal Zeringue