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19. La Controverse de Valladolid

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A masterpiece, dealing with a subject which was once of great interest but which seems remote and bizarre to modern western minds.

The film opens with Dominican and Franciscan friars filing into a church, along with a Cardinal (Jean Carmet). But this is not any church. It is the Franciscan friary church at Valladolid, the capital of Spain in 1550 when this film is set.

The friars are not just here to pray. They are here to participate in the Controverse de Valladolid, one of the most significant debates in the history of western Christendom. Presiding is the cardinal who is also a papal legate.

The debate is being held to determine whether American Indians possess human souls. In other words to decide whether they are human or animal. The decision will determine how native American peoples will be treated by the Catholic world.

On one side of the nave is a Dominican, Bartolomé de las Casas (Jean-Pierre Marielle). He has lived in Mexico, and is haunted by the horrors he witnessed there. Facing him is Ginèse de Sepúlveda (Jean-Louis Trintignant) a skilled Aristotelian philosopher. He puts the case that American Indians are less than human, that they cannot reason or understand the One True Religion, and that they do not posses human instincts or emotions. Hence they can legitimately be killed or used as beasts of burden.

This is a serious heavy-wieght battle between two sincere articulate men. The tension between them is palpable.

Gradually, we are drawn into their battle, and start to understand their positions. The movie cleverly takes us out of our modern certainties to a time when this was a genuine pressing question and the overwhelming majority of Christians did not share the views of modern Europeans. Of course, now we all think we know the answer to the question of whether native American peoples are human, but how much closer are we to defining what it is that makes a human being a human being ? When we come to think about it we tend to revisit ground familiar to Bartolomé de las Casas and Ginèse de Sepúlveda: Is it our intelligence that makes us human ? Or is it our physical form ? Or language ? Or sense of humour ? Or technology ? Or beliefs and practices?

All of the action of the film takes place in the Fransiscan friary, and almost all of it in the Church. Despite this, the action is vivid and rivetting. There is even humour and some clever twists - as when a pagan idol, specially shipped from Mexico, is brought into the church to prove a point.

Incidentally, this film was made as a movie for a French TV channel. It is based on real arguments from the period. This debate is not a genuine historical event - at least in the way it is shown in the film. Rather, the arguments between the two protagonists were conducted in the form of books and letters.

The film is based on a book of the same name by Jean-Claude Carrière, who points out that although the debate is invented, the arguments are taken from contemporary documents - even much of the phraseology. Accounts of Bartolomé de las Casas's time in the Americas are taken from a history written by the real, sixteenth century Bartolomé de las Casas. He had been a bishop in Mexico and personally witnesed the horrors that he recorded in his history, and that his character relates in this movie. Ginèse de Sepúlveda was a cannon at Cordova, the author of Democrates alter, sive de justice belli causis justifying the conquest and enslavement of the American Indians.

Details of the book (in French) are available below:

Genre: Historical Drama
90 min
Country: France
Director: Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe
Writing credits: Jean-Claude Carrière
Produced by:
Céline Baruch — executive producer
Iris Carrière — producer
Hervé Lavayssière — supervising producer
Albert Roguenant — associate producer
Original Music: ???
Non-Original Music: ???
Cinematography: Gérard Vigneron
Colour: Colour
Sound Mix: Dolby

Jean-Pierre Marielle — Bartolomé de las Casas
Jean-Louis Trintignant — Ginèse de Sepúlveda
Jean Carmet — Le Légat du Pape
Jean-Michel Dupuis — Le Colon
Claude Laugier — Frère Ambrosiano
Pascal Elso — Frère Emiliano
Franck Laigneau — Le jeune moine au claquoir
Michel Charrel — Le deuxième colon
Dominique Noé — Un assesseur du légat
Jean Nehr — Assistant de Las Casas
Didier Bourguignon — Le scribe
Mogan Mehlem — Représentant du Roi
Raymond Aulme — Un dominicain
Jean-Paul Egalon — Le soldat
Emmanuel-Georges Delajoie — L'ouvrier africain
Jean-Luc Orofino — Bouffon "Le Roi"
Salim Talbi — Bouffon "La Reine"
Jean-Eric Allal — Un Civil
Antoine Coesens — Assistant Sépulveda
Lucilla Diaz — L'Indienne
Louis Dedessus Le Moutier — Antipodiste
Enrique Pinedo-Ramirez — L'Indien
Alain Prévost — Bouffon "La Moine"
Punaa Protch — Le Petit Fille

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