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
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
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
Details of the book (in French) are available
Genre: Historical Drama
Runtime: 90 min
Director: Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe
Writing credits: Jean-Claude Carrière
Céline Baruch executive producer
Iris Carrière producer
Hervé Lavayssière supervising producer
Albert Roguenant associate producer
Original Music: ???
Non-Original Music: ???
Cinematography: Gérard Vigneron
Sound Mix: Dolby
Jean-Pierre Marielle Bartolomé
de las Casas
Jean-Louis Trintignant Ginèse
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
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
Punaa Protch Le Petit Fille