This was the beginning of the remarkable overland journey for which Cabeza de Vaca is known. It ended in 1536 with his arrival at the Spanish camp at Culiacan on the Pacific coast of Mexico.
"Cabeza de Vaca" is a road movie set in a time before there were roads. In the eight years of what becomes a kind of pilgrimage, Cabeza de Vaca (Juan Diego) lives with various Indian tribes, alternately as a slave and as a shaman of great healing powers. As he teaches his captors, he is taught by them.
He is treated with harshness and contempt, then, after performing some seeming miracle, he is worshipped and set free. Sometimes he simply makes his own escape. Along the route, he meets other shipmates he thought to be dead.
Finally, like Kevin Costner in "Dances With Wolves," he learns to appreciate the sustaining mysticism of a culture that the white conquerors have sworn to stamp out.
The screenplay, by Mr. Echevarria and Guillermo Sheridan, is based on Cabeza de Vaca's own memoirs, "Los Naufragios" (The Shipwrecked Men), written in 1542.
Mr. Echevarria's previous films have all been documentaries, which is possibly the reason that "Cabeza de Vaca" is most effective when it observes people and events at an impartial remove. Yet so little attempt is made to fix time and place that confusion arises.
There seem to be mountains on the coast of Florida, and Texas would appear to be only a stone's throw from the Pacific coast of Mexico.
The tribes he meets are undifferentiated, with the exception of a stunning early adventure when he is the prisoner of a shaman and the shaman's servant, an armless dwarf who could have been imagined by Luis Bunuel.
At a couple of points Mr. Echevarria suggests that Cabeza de Vaca may have been the first white man to enjoy the mind-expanding properties of peyote and other substances natural to the Southwest.
Though Mr. Diego tends to act broadly, Cabeza de Vaca remains an unknown, chilly character. The camera does little to reflect the man's state of mind, except during what are obviously dreams, illustrated in conventional movielike ways.
"Cabeza de Vaca" is a small, generalized evocation of an epic subject. CABEZA DE VACA Directed by Nicolas Echevarria; screenplay (Spanish with English subtitles) by Guillermo Sheridan and Mr. Echevarria from the book "Naufragios" by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca; photography by Guillermo Navarro; edited by Rafael Castanedo; music by Mario Lavista; produced by Rafael Cruz, Jorge Sanchez and Julia Solorzano Foppa. At the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1, 11 West 53d Street, as part of the New Directors/ New Films Series of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Department of Film of the Museum of Modern Art. Running time: 111 minutes. This film has no rating. WITH: Juan Diego, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Roberto Sosa, Carlos Castanon, Gerardo Villarreal, Roberto Cobo, Jose Flores, Eli Machuca "Chupadora"Continue reading the main story
With little dialog and exquisite, almost documentary-like images, Cabeza de Vaca offers a fascinating (if not mystical and at times just plain puzzling) foray back to early 16th-century America as it chronicles the exploits of the explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca as he spends eight years traversing the wild lands surrounding the Gulf of Mexico. The story itself is based on the book Naufragio, Cabeza de Vaca's personal account. Cabeza de Vaca was the ship's treasurer on an ill-fated expedition to America. Marooned on the densely jungled Florida coast he becomes the unwilling guest of the Iguase Indians (for added realism and to help audiences understand how Cabeza de Vaca felt, the Native speech is not translated). He is enslaved and much of the story centers on his coming to grips with his strange new life and the people around him. Eventually he is taken to a powerful Iguase shaman who teaches him the healing arts, skills he is able to put to amazing use during his amazing journey.