An explorer with an unusual run of bad luck, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was in April 1528 among the first Spaniards to land in Florida, near to what is now Tampa Bay. Tocobagas regaled him with stories about cities of gold. Splitting his party, he set sail again, hugging the Florida coastline. A hurricane destroyed their ships. When the bedraggled party landed in Galveston, Texas on a makeshift raft, they settled among the indigenous tribes or were enslaved, depending on the historical account. Cabeza de Vaca and a small party, including a Spanish Moor named Estevanico, managed to escape, setting off on foot to Mexico City, living off horse flesh. During those wanderings he gained respect for the healing traditions of these indigenous peoples.
Opuntia, which debuts Miami this weekend on its national tour, uses these facts to tell a story about the attraction of land and the pull of myth. Along the way director David Fenster (Pincus, Trona) also presents a fictionalized rendering of Cabeza de Vaca himself, reincarnated as the prickly pear cactus after which his documentary is named. A mix of Errol Morris’ po-faced depictions of bizarre local customs, autobiography, and New Age travelogue, Opuntia is effective as far as it goes, which at just under an hour is far enough. He teases viewers with the possibility that Cabeza de Vaca “went native,” enough so that the spirits rewarded him after death; Cabeza de Vaca’s acceptance of Estevanico as companion is shown as evidence of the explorer’s unusual ecumenicism (he may deserve his own movie). Fenster traces the Spaniard’s journey from Florida to small towns like Marfa, Texas, using actor David Verdaguer’s voice-over for twice-told (if not more) tales. When Fenster moves among Americans who experience “healing energy” from “the peoples who live there,” he betrays no amusement, even when they play instruments and chant. Too facile, though, is the juxtaposition of Cabeza de Vaca’s ruminations on his dying father and the bedside confessions of Fenster’s own father, although he’s a lovely camera subject.
Funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, Opuntia is worth watching for its novelty; there aren’t many films, documentary or otherwise, about Spanish conquistadores made this century. This weekend you’ll have two opportunities. At Miami Beach Cinematheque, Argentine filmmaker Lucretia Martel’s Zama, about the travails of an eighteenth-century colonial administrator in what is now Paraguay, will also make its South Florida debut.
Opuntia will play at MDC’s Tower Theater Miami on Thursday, April 26.