Recently four Americans were kidnapped and killed by Somalian pirates off the cost of Oman. Two of them — Jean and Scott Adam– spent the past decade, sailing the oceans offering Bibles and doing missionary work. In 2004, Kim Sun-il, a Korean missionary was beheaded in Iraq. In 2007, 23 Korean missionaries were held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan and two killed. In the 16th century too, missionaries made such suicidal trips to hostile places motivated by religious fanaticism and imperialism. Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God tells the tale of one such mission in the Peruvian rain forest in 1560 CE.
The movie starts with a convoy of Spaniards and their slaves snaking their way across the high Andean passes with women on palanquins, a priest, animals, heavy canons, and the Bible. Under the leadership of conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro, they are off to find the mythical El Dorado as well as save some souls. As they go through humid jungles, muddy terrain and reach the Amazon, Pizarro decides that they cannot proceed further. He sends a scouting party on four rafts through the rapids. One raft gets separated and the next day all people on it are found dead, killed by mysterious attackers.
From this point the lunacy starts. The leader Don Pedro de Ursúa decides that they should go back to Pizzaro while the second in command Don Lope de Aguirre disagrees. Aguirre argues that if they move forward, they will discover El Dorado and become rich like Hernán Cortés. The mutiny becomes violent: Ursúa is shot and wounded and a nobleman is chosen as the emperor. Aguirre reads a proclamation that Don Fernando de Guzman is the emperor of the New World and not Philip II of Spain.
Following this they set off on the raft and rest of the movie happens on this raft. While the crew starves, Emperor Guzman feasts. The movie moves at the leisurely pace of the Amazon and is disrupted a few times when they see native villages and find that some of their missing compatriots had been used as food. They move in constant fear of being attacked but do foolish things like letting their horses go. Some enervated Spaniards want to escape from Aguirre and return to Pizzaro. But the crazy leader, who took over after Guzman was killed, would not tolerate any talk of retreat. One day they see two natives on a boat and the first question the priest has for them is if they have heard of Jesus Christ. Even in the hostile atmosphere where their survival is at stake, their bigger concern is in Christian burial and after life.
The cruise along the river continues and finally, everyone is killed by the natives who fire arrows from the river banks. Undeterred, Aguirre goes forward claiming he is the Wrath of God and will gain untold riches one day.
This movie is considered a classic and is on Time Magazine’s Top 100 movies, but it was quite boring. There are many loose ends in the movie. For example, why is Aguirre such a crazy guy? Did they know he was crazy and still let him be in command? Unlike Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise there is no back-story to explain his behavior. Another point: Why did “Emperor” Guzman forgive Ursúa after the mock trial which sentenced him to death? Even Aguirre who hoisted Guzman as the emperor looks surprised at this verdict, but does nothing. When Aguirre takes over as the leader one of his first acts is to hang Ursúa. Much later in a disconnected scene Ursúa’s wife walks off into the forest and disappears.
The movie at 100 minutes is not long, but since it is done in an artsy/symbolic way, even the dramatic moments do not seem dramatic. There is a scene when the members of the team are collecting wood and iron. Since Ursúa had not given the order, he is sure that Aguirre is behind it. In a confrontational scene they both stare at each other reminding you of all those award winning Malayalam movies of the 80s. There is another scene when one of the slaves tells his story — about how he was a prince and was converted by the Spaniards — in an unemotional monotonic narrative as if he is reading from a piece of paper during the script reading session. In approximately 90% of the scenes, there is no emotion in the face of any of the characters.
But the movie makes up for all this by providing by some stunning visuals and it is no surprise that it has influenced film makers like Santosh Sivan. Right from the initial scene of the over the Andes to the raft journey along the Amazon, you experience the grandeur of the landscape. In his review Roger Ebert wrote that the movie was supposed to provide a feeling and not deliver artificial action. Since the movie is like a documentary, it does not provide much feelings. The only thing that stays with you is Aguirre’s madness.