At NYFA, our students come from over 120 countries around the world. So Columbus Day may not be a very familiar holiday for many in our community. And with Indigenous Peoples’ day on the rise as a potential replacement for Columbus Day, this controversial national holiday is an excellent opportunity dig into some big questions about culture, transformation, and change. And what better way to do that than to watch some worthwhile films?
We rounded up some well-crafted movies featuring North and South America around the time of the first European expeditions and colonies, for our students’ consideration. Here are three compelling films you won’t want to miss, each capturing a noteworthy, complex, and multi-dimensional portrayal of the New World. These films may not feature Columbus, but they do explore the question of what the “New World” meant from a few different perspectives.
1. “The Mission” (1986)
Acting giants Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons portray two Spanish Jesuit missionaries with equal passion but strongly differing views on how to protect the South Indian tribe they serve from Portuguese slave traders. “The Mission” is a poignant, intense, and exquisitely rendered film that visual and performing arts students can absorb and study on many levels.
2. “Apocalypto” (2006)
Director/writer Mel Gibson and partner Farad Safinia’s imaginative portrayal of the Mayan Empire on the verge of collapse vividly calls a lost civilization, language, and way of being to life, with action-packed suspense and lush jungle settings all along the way. The audience follows Jaguar Paw, whose village has been ransacked by a the Mayans for human sacrifices, as he struggles to free himself from a terrible fate as a captive and reunite with his wife. It’s an interesting interpretation of a lost world.
3. “The New World” (2005)
This visually stunning Terrence Malick piece centers on the familiar, fictional love story between the historical characters of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, during one of the British Empire’s initial explorations of the New World. What this film offers is a unique tone and ambiance that bring this raw, wild point of history to life in alternately sumptuous and grim visual language that only Malick can speak. History buffs will also appreciate the inclusion of Pocahontas’ real-life husband, John Rolfe, in the plotline.
Honorary Mention: “Shakespeare in Love” (1998)
True, the action of this film doesn’t take place in the New World — instead, “Shakespeare in Love” centers in 1590s London. This period piece centers on the young and passionate writer, Shakespeare, as he explores a brave new world: falling in love. While this may not seem directly connected to Christopher Columbus or the New World, the British colonies — especially Virginia — do play an important role in a critical plot-twist. Besides, do we really need an excuse to watch this 1990s masterpiece that snagged seven Oscars and changed the way a new generation saw the immortal bard?
We hope this Columbus Day presents you with valuable opportunities to look deeper and go further with the questions and passions that drive us all to create visual and performing art. So immerse, enjoy, and learn from some noteworthy films.
What films are inspiring you this week? What does the New World mean to you? Let us know in the comments below!