By John Mulderig
NEW YORK (CNS) — The clash of civilizations precipitated by the European conquest of South America provides the background for the quirky but essentially humane historical romance “The Queen and the Conqueror.”
This very loosely fact-based Colombian production is now streaming on Netflix in 60 hourlong episodes. Its Spanish dialogue is translated via subtitles.
The unusual pair at the center of the drama is made up of downtrodden indigenous woman Catalina (Essined Aponte) and one of the few Spaniards willing to show her any compassion, adventurer Pedro de Heredia (Emanuel Esparza), the real-life founder of the city of Cartagena. The fact that Heredia falls in love with Catalina at first sight helps him to be kindly.
Catalina is subject to the much less welcome attention of Diego Nicuesa (Manuel Navarro). Early on in the series, having slaughtered the inhabitants of her native village, Nicuesa abducts Catalina and tries to force her to become his sexual slave.
Though Pedro helps Catalina to escape, she’s wounded in the getaway and the two later become separated. Catalina then comes under the protection of Enriquillo (Carlos Kaju), a native lad educated and mentored by Dominican Father Bartolome de las Casas (Kepa Amuchastegui).
The presence of Las Casas, the future bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, celebrated for his championing of the rights of the indigenous, highlights the program’s somewhat schizophrenic treatment of Catholicism.
Based on the three episodes screened, Las Casas is straightforwardly presented as a hero. And the scene in which he baptizes Catalina is touching. But it’s marred by the fact that, immediately after administering the sacrament, Las Casas puts ashes on Catalina’s forehead with the words, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Unless we’re to assume that it happens to be Ash Wednesday, this shows just how little screenwriters Jhonny Ortiz, Adriana Barreto and Gustavo Salcedo know about the faith. The positive depiction of Las Casas, moreover, is offset by the fact that Nicuesa, an evil lecher, is shown beating himself with a whip while reciting prayers in front of a crucifix.
Although Pedro and Catalina’s relationship is so far chaste, we first meet Pedro while he’s in bed with his married lover back in Spain. This is treated in the script as a lark that helps establish Pedro’s credentials as a gallant.
While still in the Old World, Pedro also encounters a fortuneteller who has both magical powers and the gift of prophecy. But the brief trance into which she draws him seems to be meant to enhance the show’s atmosphere rather than to depict anything that would apply to life beyond the TV screen.
Restrained in its treatment of sexuality, the series is considerably less so where violence is concerned. Brutality and gore crop up frequently.
Add to that the occasional profanity, numerous milder oaths and a handful of crass terms and it’s clear that this is not a suitable choice for youngsters — all the more so since publicity materials suggest that a vengeance theme becomes prominent in later installments.
Adults able to treat its brief occult and overall morally mixed content with discernment may appreciate the exotic locales and old-fashioned derring-do of “The Queen and the Conqueror.” They should know going in, however, that — in keeping with its expansive running time — this is a story that unfolds at a leisurely pace.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.