After some experimental shorts and an award-winning debut feature, The Project of the Century (La obra del siglo) is Carlos Machado Quintela’s second fiction film. The title sounds ambitious – it may refer not only to its subject, but to the film itself. Quintela observes several lonely people who must live together in a kind of deserted ghost town, which was originally intended to become the “project of the century”.
One of the film’s producers explains: “Before we even knew exactly what we wanted to tell, we knew we would shoot the film at this specific location. The location came first, and the movie grew out of it”.
That location is the Electro-Nuclear City (ENC), a 1980s collaboration between Russia and Cuba to build the first reactor in the Caribbean. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, plans were frozen. What remains today is a settlement with a huge abandoned central area, surrounded by barracks.
But people are still living in these barracks: men who were once employed at the nuclear site and lived in the Soviet-era buildings. The producers worked with these men – after the screening, we are told that they are not professional actors. It is a surprise, because the performances are natural and comic, in a very human way.
The film tells the story of three Cuban men: Rafael, who used to work in the nuclear site but now shares a flat with his ardent, domineering father Otto. Rafael’s son also returns after many years to the seemingly deserted place, after a relationship gone wrong. In this city, almost entirely devoid of women, the three men try to live together and find meaning in their pursuits. Scenes from their daily lives are shown in black and white: Rafael painting a room with his son Leo and showing him some dance steps. Otto’s obsession with his goldfish Benjamin. Their slow, hollow lives. The shots are long, static and comical; all of this is interspersed with archival footage from the town’s TV channel of the 70s, Tele Nuclear. The TV images are shown in original format: optimistic propaganda, smaller and in colour.
This film might be seen as some kind of ironic, mocking social critique. But Quintela puts everything into perspective using humor, absurdism and surrealism. In a scene towards the end, Rafael finally meets a woman and takes her to the men’s apartment for dinner, where a kind of cockfight takes place between Otto and Rafael. The woman asks Rafael to speak Russian “because it’s sexy”, while his Russian teacher stands in the bedroom correcting his pronunciation.
Quintela’s film is extravagant, with its 70s game show-style credits, music and the original Tele Nuclear images. It is an original experiment – every scene is a little movie in its own right, with the static quality we associate with Roy Andersson mixed with the theatrics of Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (2012). With this collage of styles, Quintela shows his daring and power as a filmmaker.
Quintela received money from the Hubert Bals Fund, which offers assistance to innovative, talented filmmakers from Africa, Asia, Latin America and parts of Eastern Europe to make outstanding, important feature films. This year, his film has won both the FIPRESCI Prize in Toulouse and a Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam.
There was another outstanding film at Toulouse. Jayro Bustamente’s debut Ixcanul Volcano is about a 17-year-old Kaqchiqel girl and her desire to escape from her restricted life as a plantation worker in the foothills of a volcano. It is a wry portrait of corruption and the miscommunication between city dwellers and tribal communities.
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2015