Toulouse’s Cinélatino is the largest festival of its kind in Europe. This year, it offered an official competition featuring high quality films committed to the social reality of their countries of origin. Audience numbers were high, as were the number of people attending activities surrounding the competition, embodying the concept of a French community concerned with the progress and struggles of Latin Americans.
Despite fierce competition from the Guatemalan film Ixcanul, the FIPRESCI jury decided to award the prize to Cuban director Carlos Machado Quintela for The Project of the Century (La Obra del Siglo) for its daring, analytical, groundbreaking approach, unusual in the context of a comedy. Quintela’s film is imperfect, delirious and realistic – just like the future of its characters, who blame the world for their plight.
The Project of the Century presents three generations of a family in Cuba, a country which has been on the verge of providing a fairer future for its inhabitants. The conflict between what is and what could be – and still is not – marks both the film’s plot and its narrative structure. Each frame highlights the clash between the society that Cubans have been taught to dream of and the actual world which surrounds them. Quintela communicates this idea in a sophisticated way, with his use of editing tied to the aesthetics of globalization.
Quintela also draws on a great deal of footage showing the unrealized plans to build several nuclear power plants in Cuba with support from the Soviet Union, which would have made the island self-sufficient in terms of energy – but this leap forward never occurred. Each plant was to be attached to a city populated by technical staff. In a city which has been left half-finished, half-populated, the frustrated people feel that history has robbed them of their entitlements. They need a catharsis in order to vent their anger against decades of neglect. These harsh feelings are mixed with a humor which saves the subjects from self-indulgence.
The film received support from the Cuban Film Institute and the Rotterdam Film Festival’s Hubert Bals Fund, as well as producers from other countries such as Argentina. It was shot with the full knowledge of the Cuban authorities in the town where the first of the nuclear power plants was supposed to be built. Today the town remains populated, but it is practically a ghost town, and its existence is not one of the Cuban government’s best claims to fame. The film’s producer said he would rate the level of government support for the film as eight out of ten – a prospect which most international filmmakers would be willing to accept.
The other great movie in the official section was Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul. Unlike The Project of the Century, this film’s aesthetic was not based on imperfection; instead, it had a perfect formal design and a well-calibrated plot. The social backdrop was filmed in the Mayan language, with some segments in Spanish to highlight the problems of communication between the two cultures which form the basis of the story. With its masterful interpretation and superb photography, devoid of precious or arty effects, and its structurally unconventional climax, this film showed some signs of becoming a classic of Latin American cinema. This could happen – it is a work which will grow once it is seen by critics and audiences all over the world. Yet it may lack some of the flexible, self-analytical approach of the Cuban film; Ixcanul is tempered by a certain level of historical determinism, which makes it resemble a moral fable, and gives it a more conservative character than the exemplary self-criticism of Machado’s film.
Film audiences today are wary of the dominance of formal structure, but Ixcanul is a paradigmatic case of absolute structural harmony. Almost everything is carefully thought out: the photography is perfect without falling into artfulness. The authenticity of the characters and situations challenges the style of conventional documentaries, even ethnological films. But this perfect plan has some flaws. Shouldn’t a film this masterful have a moral awareness to match? Some details seem almost unforgivable in their temporary concessions to stereotype: for instance, when we see an Indian with a drinking problem, or in the uncomfortable scene where Maria receives a proposal during the banquet.
Ixcanul will eventually become a classic, but not enough time has passed for some of its problems to settle: the fact that it lacks a moral ambition to compete with the rest of its qualities. If society does improve in the future, we may possibly regard these less politically progressive films with some tolerance. In that case, history will accept artists who were prudent in the past, as well as those who were bold.
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2015