"Madrigal", "Road to Eden", "The Night of the Innocents": Three Cuban Films at Havana By José Rojas Bez
1. “Madrigal” (Fernando Perez)
When I decided to watch Madrigal, Fernando Perez’s recently released film, I thought I would see a movie in the style of his former picture, Suite Habana (2003) and of his masterpiece, Madagascar (1994).
Waiting for the best from one of our leading filmmakers, I was quickly disappointed. Madrigal is conceived in the spirit of an artistic inquiry and in a postmodern atmosphere, which has always been characteristic of his style, but now highly exacerbated. Out of control? Lack of authenticity from the original inspiration?
Under the influence of Fellini (and, of course, of Dante Alighieri), the baroque, the film’s surrealism and expressionism are shattered by an excessive rhetoric in a supposedly clever theatre-inside-the-film, as well as in a two-part recreation of reality, in which Perez tries to convey a lot but in fact does not say as much as necessary.
Kitsch, or even better, camp, are two technical words. “There is only one step separating a magnificent idea from a ridiculous one” is a very popular saying. And that is the impression Madrigal leaves.
The sound recording is excellent. Once again, the music composed by Edesio Alejandro is outstanding, as is the cinematography of the expert Raúl Pérez Ureta, both Perez’s regular collaborators. But a cinematographer or a composer has never saved a fruitless film. I’ve heard — I don’t remember now the exact lines — that the editor can sometimes save or even destroy a film, though I believe more in the second possibility. Nevertheless, in this case, editing has not saved the movie.
The first part of the film — the unfulfilled love story of the girl — works better due to its romantic atmosphere and a certain tenderness which compensates a little for the film’s excess. The performances do convince us in the way they are supposed to.
The second section gets out of control in an affected stylistic manner. It refuses to allow us to enjoy the performances or the other aspects (cinematography, music) which could have been pleasant. One arrives at the end regretting such an overdone failure.
2. “Road to Eden” (Daniel Díaz Torres)
With a radical different style to that of Fernando Perez’s, Daniel Díaz Torres offers us Road to Eden (Camino al Eden) 17 years later after Alice in Wonderland (Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas), which we consider his most interesting work, due to its formal rupture with the former Cuban film tradition and its critical and social spirit, in spite of the mistakes he made due to his lack of experience.
The differences between Alice in Wondertown, one of the pioneers of postmodern style in Cuba, and the most recent film, with its romantic and naturalistic aesthetics, are extreme.
Road to Eden is based on a conventional story of love, hatred, vengeance, and arrogance at the end of the 19th century during the Cuban War of Independence. Díaz Torres constructs the tale with memories told by one of the main characters at the request of a descendant of the other leading female character. There is an interview in the initial sequence and another at the end. Forget structural or stylistic innovation.
But, in fact, the subject and story are good, with rich conflicts and attractive settings.
But many elements go wrong, mainly the dramatic progression and the performances. Besides the unconvincing actors, the film develops in a very slow, delayed manner up to the climax, which is lost in unnecessary or repeated details (characters, minor incidents). What is worse, it is filmed with low skill that does prevents it from imparting real pleasure. The film narrative is overloaded as it attempts to present a colorful atmosphere and a large number of supporting characters.
At the end, conflicts explode and events speed up, leaving us with the impression of a little mature film and, above all, of a badly structured screenplay. Perhaps the film would have been better as a short.
3. “The Night of the Innocents” (Arturo Sotto)
The Night of the Innocents (La Noche de los Inocentes), by Arturo Sotto, is for me the best Cuban feature-length film released in 2007, and one of the most interesting of the past years.
I believe so, not because it has totally convinced me nor because there were no gaps in its structure, but because of its interesting masquerade concerning a subversion of values, a current element in Sotto’s filmography since his well-known short Talco para lo negro (1995).
For me, I continue to prefer Think of Me (Pon tu pensamiento en mi, 1996), his first feature-length fiction film, for his well-aimed effort at providing new forms and aesthetic meanings, and for his critical suggestions to the artistic and social attitudes in Cuba in a rich masquerade a little bit derived from Buñuel, Pasolini, and Fellini — in fact, from surrealism, but in general postmodernism.
I know many others prefer Vertical Love (Amor vertical, 1997), a critical comedy constructed with more realistic and traditional aesthetics.
But, although one could prefer any other of Sotto’s films, we cannot ignore the capacity of The Night of the Innocents to seek into the core of many problems and general characteristics of our society (maybe also of others? why not? we’ll see in the future), mainly in its references to hypocrisy, deceit, and cowardice, to what one says and doesn’t feel, to what one preaches and doesn’t follow, to the hidden dirt and the disasters. Masks fall in the comings and goings of the characters; we spectators are invited to let them fall.
From mask to mask, unmasking and unmasking, swinging backward and forward… At the end, the two finest and most sincere characters are the ones who seemed most “masked”: the false (former) policeman and the supposed transvestite.
The most unconvincing elements of the film are not its dramatic structure (which is nicely constructed) nor its performances, though unbalanced (this is one of the few convincing ones by Jorge Perugorría since Strawberry and chocolate — Fresa y chocolate), but rather its careless screenplay, with weak moments in its dialogue and sequences which could have been simplified or eliminated. Especially the unnecessary ending, after the arrival of the actual agent of the law and the retreat of the pretender who had been uncovered since the beginning.
Ultimately, the film is an interesting experience in the aesthetics of the critical farce and the conversion of the social conventions of a “big carnival” to what is as a whole an unsatisfactory film.