New Cuban Films: Cuba In Three Stages By Juan Ramirez Martinez

in 28th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by Juan Ramírez Martínez

For a long time Cuban cinema has not been well represented at its own festival. There are usually assorted documentaries, but not so many features, as there are this year. I want to discuss only three of those, shown in one competition or another: Benny (El Benny), by young filmmaker Jorge Luis Sánchez; The Silly Age (La edad de la peseta), by Pavel Giroud, whose previous film, a segment in the omnibus work Three Times Two, was hailed by critics; and finally Manuel Pérez Paredes’s Mauricio’s Diary (Páginas del diario de Mauricio). That all three were released in 2006 bodes well for Cuban production after years of relative silence.

Stage One

After a very long wait, the persistent optimism of Jorge Luis Sánchez has led him to a place in the history of Cuban cinema not just as another director, but as one of the most talented and daring ones since Benny, his first feature, garnered the opera prima prize at the 28th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana.

Benny is not a lesson in aesthetics. Neither does it have a plot that questions contemporary Cuban realities and attitudes, that would capture the serious attention of specialized critics. This is a film with a high degree of artistic dignity and compromise with the Cuban culture it rescues, that of the ’50s and the ’60s. Sánchez has carefully rediscovered a myth of Cuban popular music, so he had to assume some risks. Benny is a film of paid debts, debts paid in full.

These are some of the comments I heard in the days after its first screening: “The actor does not look like Benny Moré”; “They left out those moments when Benny was on big tours around the country and abroad”; “I think they should have shown the moment in which Fidel goes to see Benny while the singer was in a coma”; “I think it was too scary and fantastic to create a female character who killed Benny with a drink.” (They forgot that Alea symbolized Death with a girl in Guantanamera.) I heard some of these also from specialists who wanted some more music (the songs they like the best, of course) in the film. I decided to ask them if they were pleased with the film in spite of all those “lacks”, and most of the people told me they were fully satisfied! How could one fulfill the expectations of those who have been waiting so long for a film about a popular idol who has been transmitted to generations of Cubans with such a wide range of iconography and records, and, to complicate things further, anecdotes, both real and fictitious? That is Sánchez’s struggle. That is a risk of any biopic, especially with so many people feeling they know more than the others about the topic — there is no doubt that many do know a lot about Benny — and each one would like to have the film please himself and match his own criteria. That is the real Impossible Mission, not Tom Cruise’s saga.

The film takes us to the ’50s and the ’60s with very careful, studied art direction and a particularly delicate cinematography, apart from a nicely elaborated sound track. The songs are not performed by the real Moré, but they are not so far from him, because Juan Manuel Villi, the popular troubadour from Santiago de Cuba (anonymous for most of us till now), has something in his voice that captures something of Benny: “the spirit and soul reincarnated”, as he himself said. Villi himself could be the subject of another film, in my opinion.

Various coherent flashbacks are used as important turning points to reflect features of the personality and psychology of “El Bárbaro del ritmo” (The Genius of Rhythm), as all Cuba called the legend that was Benny Moré. Through the flashbacks the audience sees both the weak and the strong points of the artist’s character. We face a very human dimension of a man, a common man who rose to fame from a very humble sphere. We are in front of Bartolo, a man addicted to alcohol and drugs that cause irreparable damage in his mortal body, and though some people would call this a weakness (if it is really a weakness), is not taking the place of his virtues. Virtuousness is well handled by the director so as not to make a god of this man, but rather a man. Professional ethics, solidarity with his musicians, a strong personality, and strength of principles are enough to build a character who touches our hearts through a mix of the genres of the melodrama and the musical. All of this is directed to popular taste like a good dish of Cuban cuisine.

Someone was talking about the use of scenes of the underground battle against the governments of the time. I believe it was very intelligent to include those elements so that history would be unable to omit them. That was the real environment of Havana in those days.

I suggest an unprejudiced vision of the film, to view the film that was made and not as the one we would make. This is the film about El Benny. Let us wait to see who dares to do films about Rita Montaner, Compay Segundo, Bola de Nieve, or any other of those glories of Cuban music about whom we all know something and expect more. Welcome to the music and the rediscovery of El Bárbaro del ritmo.

Stage Two

La Edad de la peseta (The Silly Age) is a common phrase used in Cuba to denote the period of adolescence when children are growing into their teens and suffer certain changes in behavior. This is the story of Samuel (Iván Carreira); Alicia, Samuel’s mother (Susana Tejera); and Violeta, Samuel’s grandmother (Mercedes Sampietro).

Giroud places his story in the Havana of 1958. The recreation of that Havana is amazing. The photography gives us the atmosphere of the ’50s and recreates locations with accuracy. The frustration of Alicia after her most recent love disappointment and her flight to her mother’s house reveal that Violeta is not just a common mother: She is tough. The film states clearly that that is a result of her solitude, but that it could also be due to a state of behavior at that time. The family is not even middle class, yet they have a high standard of living. Alicia arrive with her 10-year-old son. They feel the rejection of Violeta, who is clearly not happy to share her privacy.

The relationship between Samuel and Violeta becomes surprising. She finally accepts him, and propels a reaction in him that will free his instincts and his attitudes, as well as all those proper feelings and sentiments of passage he is growing into.

The Silly Age is one of those conventional stories told in a proper mode with a few characters, but lower in intentions than Three Times Two. It may please any audience, and we could say that would work in any place, but we think that it would have been better if the director would have not stuck so close to the screenplay. There is an allusion to what would later be “Operation Peter Pan” at the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.

This is a story of changes in both characters and society. The Silly Age shows changes brought about by love and affection, and it provides some excellent solutions to love affairs.

Stage Three

A diary is something usually very personal, but not always. Mauricio’s Diary, directed by veteran Manuel Pérez Paredes, (The Man from Maisinicú, 1973) is a collective diary of all the Cubans over the past 12 years. The film was awarded with a Special Mention by the festival’s fiction jury.

Manuel Pérez, director and writer of the film, has a select cast of the most renowned Cuban actors: among others, Rolando Brito (Mauricio), Blanca Rosa Blanco (Mirta), Larisa Vega (Elena), and the excellent Enrique Molina (Guillermo).

The synopsis states that it is “Havana in a day in September in 2000. Olympic Games are being held in Sydney, and it is Mauricio’s sixtieth birthday. He is a man alone, devastated by the unexpected death of his wife.” But it is more than that. The film goes much further.

Mauricio’s Diary is perhaps one of the most sincere and honest films of recent Cuban cinema. It bypasses comedy, sarcasm, and metaphor to address sociopolitical changes in the island after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of socialism in Europe, as well as how those events influenced the attitudes and life of Cuba’s population.

“The story is told through a viewing of passages that have given form to the past 12 years of his Mauricio’s life, combining flashbacks with recent events that encompass key moments marking the path to that day. Individual dimensions combine with the social context of the last decade in the twentieth-century Cuba, a decade marked by deep political, economic, and social changes that stirred the ethic and human foundation of these generations, the first to enter in the new millennium.”

This if from the film’s press material. All of these elements are seen through the opposition of the ideas of the younger generation with those of the mid-twentieth century in Cuba.

The diary is common to any Cuban. So we encounter people said to be revolutionaries who have a second face, while Mauricio is glued to the ideals of his political principles. However he has to allow some changes affecting his family, such as the migration of his daughter, as well as boarding tourists, in order to survive those difficult years of the so-called “Special Period” of the early ’90s. This is such a Cuban film that it can not be easily understood by those unaware of the real Cuban situation. It is a political film and follows the conventional rules of the genre. Honestly, those who saw one of Pérez Paredes’s two previous films might be surprised to read this, for he breaks with the style he had been following to offer something quite different and reflexive.