The Melodrama as Metaphor in "The Companion"

in 37th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, Havana

by Berta Carricarte Melgarez

Among the best Cuban films competing for the Coral award this year were The Project of the Century (La obra del siglo) by Carlos Machado Quintela and The Companion (El acompañante) by Pavel Giroud. Both are period pieces: the latter takes place in the 80s, when the first cases of HIV were diagnosed in Cuba. Back then, infected people were forced into a sanatorium under the guard of a military regime, which they could not leave without supervision. One of the patients is a young former soldier named Daniel, who contracted the virus in Africa. His partner, boxing champion Horacio (Yotuel Romero), is also here, as punishment for drug-taking.

Giroud’s film has a structure inspired by the canon of traditional melodrama, peppered with both humor and emotional intensity. The characters have familiar psychological profiles, while the subject refers to other films such as Rocky (1976) and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). The film has an intertextual approach, its story being invented yet plausible – or as my teacher used to say, un racconto ben trovato. Moreover, it is a story which could only take place in the Cuba of the 80s.

All aspects of art direction are excellent, including set design, props, costumes, hair and makeup, and location selection. The soundtrack, with its combination of diegetic and non-diegetic sound, is also well-managed. Non-diegetic music helps to create the film’s psychological atmosphere, while diegetic sound is used to create the conditions of a fictional universe.

Despite its apparent simplicity, the film offers clues about the complexity of Cuban society of the time, when there was still faith in a socialist future. Today that dream looks blurry and fuzzy, steeped in nostalgia. As Giroud has said, that era was “really the most joyful period for our cinema and the most optimistic for the press too. It is worth asking whether the endorsement of a shaky reality is what makes it possible for two films such as The Companion and The Project of the Century to co-exist today: films which delve into the sensitive issues of those years, seasoned with the music of Ojedita and Vicente Rojas, a true metaphor for that period (…) Maybe it is the beginning of a period in which cinema exhumes forgotten corpses, performing new autopsies on them,  and discovering that the cause of death is not the one listed on the coroner’s report.”

In the social backdrop of these two films, it is easy to perceive some of the nightmares which continue to haunt Cuban culture and the social imaginary: serious problems such machismo, double standards, opportunism, prejudice, and in particular, the battle with Uncle Sam. The US is hated by the Cuban establishment, but it is also the dream paradise of many islanders, who sail north hoping to drown their frustrations and resentments in the waters which separate Cuba from the States.

The idea of an athlete pushed to win a medal at any cost is a familiar theme in Cuban films. As Horatio, Yotuel Romero (former singer with the band Orishas) makes a successful acting debut. Without academy training, Romero has all the photogenic qualities needed to become a star of Cuban cinema. Undoubtedly, he also has the sensitivity and talent to explore this new phase of his artistic life. He expresses his character’s fiber through belligerent or introspective looks, without needing to shake his fists. There is no doubt that the quality of the film depends on its casting – the same story with different actors might have been a total failure.

Armando Miguel’s performance as one of the patients is as good as acting can get. As an officer, Yailene Sierra uses multiple shades of voice, look and gesture to communicate the tensions of her character. Camila Arteche and Broselianda Hernández play their supporting characters with dignity – note that a secondary character need not be played by a “second-class” actor. Salvo Bassile is good as the coach, while Yerlín Pérez portrays the repellent bisnera (illegal merchant) very effectively. But the coup de grace is a two-minute appearance by Ivan Colás, whose interpretive majesty is extraordinary. The character of the stern and arrogant colonel who despises his own AIDS-stricken son could only have been played by Colás.

Giroud, who previously directed Tres Veces Dos (2004), the small gem La Edad de la Peseta (2007) and the gangster thriller Omerta (2008) gives us a melodrama in which we can reflect on and mourn (if we wish) the victims of HIV. The number of HIV-related deaths is comparable to the casualties of a war.

In conclusion, good cinema can take many paths, and they all lead to the same destination: pleasure, joy, knowledge and moral reflection. Tarkovsky, Rohmer, Kiarostami, Wilder, Forman and Tim Burton have all shown us this.

Edited by Lesley Chow