Continuing from the previous post, on Obama’s Cuba announcement…
As it happens, I’ve seen two films from or about Cuba over the past year that are directly relevant to all this (see previous post). The first, which opened in Paris earlier this month, is ‘Return to Ithaca’, by the highbrow French director Laurent Cantet (en français: Retour à Ithaque)—who has an illustrious filmography to his name—was shot in Cuba, is entirely in Spanish, and with Cuban actors (apparently locally well-known, who live in Cuba). The entire pic—the screenplay of which was co-authored by Cantet and the well-known Cuban writer Leonardo Padura—takes place over a day and a night on a rooftop in downtown Havana—overlooking the oceanfront esplanade, the Malecón—with five old friends, 50ish in age—four guys and a gal—in a Big Chill-like reunion, where they drink, eat, and talk, talk, and talk. The 95-minute film is one long talk fest. Nothing else happens. The friends are all cultivated and educated—an engineer, artist, two playwrights, and an ophthalmologist—met in their late teens-early 20s in what looked to be (from their description and photos they showed one another) the Communist party youth league or some CP-led youth brigade, believed in the Revolution, and were part of the system into their adult lives. The occasion for the reunion is the return to Cuba of one of the gang, a playwright named Amadeo, who had been living in Spain for the previous 16 years.
The pic begins with the friends recounting stories from their shared past and all the funny things they did, with lots of laughing, joking, and singing, and how they all loved each other so much. I was somewhat dubious about the film going into it—it didn’t look too promising from the trailer—and the way it started out did not reassure me, but then the dialogue became more serious, and then very serious indeed, as the friends took stock of their lives—and engaging in personal recriminations along the way—and how their lives and dreams were frustrated, when not shattered, by the system. Only one of the friends, a onetime artist, was doing well for himself, as a manager in an enterprise or organism—obviously state-owned—that offered him access to foreign goods (electronics, high-end whiskey, etc) and frequent foreign travel in style. As for the others who were getting by okay, they had family members in Miami who sent care packages. Castro or the Communist party are never mentioned, or even alluded to, but the film, in its final quarter, evolves into a biting, even devastating, critique of the political and economic order Fidel & Co have imposed on the country. The friends all believed in the Revolution when they were young but all but one have lost their illusions—and the one who is still a believer, but is not doing too well for himself—and is unable to make use of his training as an engineer—says he remains so because “I have to believe in something.” The clincher comes when Amadeo finally reveals—no spoilers—the veritable circumstances of how he ended up in Spain, why he opted for exile, and had decided now to return and for good (which his friends could not comprehend). It’s awesome moment in the film.
When I left the salle—at an art house-y cinema pas loin de chez moi—one of the audience members (few in number and all older) who exited next to me asked what I thought of it. My response: “C’est un très bon film” (with stress on the très). I will go so far as to say it’s one of the best I’ve seen this year. It’s not a film grand public but may (and should) be seen by anyone with art house-y tastes and/or a strong interest in politics. Reviews are here and here. Trailer is here.
The other film is ‘Una Noche’, which I saw exactly one year ago (it opened in the US in August 2013). It’s the directorial debut of Lucy Mulloy, who’s British, a graduate of Oxford and the NYU film school, and a protégé of Spike Lee. In an interview prior to the release, Mulloy thus described her film
Una Noche is heart-wrenching movie that takes us to Havana, Cuba, this unique country that in this day and age of globalization is still a mystery to so many. It follows the lives of three teenagers: Raul (Dariel Arrechaga), Lila (Anailín De La Rúa De La Torre), Elio (Javier Núñez Florián) through their daily lives in Havana until an assault involving a tourist leaves Raul little choice but to flee to the United States [on a makeshift raft]. Elio will help and Lila will follow, for reasons that only young hearts can justify. They lead us to the water of what is and what was, and that inexplicable way of loving.
And this from Stephen Holden’s NYT review
“Una Noche” surges with vitality so palpable that, for its duration, you feel as if you were living in the skins of characters often photographed in such extreme close-up that they seem to be breathing in your face. You feel the sun on their bodies and get goose bumps when they shiver from the cold.
Contemporary Havana, as depicted in the film, is an impoverished, crumbling fleshpot, whose residents eke out a living the best they can, often by prostituting themselves to tourists. It’s also a barter culture; Elio exchanges his bike for the motor. You can have anything you want if you know whom to go to, observes a character. The authorities are constantly on the alert for trouble. We overhear a security guard warning a supervisor, “There’s a citizen talking to a blonde.”
The movie’s first two-thirds are a portrait of the city as experienced by these teenagers, as they frantically (and surreptitiously) prepare to leave. A narrator (Aris Mejias), assuming Lila’s point of view, muses out loud about a city where, in the words of Raúl, the only things to do are sweat and have sex.
“[A]n impoverished, crumbling fleshpot, whose residents eke out a living the best they can…”: Holden gets it exactly right. And the sex: Cuba may well be the most libertine society in the world (possibly an unintended consequence of the five-plus decades Communist rule in the tropics, where there is nothing else for young people to do). The material privations and general poverty of the place are well-depicted in the film. One of the teens works in the restaurant kitchen of a big tourist hotel, handling food that ordinary Cubans can only dream about. Each day quitting work he is body searched by security guards, looking for lobster and other delicacies that he may be smuggling out of the kitchen. As it happens, not long after seeing the film I read a reportage by a freelance American journalist, Michael Totten, who had just visited Cuba, and in which he wrote
Taking a bus [in Cuba] came with another advantage I hadn’t foreseen. I didn’t have to stop at the checkpoints.
I’m used to seeing military and police checkpoints when I travel abroad. Every country in the Middle East has them, including Israel if you count the one outside the airport. The authorities in that part of the world are looking for guns and bombs mostly. The Cuban authorities aren’t worried about weapons. No one but the regime has anything deadlier than a baseball bat.
Castro’s checkpoints are there to ensure nobody has too much or the wrong kind of food.
Police officers pull over cars and search the trunk for meat, lobsters, and shrimp. They also search passenger bags on city busses in Havana. Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote about it sarcastically in her book, Havana Real. “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”
If they find a side of beef in the trunk, so I’m told, you’ll go to prison for five years if you tell the police where you got it and ten years if you don’t.
No one is allowed to have lobsters in Cuba. You can’t buy them in stores, and they sure as hell aren’t available on anyone’s ration card. They’re strictly reserved for tourist restaurants owned by the state. Kids will sometimes pull them out of the ocean and sell them on the black market, but I was warned in no uncertain terms not to buy one. I stayed in hotels and couldn’t cook my own food anyway. And what was I supposed to do, stash a live lobster in my backpack?
Does one wonder why so many Cubans have fled to Florida over the decades, and why so many more would if they could?
As for the film, it’s good. Lucy Mulloy spent several years making it and, for a debut film, the result is impressive (she only got into trouble with the authorities once, when armed soldiers on the beach thought the flight-on-the-raft scene the crew was shooting was the real thing). One sees Havana like never before on the big screen (or small), at least not that I’ve seen. Likewise contemporary Cuban youth and their No Future lives. The actors—all amateurs—are very good. Reviews were positive in both the US and France, and with the pic winning a slew of awards at film fests and Mulloy receiving a rapturous reception at its premiere screening in Havana. Trailer is here.
BTW, the brother and sister in the film—who became a real couple during its shooting—used the occasion of the film’s screening at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival last year to seek asylum in the United States. They currently live in Miami.
UPDATE: The April 2nd 2015 issue of the NYRB has a review essay (dated March 3rd) by the well-known Mexican intellectual and writer Enrique Krauze of two new books on Cuba, one of them entitled Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959-1971, by University of Florida prof Lillian Guerra. This looks to be one of the more detailed studies to date of how Fidel Castro went about creating a totalitarian order during the first twelve years of his regime. For those who can’t access Krauze’s essay (which is behind the paywall), his discussion of the book may be found in the comments section below.