Last week, as Cuba's leader apparently lay dying, the populace was remarkably calm about the future. Not coincidentally, the largest U.S. congressional delegation since Fidel Castro's revolution, 10 bipartisan anti-embargo members of the House, arrived for talks about trade and travel sanctions and requested a meeting with brother and potential heir Raul Castro--a Cuba without Fidel. They came a day before the closing night of the 28th Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, held in Havana December 5 - 15, and stayed at the fabulous 1930-built Hotel Nacional, the fest's center. Their presence heightened the connection between the film event and the country's political climate, a link exacerbated by potent ideological references found in three new Cuban features.
But it was Brazil that most impressed the Latin American feature jury. Three of the top four prizes in the 17-film competition went to Brazilian movies, including the Golden Coral to the marvelous "Suely in the Sky," by Karim Ainouz, though Argentinian entries fared okay at the closing ceremony at the Karl Marx Theater. To be sure, the festival is not limited to Latin American films. International movies abound in assorted sidebars (Guests included Ralph Fiennes and Stephen Frears). The festival is huge: not including shorts, 361 fiction and 250 doc features play in 18 cinemas spread throughout metropolitan Havana. Party animals might be disappointed, for most social events revolve around embassies and institutes. The closing fiesta was cancelled in a nation that lacks hard currency. Mingling takes place in the garden of the Nacional, where guests, obligatory mojitos in hand, chat, smoke, and flirt in this sexually charged culture, and at assorted paladars, restaurants in private homes.
Other awards include second prize to Argentinian Carlos Sorin's facile tale about a naif's journey from village to city, "The Road to San Diego"; third to Brazilian Ricardo Elias's competent contemporary update on Hercules's struggles, The Twelve Tasks; special jury prize to Brazilian Jorge Duran's unoriginal menage-a-trois melodrama "Forbidden To Forbid"; special mention to Cuban Manuel Perez's "Pages From Mauricio's Diary"; best director to Argentinian Rodrigo Moreno's brilliant assassination thriller "El Custodio"; best actress to Hermila Guedes for "Suely in the Sky"; best actor to Julio Chavez for "El Custodio"; best screenplay to Argentinian Daniel Burman's Jewish father-and-son study, "Family Law"; best cinematography and best art direction to Cuban Pavel Giroud's "The Silly Age"; best sound to Brazilian Tata Amaral's knockout "Antonia"; and best short to Cuban Arturo Infante's "Enjoy, Eat, and Leave." The doc and animation jury awarded Mexican Juan Carlos Rulfo's aesthetic triumph "In the Pit" for best doc and Argentinian Javier Mrad's "M'appelle" for best animation. The opera prima jury tapped Cuban Jorge Luis Sanchez's "El Benny." The FIPRESCI (international critics) prize went to Argentinian Pablo Traperos's "Born and Bred," a mediocre look at a man transformed by his family's demise.
The most accomplished and politically daring of the Cuban movies I viewed, noted veteran director Daniel Diaz Torres's "The Road to Eden," was a rough cut and not part of the festival. Told in flashback by a black female ex-slave during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 to the Spanish grandson of her mistress, a so-called heroine of the war of independence, it is set mostly in the eastern provinces in 1895, when Cuban rebels fought the Spanish colonialists. Best short winner Arturo Infante, who is 26, wrote the screenplay, as he did for "The Silly Age." A slick co-production with Spain and a stunning deconstruction of the cult of the revolutionary hero, the film reveals the truth about the mistress. She betrays two men: a handsome rebel whom she nurses back to health after he is shot by the Spaniards, and with whom she has an affair until catching him making love to her slave; and a very old Spanish military officer, whom she sleeps with after his soldiers shoot her lover, but turns on to save herself when they are captured by the rebels. An opportunist extraordinaire, she joins them ("Viva Cuba libre!") and invents tales of her bold subversive deeds. They proceed to tell her the truth about the ex who cheated on her: He had lied about his rank and his "courageous" actions. Not accidentally, he is a carbon copy of Che Guevara.
The "Silly Age" is also well directed, even if young Giroud falls into the trap of fetishising the styles of the 1950s, just before and during the victory of Castro's forces over the Batista dictatorship. An aficionado and maker of psychological horror films, his best sequences are of the shocking, surreal nightmares endured by the 10-year-old boy at film's center. Once the revolutionaries are victorious, his family becomes fractured. He ends up emigrating to the States with his trampy mother and the much older stepfather she marries for economic reasons. They leave behind his beloved eccentric grandmother, who welcomes the change in government. The stepfather has grave doubts about the new social order. "Revolution is one thing, Communism another," he declares.
Much more conservative and ineptly made, even if of political interest, is "Pages From Mauricio's Diary." Perez is a remnnant of the first generation of Cuban revolutionary filmmakers. The film tracks the man of the title and the nation from 1988, just before the fall of the USSR and the resulting hardships of Cuba's "Special Period," and when the U.S. beats Cuba in a highly charged baseball match, through 2000, when Mauricio turns 60 and Cuba's women's volleyball team trounces the Russians. During the game, Mauricio, and the stepdaughter who had despised him, forge a bond--the common denominator being their respective decisions to remain in Cuba despite the drawbacks. His daughter had fled to Sweden, her father to the States. For the first time, a Cuban film depicts the huge riots of 1993, when deprivation spawned a slew of robberies, "new solutions" such as the taking in of foreign boarders and, for some, engagement in prostitution, and the emergence of hordes of desperate balseros, or rafters, who risked their lives sailing to Florida. Mauricio, however, supports the government through it all.
The Brazilian films were not only the best movies, they were also the most textured in the festival, laden with striking visuals, soulful music, and song or dance performances. In "Suely in the Sky," a smoother work than his earlier "Madame Sata," Yanouz, whose architectural background is put to good use in his elegant mise-en-scene and rhythmic editing, fixates on a gorgeous 21-year-old mother abandoned by her husband after she returns from Sao Paulo to her backwater hometown. Desperate to make ends meet and support her baby, she sells federal lottery tickets and takes on menial jobs. In her free time she dances and drinks for Yanouz's adoring camera. She gets back with an ex-boyfriend but, after befriending a prostitute, tries her hand at the trade, even vending raffle tickets for "a night in paradise" with her. She hates it and ultimately leaves the town--and men--behind. On the bus she displays a wide smile of liberation, the feel of a fresh start, even a return to the innocence of the film's romantic opening flashback with her husband.
Women also dominate the screen in female director Amaral's "Antonia," which deploys handheld camera and close-ups to strong effect. Four young black women from the favellas of Sao Paulo form the eponymous rap group. Like "Suely," they long to free themselves from the yoke of men and patriarchy in general: Their signature song is "No One Can Impede Me." The members become close friends yet, as in life, often feud. Amaral creates an intriguing tension between the artifice of their live shows, which begin in nearly all-male prole bars and move into more bourgeois clubs, and the grittiness of the slums, the verticality of which she astutely captures, and where social and economic conditions threaten to undermine both their private and professional lives. A concert at film's end inside a women's prison is a powerful touch. It is as freeing for them as Suely's bus ride is for her.