Caribbean Screenshots (November/December 2016)

This month’s film-watching picks

Still from Santa & AndrésStill from Memories of a Penitent HeartStill from The Cutlass

Santa & Andrés

Directed by Carlos Lechuga, 2016, 105 minutes

Over fifty years since Cuba’s communist revolution took place, most of its citizens have no direct knowledge of the event. A generation of adults only know of life on the island since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a period of hardship that also saw a tightening of the United States’ blockade. No heady memories of working towards the great utopia for these young people; instead, they inherited curdled dreams from disillusioned parents.

Carlos Lechuga, one of this cohort, is a writer and director working independently of his country’s acclaimed state-run cinema industry. His debut feature, Molasses, marked him as an ascending talent. Santa & Andrés cements his place as probably the best young filmmaker at work in his country, if not its most controversial.

In 1983, Andrés (Eduardo Martínez) is a middle-aged gay writer living alone. Once imprisoned as a counterrevolutionary — echoes here of the late Reinaldo Arenas, author of the bestselling memoir Before Night Falls — he claims to have put down his pen, and now makes sweets for a living. When an international conference happens nearby, however, the state takes no chances, sending Santa (Lola Amores), a zealous young party worker — who guards a traumatic secret — to watch over Andrés and keep him from causing trouble.

From this premise Lechuga slowly builds a passionately human drama with steadfastly political dimensions. He has an eye for seriocomic detail: Santa ostentatiously walks with her own chair to Andrés’s unpainted concrete home, while Andres carries a handful of newsprint when he goes to his outhouse. Lechuga also has a fine sense of how a system, in the name of bringing uplift to all, can cruelly and violently make individuals compromise their basic humanity.

Given Cuba’s recent economic and social reforms, and the opening up of relations with the US, Santa & Andrés is an undoubtedly inconvenient film. It is also no less necessary, and no less brilliant.

 

Memories of a Penitent Heart

Directed by Cecilia Aldarondo, 2016, 75 minutes

In 1986, Cecilia Aldarondo met her uncle Miguel Dieppa, an actor and playwright, for the first and only time. Six months later, he was dead, from what his Puerto Rican family claimed was cancer. Yet the facts surrounding Dieppa’s brief life never added up, and thirty years on, his now-adult niece set out to uncover the truth. Interlacing old film footage and photographs, as well as contemporary interviews, this excellent documentary is the result.

Aldarondo paints a movingly complex portrait of a gay man with AIDS who, like the identity-conflicted island of his birth, lived a contradictory, contested double life — he was Miguel to his conservative Roman Catholic family, Michael to his friends in the bohemian New York City through which he blazed. Contradictory, too, is religion’s ability to cause strife while also offering consolation — a truth that, as with much else in this engaging and tender film, Aldarondo illuminates with sympathy and skill.

 

The Cutlass

Directed by Darisha Beresford, 2016, 97 minutes 

Trinidadian social reality and the Hollywood-style psychological thriller make for uneasy bedfellows in this two-hander inspired by true events. Joanna (Alison Bel Kwani), a young woman spending a weekend at the beach with friends, is kidnapped by Albert (Arnold Goindhan), who wields the sharp-edged implement of the film’s title. Albert holds Joanna hostage in the forest while negotiating a ransom with her ailing father, Jake (Kirk Baltz), and the conventions of genre are then dutifully followed, down to a reassuring family embrace.

The trouble with The Cutlass is that it is, literally and figuratively, almost entirely black and white. Joanna is white, wealthy, and without flaw. Albert is (in a word) black, also poor and evil, and presented outside of any humanising social context. An act of violence near the movie’s end is problematic on several levels. This is a sadly complacent, even naïve film, whatever its provenance.

For information about upcoming screenings, visit the films’ Facebook pages