By Bruno George, Queer Movie Night Regular
In the film’s first shot, Santa, doughty and determined, carries a ladderback chair as she walks along a country road. The road passes under an immense ferro-concrete arch, harbinger of a coming modernity, of deliverance from “the idiocy of rural life,” as Marx and Engels write in the Communist Manifesto. That the promise has failed is obvious; the arch is grimy with age, and the same featureless expanse of grassland stretches out on both sides. Andrés’s house has a similar look of failure: a concrete-block hovel, its roof a crazed jumble of scraps of corrugated iron, its windows covered only by wooden louvers gone soft with rot, sits on the foundation pad of a much larger structure, long-since destroyed or perhaps never built, next to a heap of gravel, gathered for construction projects that never materialized. Andrés’s sexual life is similarly cramped, forced into the shadows, an affectionless arrangement with a mute young man; and his artistic life is likewise foreclosed, reduced to scribbling on a manuscript hidden in the latrine.
In the days of surveillance, a drama unfolds between the party member and the dissident. The ruined, rural backdrop is oddly beautiful: an ancient electric train rumbling down a weed-choked track; the frenzied bartering at a rural tram station; and, most enigmatically, the wordless appearance of a person in sacred clothing, apparently a celebrant of one Cuba’s syncretic religions: Santería or Cuban Vodú or Palo Mayombe. This is “Oriente de Cuba,” as a subtitle announces—Eastern Cuba, but also once the name of a storied Cuban province, birthplace of Fidel and Che, and home to practitioners of West African–influenced religions, and a also province where “maroons” (Africans who escaped enslavement) lived in “palenques,” rural encampments. Like homosexuality and dissident ideas, these religions were banned under Cuba’s communist regime (until 1990).
There are missteps in the film, chiefly a scene in which a drunken Santa rubs up on Andrés without his consent, and a grotesque, mincing old gay man—a minor character, not Andrés—who is right out of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”: the gay man, as non-reproductive, is stereotyped as futureless and incontinently appetitive, death-bound but still acting on his inordinate and perverse lusts. But the movie is redeemed by its key scene, in which a handful of party operatives, including Santa, beat and degrade Andrés while they sing “The Hymn to Bayamo,” the Cuban national anthem. The song recounts a glorious and redeeming act of revolutionary violence, the 1868 overthrow of the Spanish colonial masters, even as the scene demonstrates that glorious moment’s sequelae: acts of dirty, mean, debasing cruelty meant to crush a single life. How Andrés and Santa resist makes the film worth watching, as do these glimpses of a vanishing world, the disappearing alternative to capitalism.