In Cuba, it is officially known as the “Special Period”: The era of Soviet aid long over, compañeros must live austerely while socialism searches for a new face. The average salary is the peso equivalent of $8 to $10 a month; only U.S. dollars can be used for most consumer items and for foreigner-friendly hotels and restaurants. But during the recent film festival in Havana (December 5 through 15), while moviegoers in New York doled out $9.50 a shot to see Thirteen Days, Cuban cinephiles paid two pesos (10 cents) per theater entry.
And enter they did. The 25 festival theaters in barrios all over the city were packed day and night. We’re not talking Hollywood films, either (we couldn’t be, on account of the strict U.S. embargo). On its minuscule $400,000-to-$500,000 budget, the festival can present foreign-language films only if they’ve already been subtitled. But fest director Ivan Giroud and his tiny team create magic from limited resources: At the opening-night ceremony in the 5000-seat Teatro Karl Marx, Buena Vista Social Club‘s Omara Portuondo sang a few numbers before the giant screen came down behind her, revealing ’30s and ’40s Cuban icon Rita Montaner singing in close-up. Portuondo did a splendid duet with the late star.
Judging from the 32 entries in the uneven feature competition, the best films coming out of Latin America are from melodrama-mad Mexico. The most innovative: veteran Arturo Ripstein’s Así Es la Vida, a contemporary update of Medea, set in the courtyard of a Mexican pueblo. Ripstein balances the text’s inherent tragedy with humor in the form of an incompetent group of mariachis—a revisionist Greek chorus—singing on an old television about the on-screen action. (It was the first Latin American film to be shot on DV; its companion piece, Ripstein’s La Perdición de los Hombres, a black-and-white tragicomedy about two women arguing over the corpse of the no-good husband they shared, was screened out of competition.) The edgiest: first-timer Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (shown at the last New York Film Festival and opening here this spring), a slick, scary triptych of sex, violence, and dogs.
Cuba had two films in competition, both of which treat social problems in a comedic vein; they are safety valves for the spectators in a time of horrendous scarcity. Daniel Díaz Torres’s adroit Hacerse el Sueco addresses the impact of foreigners on Cuban life (locals blame one another for a crime a Swede has committed), while Juan Carlos Tabío’s more facile Lista de Espera focuses on a group of stranded passengers in a provincial train station. Both are coproductions with European nations—Cuba cannot provide financial support, only in-kind services—but they top most of the movies from countries south of Mexico. The embargo has failed to crush the Cuban spirit.