CHICAGO - Since there are so few films coming to us out of Cuba, it's always a momentous occasion to see them - whether good or bad. And the latest, Melaza, shown at the Chicago International Film Festival, is the latter, certainly not something you would expect to come from a communist country. For those of us who support the Cuban Revolution (and many who don't), this will not be pleasant to watch. Melaza is a boring film about bored anti-revolutionary-minded people who are "forced" to resort to the black market, prostitution and crime to survive. The plot is essentially about a young couple trying to survive the economy by renting their abode to a hooker for occasional romps, and then getting fined. Not for being associated with prostitution, but rather for renting illegally. The director, in a Q&A following the screening, called this "showing the realities" of Cuba.
Melaza (molasses) is a small sugar mill town, where the primary place of employment has halted production for almost a year with no signs of being restarted. (The run-down mill is clearly an un-subtle metaphor for the Cuban Revolution.) The central couple, an unmarried woman with a chubby daughter, and her boyfriend who teaches at the local school, create about as much spark as a dead battery. Monica, played by the Amazonian beauty Juliet Cruz (Habana Blues) is relatively expressionless. Schoolteacher Aldo is played by an actor new to films who obviously has a lot to learn. Neither actor is charismatic or can hold the screen with any skill or depth.
There are occasional comedic scenes though from the first-time Cuban director, Carlos Lechuga. There's a humorous shot of Aldo teaching young kids how to swim, in an empty pool (another intended metaphor for empty economy), lying on a chair and flapping their arms. The opening scene, repeated too often, of Monica carrying her small mattress to the empty sugar mill for private sessions with her lover, gets tiring. Those who apparently support the government are shown as bureaucrats, lascivious union leaders, insensitive police officers and selfish crooks, while the townsfolk simply ignore or unwillingly participate in the regular calls for workers' rallies coming from the bullhorns.
When will we see films coming from revolutionary Cuba that praise the contributions and sacrifices made by those revolutionaries who fought and rid the island of U.S. corruption? Sadly those who laid the framework for free education and health care, creating a country free of corporate exploitation, are rarely seen in Cuban cinema. Films showing awareness of the true effects of the decades long economic blockade are overshadowed by films emphasizing the negative consequences and public dissatisfaction with government policies. Ever since Death of a Bureaucrat Cuban filmmakers have addressed the bungling bureaucracy that stifles and betrays the Revolution. Cubans are passionate and debate openly their differences. But it's one thing to tell the story from within the revolution as a cautionary warning and another to tell it as an opponent condemning the system. Also, it seems in many films the revolution and the Communist Party are usurped to a degree by opportunists more interested in self-promotion and materialism that the good of the masses.
In the Q&A after the film, director Lechuga, claiming to come from a revolutionary family, shied away from answering any questions regarding his position on the Cuban revolution. Although it was filmed independently in Havana, funding sources came from outside, which is usually the case in this cash-strapped country that's had to confront a severe economic blockade for most of its existence. Co-productions with countries who essentially oppose the Cuban Revolution results in films with that message.
Melaza was originally supported by the state-run film agency, ICAIC, but after seeing the final product the agency requested that its name be removed from the credits. One could wonder if this was because of the negative portrayal of the Cuban society or the embarrassingly amateurish, flat acting that moved the film at a snail's pace. Certainly the film was devoid of any Marxist analysis or understanding, let alone even a superficial awareness of the class struggle and capitalist exploitation that most all Cubans have been taught in school. This is the kind of Cuban film and director the West can embrace.
The US and other Western countries prefer to fund and promote Cuban films that shed a negative light on the revolution, and opt to ignore any that might challenge the U.S. blockade or show Fidel or the revolution succeeding at anything. Oliver Stone's favorable 2003 portrayal of Castro in Commandante resulted in HBO ordering him to go back to Cuba and make another film less favorable, Only then were they willing to release the film in 2004, Looking for Fidel. Last year's horror film, Juan of the Dead, was probably the most blatant and disgusting attack on the revolution, portraying party members as zombies, and the revolution as eating up all the good folks who want to bring it down. This was shown at the Toronto Film Festival, once a haven for great Cuban cinema, yearly becoming less so, with not one Cuban film shown this year.
There are positive films coming from the island though, one being the charming family film Habanastation, winner of the Best Film Award at Michael Moore's 2012 Traverse City Film Festival. Just recently, Esther Somewhere won Best Script Award at the Los Angeles Latino Film Festival (LALIFF), where another film, Amor Cronico by famed Cuban actor turned director Jorge Perugorria, described as "at once a tribute and ode to Cuba," won Honorable Mention. LALIFF screened many progressive Latin films including another Cuban winner, La Piscina (The Swimming Pool), a co-production with enlightened Venezuela.
Photo: A scene from Melaza. Melazafilm Facebook page