Cuban Talent Bound for the Cannes International Film Festival / Angel Santiesteban

Movie Magic

Finally, by means of my son’s cell phone, in his visit to me in past days where they keep me locked up, I could appreciate the short film, “Death of the cat,” from the Cuban director Lilo Vilaplana, living for more than a decade in Colombia, the place where he took — in addition to his talent, profession, some friends and his family — the resentment he suffered in his own body, consistent with totalitarian processes, and that now, as a mature creator, he feels the duty to expose, first as literature, and now in film.

The traumas Lilo lived, which he carried in his soul like a pregnant mother who travels, started to emerge in that second homeland — Colombia — which opened its arms to him before his blast of talent and work in movie production.

After a decade of successes, now he can give himself the luxury of producing these shorts; this one in particular. He based the screenplay on one of the tales from the compendium, “A Cuban account,” that would see light, also, after he emigrated.

Many viewers would be confused about its geography and would think that he shot the whole film in Havana, since at the beginning you see the character Armando walking through its streets, in the brilliant interpretation of Albertico Pujol, who was filmed by another colleague, at Lilo’s request, because of his impossibility of entering Cuba.

Later the brilliant editing would splice harmonically with the rest of what was filmed in Colombia, thanks to the plausible scenery of the excellent professionals who thought about the most minute detail, and who helped give the coloring of Cuban reality at the end of the decade of the ’80s of the past century — on the eve of announcing officially the so-called “Special Period,” which would uncover the worst hardships ever experienced by the Cuban people, and which, with one sudden pull, changed the perspective of a nation deceived and repressed for decades.

In the interest of putting the story in context, it’s worth remembering that Lilo chose the day after the execution of the Hero of the Republic of Cuba, Brigade General Arnaldo Ochoa, a circus spectacle of the Castro brothers to distract the people, make them forget their hardships and so they wouldn’t take to the streets in protest. It was also a lesson for the military high command – a message, no less important – to remove the danger of those who had feathered their nests, and who imitated the habits of the Castro brothers, their mentors, for whom “life was to enjoy as it would produce.”

Ultimately, once the officials were punished for “deviating from the ethical principles that the Revolution pursues,” as the official press said, that had to stop once with the denunciations of the U.S. government, which accused Fidel Castro of being part of the international narco-trafficking that introduced drugs in his country.

Those men who could testify about the Regime’s consent to participation — and with the most distinguished “capos” like Pablo Escobar himself — sealed an ignominious chapter, and, as if it were no small matter, exterminated those who could create a seditious plan against its government, and compete with his brother, Raul Castro, for military power.

In the middle of this national paralysis, the artist that grows inside Lilo takes care of little things, apparently unimportant to most people, in order to reflect on art, as on hunger, the need for a political transition, the loss of values in society, family separation and painful scars, exposed in this case, in the character of Armando, who doesn’t have news about the son who launched himself into the sea on a raft. Much time has gone by not knowing his whereabouts, and Armando supposes that he didn’t manage to reach the coast of Miami and lost his life.

The story crosses the thin line between social denunciation and artistic setting, between melodrama and sensitivity, achieving, happily, a graceful outcome that avoids the trap of trying to tell about suffering through each actress, actor and production team, excepting the young actor, Camilo Vilaplana, who, thanks to his parents, managed to grow up far from that social catastrophe. Finally he manages to banish, although he always suggests, the conviction of those guilty of the desperate reality; that indictment is left in the hands of the public, in particular the Cuban public.

Without making it obvious, either, he arouses that fine humor inevitable in Cubans although the worst happens. The cat is the trophy for their real salvation and their goal: to incorporate meat into their source of food proves vital, and, in this case, the black pussycat is converted into a symbol of evil, because, in addition, it’s a retaliation against the oppression he feels from his owner, the neighborhood informer.

The masterful performances of Jorge Parugorria as Raul, Alberto Pujol as Armando, Barbaro Marin and Coralita Veloz, as Camilo and Delfina, respectively, raise the setting, in a joint brilliance, to a dignified height, artistically speaking, which leaves a taste of sadness and at the same time of pleasure.

We appreciate the effort of the Vilaplana family and the artist friends who joined the project, because in the death of the Armando character, we kill part of the shadow that still follows us from those hardships, and we feel the suffering and tears of Raul and Camilo, in a full exercise of personal exorcism.

During these days, the short film has been invited to participate in the Cannes Festival, in spite of the pain of seeing our lives reflected on the screen, and knowing that the dictatorship that is guilty is still in power after more than half a century. Each time that Cubans wander through the world in search of freedom and opportunities, they overcome the fear of being oppressed. In any corner of the planet where Cubans try to hide, they triumph, above all with the weapon of art, the most powerful of all.

May they receive my hug and my gratitude for the unmerited dedication, from their brother Angel, from the prison settlement of Lawton.

Ángel Santiesteban-Prats

Lawton prison settlement. May 2014.

Editor’s note: Trailer of “The Death of the Cat”

This masterful short, that I had the immense privilege to see in a sneak preview and which I predict will have an absolute success, will be released in a few days at the International Film Festival in Cannes, France, which will take place between the 14th and the 25th of May. Its presentation will be in the Short Film Festival. Before being released, it has already received excellent critiques, like this one from the prize-winning writer and journalist, exiled in Berlin, Amir Valle:

The death of the cat is one of the most demolishing and most Cuban shorts in the history of Cuban cinematography. I can’t believe that it can say so much about the national drama of the island in such little space, since beyond the anecdote itself (which I’m not going to give away since the film hasn’t even been released), the psychological representation of each one of the characters is simply the essence of that human animal into which we Cubans were converted in the middle of that crisis, which now is becoming eternal. If you add to that the fact that the trauma occurs in 1989, just hours after the execution of General Ochoa, the keys to unraveling the story increase exponentially.

“The death of the cat is the first story of the book A Cuban tale, by Lilo Vilaplana, a book that Lilo himself knows to be imperfect: “I see it more as small screenplays, like stories for screenplays,” he told me upon giving me a copy. And although he’s right, it’s necessary to say that for any writer who is already a success (and Lilo should feel satisfied on this account) in this book of nine stories there exist three pieces that are first-rate on a literary level, like “The empty house,” “Gumara,” and “Cuban soap opera,” stories of effective forcefulness, well-narrated dramatically and with messages of a profound Cubanness.

“The atmosphere of marginal asphyxia created by Lilo in the short, The death of the cat, is reinforced by the excellent performances of four respected Cuban actors: Albertico Pujol, Jorge Perugorria, Barbaro Marin and Caralita Veloz. The tragi-comedy that hides under the skin of the characters they embody will make you believe the powerful message of that which, only in appearance, is one more of the human and heartbreaking stories that can happen in a tenement in Cuba.

“Lilo, I know fearfully, showed me a work still unfinished: ’I have to work on the colors, the light, set up the sound track,’ he told me, and although from the first moment I knew that I was seeing the skeleton of what The death of the cat would be, I felt profoundly impacted by the quality of the acting (with a thunderous applause for Albertico Pujol in the final scenes), by the accurate insight of the screenplay into the psychology of the characters, enjoying the counterpoint of the tragic and the comic of each one, but above all by the multiplicity of messages that are transmitted in so little time: something that, with apologies to other Cuban filmmakers, seems to be missing a lot in our cinema and our television, where every time (barring very rare exceptions) they impose more nonsense, sexuality for sexuality’s sake, as a hook, the censored Communist media, or simulation and deceit. The death of the cat is a short that is overwhelming by its criticism, funny but reflective. It makes you think. And we Cubans need to think to understand the causes of our misfortune.”

Have Amnesty International declare the dissident Cuban, Angel Santiesteban, a prisoner of conscience.

Translated by Regina Anavy

10 May 2014

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