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Cuban Film Festival - The Films of Fernando Perez

Hello Hemingway
(Cuban, 1991, 90 minutes, color, video)

Directed by Fernando Pérez
In Spanish with English subtitles

Laura de la Uz……….Larita
Raúl Paz……….Victor
Herminia Sanchez……….Josefa
José Antonio Rodriguez……….Tomás

The following is taken from a capsule review of Hello Hemingway by Clarke Fountain in The All Movie Guide:

It is 1956 in Havana, and the success of Castro's revolution is far from a sure thing. The old establishment still does things in exactly the same way and for the same reasons, and it spares hardly a thought that the wild men fighting in the mountains will ever accomplish anything. In this story, Larita is a fine student who wins consideration for a scholarship in America. However, when she is interviewed by the socialite who judges who will win the scholarship, the fact that she is a poor orphan growing up in an adoptive family works against her…. In her inner life, Larita has been encountering the works of the Nobel prize-winning American who so adored Cuba, Ernest Hemingway. In particular, she sees a parallel between herself and the central figure in his book The Old Man and the Sea, as she also hopes to land a big fish, in the form of that scholarship.

The following is excerpted from Swiss film scholar Beat Borter’s essay, "Moving to Thought: The Inspired Reflective Cinema of Fernando Pérez," which appears in the collection, Framing Latin American Cinema: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (1997), edited by Ann Marie Stock.

Director Fernando Pérez and screenwriter Mayda Royero chose to create a story… with strong and evident parallels to The Old Man and the Sea, while not just alluding to the novel or acknowledging their debt to it, but directly incorporating it, making its effect on the protagonist the central theme. Hello Hemingway is, it seems to me, one of very few successful and indeed "faithful" film adaptations of a literary work simply because it does not even attempt to be one. The film is inspired by the novel, respecting and keeping its essence: it moves beyond the problematic relationship of literature and film, addressing instead "literature and life" as it is expressed in cinematographic terms.

The action is set in the prerevolutionary Cuba of the 1950s. The story revolves around a family living next to Hemingway’s grandiose finca La Vigía in San Francisco de Paula in the outskirts of Havana. The fifteen-year-old Larita would like to study— something unheard of for her relatives in the poor village. Yet, she is hopeful and sets her sights on getting a scholarship for the United States. Coming across the famous novel of the elusive and seemingly unapproachable neighbor, she begins to discover parallels with her own situation….

In Hello Hemingway careful attention is given to the use of colors to express the different narrative levels on which Larita’s story develops. The everyday household scenes appear in realistic, ordinary colors, moving from a clear and luminous tonality in the first half to sharper contrasts and a more somber quality, in accordance with Larita’s changing state of mind. Similarly, the extremely static camera, producing "flat" and "closed" images with little movement, is replaced by a hand-held camera, underlining chaos and disorder when [the story calls for it]. These scenes stand in contrast to the open spaces of Larita’s dreamworld. Seen from a distance, Hemingway’s finca appears in sun-lit rich colors of tropical nature—on two occasions when Larita actually crosses its border a curtain of rain is pouring down, creating a special intensity, setting it off from her other experiences…. These effects, which contribute greatly to the atmosphere of the story, were worked out in the planning stages and during the shooting, but remain quite unobtrusive.

Hemingway’s gift was said to reside in the fact that he wrote "in the white space between the lines" (Aldous Huxley)…. His simple, direct style infers and implies meaning, suggesting rather than stating. There is no search for forced "poetic" effects or elaborate metaphors. Mayda Royero and Fernando Pérez have developed an equivalent cinematic style. The seeming simplicity of… Hello Hemingway creates the conditions—or rather leaves space—for poetry to surface: the allusive poetry inherent in everyday life, in human attitudes and actions, in looks and smiles and frowns, in unexpected human warmth….

(Cuban, 1994, 49 minutes, color, video)

Directed by Fernando Pérez
In Spanish with English subtitles

Zaida Castellanos……….Laura
Laura de la Uz……….Laurita

The following is taken from a review by Caryn James that appeared in The New York Times, April 2, 1996:

"I dream exactly what I live every day," a professor, bored with her mundane life, tells her therapist. But the visual evidence on screen at the start of "Madagascar" suggests that dreams are never that banal. Bicyclists crowd the street, riding to work in slow motion in a haunting, shadowy blue dawn….
The 50-minute "Madagascar" has the resonance and eloquence of the best poetry, as it deftly turns an adolescent's search for identity into a metaphor for post-revolutionary Cuba. Laura is a professor at a shabby, stultifying college. Her daughter, Laurita, stops going to school, wishes to move to Madagascar and quickly races through several phases. One day, she looks like a heavy-metal fan, another like a bohemian who weeps at poetry and art. Slowly, she crosses the line from ordinary adolescent confusion to intense neurosis and beyond, finally becoming so obsessed with religion and good works that she brings 10 homeless children into the cramped house she shares with her mother and grandmother. The film's director, Fernando Perez, creates graceful scenes linked by the merest narrative thread. His compressed episodes make it clear that Laura and Laurita, pre- and post-revolutuonary women, share a desperate search for some purpose in life. When Laura looks wistfully at a photograph of herself in May 1969, it is a rare reference to her political dreams, yet Mr. Perez has created an extraordinary meditation on the lost promise of youth and revolution.

The following is from a review by Felicia Feaster that appeared in the e-zine, Creative Loafing, Nov. 2, 1996:

Told with the ranging, slippery structure of a dream, Madagascar is a deeply disturbing, haunting dirge of two women's unhappy lives. The lulling timbre of Laura's voice as she narrates the film carries Madagascar on a hazy, gray cloud of ordinary despair as she recounts her growing alienation from her teenage daughter, Laurita, and the gloomy, somnambulist pace of her own life.

While her daughter seems on the verge of suicide -- a bundle of extremes that keep her shut up in her dark bedroom or standing with arms spread on the precipice of her building's roof -- Laura walks in the pouring rain or amid crowds of people, the same blank, horrible expression her daughter wears marring her own features.

Dreaming of some ultimate escape to Madagascar, Laurita seems to remind Laura of the rage and passion she used to have that has dried up into dull resignation. Laura works by day as a physics professor and tells us in voice-over that at night her dreams revisit her days -- all existence colored by her distracted reverie, not awake and not asleep.

While her daughter alternates between gorging on life -- the sensation of water, or wind on her skin, the escape of music -- and wanting it to end, Laura lets life wash over her. She seems to have given up on the feelings Laurita clutches desperately at. Director Fernando Perez's hypnotic trance-like film articulates not only the indomitable chasms that often separate mothers and children, but the dreamy state of life not really lived, of a profound, gnawing dis-ease.

The following is excerpted from the essay by Beat Borter cited above:

[Director] Fernando Pérez was trained in journalism. In 1976 he worked as a war correspondent in Angola (participating, among other things, in José Massip’s film, Angola, victoria de la esperanza). His experiences as a correspondent in Nicaragua shortly after the Sandinista revolution and his long conversations with experienced war correspondents there resulted in [the book], Corresponsales de guerra. The work of journalistic fiction, not unlike some of Hemingway’s writings, earned Pérez the Casa de las Américas prize in 1981 for best testimonial writing.

Pérez, who was born in Havana in 1944, forms part of an intermediate generation of Cuban filmmakers and, like most of them, followed the usual stepping stones of starting as a production assistant, gaining experience doing newsreels, and producing documentaries, before making his first feature film in his forties. He entered ICAIC (Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematograficos) in 1962, learning from and and working with the founding generation of the postrevolution Cuban cinema, while continuing his university studies.

Additional biographical notes:

One of Cuba’s leading filmmakers, Fernando Peréz began his career as assistant to two of Cuba's most influential directors, Tomas Guitierrez Alea and Santiago Alvarez. Peréz’s other films include LA VIDA ES SILBAR (LIFE IS TO WHISTLE, 1998) and CLANDESTINOS (LIVING DANGEROUSLY, 1987). He is currently at work on a documentary, SUITE HABANA. The films of Fernando Pérez are known for their absurdist humor, lyrical cinematography, magical realism, and affection for the people of Cuba.

The story of urban guerrilla units fighting the Batista regime during the revolution, CLANDESTINOS is a film that enjoys tremendous popularity within Cuba. The 1998 film LIFE IS TO WHISTLE, a quirky tale of life in Havana, premiered at the Havana Film Festival where it won Best Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography. It also received the Special Jury Prize in Latin American Cinema at Sundance. LIFE IS TO WHISTLE achieved wide international exposure for Pérez and has sparked interest in his earlier work.

Film scholar Ann Marie Stock is an authority on Cuban film, a past juror at the Sundance Film Festival, and Dean of the International Studies Program at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. She is also the editor of a book, Framing Latin American Cinema: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (1997). As the recipient of a Fulbright Lecture-Research Award, Stock taught at the University of Costa Rica and collaborated with the Centro de Cine in San José, Costa Rica in formulating a reference guide to Central American and Caribbean cinema.

— Notes compiled by Mark Koplik

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