Film festivals should want to showcase good films. That is why it is so disappointing the maybe not-so independent Havana Film Festival New York downgraded this tale of a gay dissident writer’s unlikely friendship with his temporary minder to an out-of-competition slot. Of course, the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana just completely caved to government pressure, reversing its initial acceptance of the film. These craven fests will really look foolish when audience see how sensitive and mature Carlos Lechuga’s Santa & Andrés really is when it opens today in New York (trailer here).
Life and Cuba has not changed very much since 1983, the year S&A is set. The infrastructure is more decrepit and it is more difficult to attain political asylum in America, but censorship is obviously just as high as it was then. Right now, average Cubans have no hope of ever seeing this film. Likewise, Andrés has no hope of ever seeing his work published in his native land. Out of his circle of literary friends, he is the last that remains. The others have defected or committed suicide. However, Andrés has been unusually difficult. He caused an international scandal by crashing the last “peace conference,” so Jesus, the local party boss (thug), has recruited Santa to babysit Andrés during this year’s propaganda fest.
Santa is a naïve rural woman, who has never questioned Party orthodoxy. She also probably doesn’t fully understand it when Andrés assures her he really is gay. However, she is naturally compassionate and instinctively cares for the dissident when he is beaten by a crude, self-loathing lover. Despite Andrés’s prickly personality, a friendship develops between the two outsiders. As a result, she finally starts to question the Party’s legitimacy and the ruthlessness of its tactics.
There is no mistaking the censorship and strongarm brutality exercised by Castro’s enforcers in S&A, so it is easy to understand why it gave panic attacks to the apparatchiks. Yet, the film itself is really defined by the connection forged by these gentle, put-upon souls. Most people who would have seen it would have remembered it for the platonic relationship, but by censoring it, the Castro regime ironically calls attention to its indictment of human rights violations. Awesome, great work people.
Lola Amores gives one of the year’s best performances as Santa. She is rough around the edges, but poignantly lonely and alienated. Arguably, Eduardo Martinez’s portrayal of Andrés is even more complicated, ranging from resentful to mournful to resigned hopelessness, yet still forging such a resonant connection with his counterpart.
Lechuga definitely captures that stifling hot Caribbean vibe of ennui as well as the hardscrabble realities of rural Cuba. Admittedly, it is a bit slow out of the blocks, but it amply rewards patient viewers. It is most likely the most touching platonic friendship you will see on film all year—and perhaps the most notable since Gregg Araki’s radically different Kaboom. Very highly recommended, Santa & Andrés opens today (11/10) in New York, at the Cinema Village.