Sunday, April 19, 2009

HFFNY ’09: Omerta

When Castro came to power, he nationalized everything, including organized crime. Of course, you will not hear about the drug traffickers and narco-terrorists doing business with the dictator in contemporary Cuban cinema, but they would horrify the old school gangster protagonist of Pavel Giroud’s crime thriller, Omerta (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Havana Film Festival New York.

It is 1961, and Giroud takes pains to include plenty of state broadcasts trumpeting the revolutionary triumphs of the new regime. However, once the propaganda is out of the way, Omerta settles into an entertaining crime story. Rolo Santos is a proud man, who lived by a code: Omerta. As the former bodyguard of an American gangster, Santos is now at loose ends in the new Cuba. Finally, word of an assignment comes from a former associate—they must break into the boss’s confiscated mansion to recover a hidden cache of gold.

Unfortunately, Santos’s old friend dies before they can carry out the job, leaving him with a ne’er-do-well nephew as his replacement. Together with a cab-driver reluctantly recruited by Santos, they hit the mansion. However, instead of gold, they find the long-time maid still on duty. Much to Santos’s regret, he quickly finds himself immersed in a hostage situation, holding a copper and the woman for whom he has long carried a torch.

The relationship between Santos and his would-be love gives Omerta surprising heart thanks to the chemistry between Cuban actor Manuel Porto and Spanish actress Teresa Calo, which suggests years of history between the two. Their intimate moments during this time of crisis, like a nostalgic dance they share between calls from the police, are indeed quite touching.

As for the caper, Giroud efficiently maintains the tension, throwing in some interesting wrinkles along the way. Although there are plenty of flashbacks, Omerta’s timeline is always easy to follow and the pacing never flags. While the supporting players might not have the considerable screen-presence of Porto and Calo, they are certainly serviceable in their roles.

Despite hewing to the requisite party line, Omerta is an entertaining and even endearing period noir. For sophisticated viewers able to parse diegetic propaganda, it is worth screening. It plays again at the HFFNY this coming Monday afternoon (4/20).