Monday, October 11, 2021

Voces: Letters to Eloisa

It is hard to understand why Hollywood’s radical chic was so enamored with the brutal dictator Fidel Castro. Not only did he regularly censor his own artists, he brutally oppressed Cuba’s gay and lesbian community for decades. The wrong sexuality could lead to arrest and internment in “re-education” camps (actually, the commentators in this PBS/ITVS production refer to them as “concentration camps”). That put a writer like Jose Lezama Lima doubly at risk. He was gay, Catholic, asthmatic, and aesthetically non-conformist. Lezama’s revolutionary work and tragic life are chronicled in Adriana Bosch’s Letters to Eloisa, which premieres this Friday on PBS, under the Voces imprimatur.

Although young Lezama was not political by nature, he still initially supported Castro’s revolution. In return, he was rewarded with publication support for his work. However, as the regime became more controlling, Lezama unambiguously aligned himself with dissident elements in the writers’ union that openly criticized censorship. As a result, he was already on thin ice when he published his masterpiece, the novel

Lezama’s friends and admirers liken its impact to the detonation of a “bomb.” Before its release, Castro thought it was too boring to require censorship, but he obviously did not get as far as the notorious chapter eight. Apparently, readers were requesting it in libraries, by chapter number, for its explicit homoerotic passages. Soon thereafter,
Paradiso was officially censored by the regime and Lezama became a pariah. He largely survived thanks to the packages sent by his sister Eloisa living abroad.

Alfred Molina’s warm, sensitive readings of his letters to her help shape the structure of Bosch’s film and also supply its title. What unfolds is a tragedy, not just because of the hardship Lezama endured. When
Paradiso released internationally, Lezama was considered an equal to the likes of Julio Cortazar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but he would be far less prolific, due to the stress of the state surveillance and the difficulties of his mean living conditions.

Evidently, there was a cut of
Letters playing the festival circuit that was about seven minutes longer, but there are no glaring gaps in the broadcast cut. Bosch’s on-camera experts are all quite insightful, especially Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. It also really feels like a film, thanks to some poetic interludes and the evocative soundtrack composed by the great Arturo Sandoval.

This film is both classy and revealing. It helps expose the homophobia of the Castro regime, while celebrating the poetry and prose of a great Cuban artist. Gallingly, the same regime now perversely seeks to exploit Lezama’s legacy, by turning his home into a tourist attraction. Yet, if you claim to support LGBTQ rights, you can’t turn a blind eye to the abuses documented in Bosch’s documentary and films like Julian Schnabel’s
Before Night Falls. Highly recommended, Voces: Letters to Eloisa airs on most PBS stations this Friday (10/15) and it streams on the PBS app shortly thereafter.