Film satirizes life in tragic absurdity
HAVANA · In Cuba, a little levity goes a long way.
Jokes, riddles and satire are the antidotes to rigid government pronouncements and decrees. A well-placed pun or double entendre helps deflate tensions at home over empty kitchen cupboards, hourslong blackouts or the cavernous gap between average Cuban state salaries and the cost of living.
Call it a well-honed survival skill. Some Cubans say they laugh to keep from crying.
The latest spoof out of Havana has created a buzz, surprising viewers on both sides of the Florida Straits for its blunt jabs at Cuba's security apparatus. Directed by a prominent screenwriter and starring one of the island's most prolific actors, the 15-minute independent film, Monte Rouge, pokes fun at the realities of Cuban life, from government employees who regularly pilfer gasoline from their workplace to the tedious, ideological programming on state-run television.
It is making the rounds in Havana at small screenings and among friends with computers or DVD players. In Miami it has surfaced at video stores and on television channels.
Monte Rouge's writer/director Eduardo del Llano is among those who are most surprised by the underground distribution of the film he made with $500 and a friend's camera.
"I wanted to talk about Cuban-ness. That thing we do ... where we lower the tension or seriousness of things with humor," he said on a recent weeknight while sitting at a Havana café. "What seduces me is putting a character in an absurd situation and seeing what happens next."
The film opens with two plain-clothed security agents knocking at the door of their unsuspecting target, a character named Nicanor O'Donell.
"Good morning, my name is Rodríguez. This is comrade Segura," one of the agents says. "We're here to install the microphones."
Nicanor is dumbfounded, but the stern-faced agents continue.
"Our mission is to install microphones in your home to listen directly to the anti-governmental comments you make," agent Rodríguez says.
"This must be a joke!" Nicanor exclaims incredulously. "You don't even try to conceal it!"
The agents explain that due to numerous complaints they are embarking on a pilot program to make their work "more participative."
In courteous conversation, they let Nicanor know they are up to speed on every detail of his life: his clandestine job brokering illegal sales of homes, a recent gum infection and the last woman he dated.
They tell Nicanor they chose him for their pilot program in part because his home is conveniently located within walking distance of their headquarters and they don't have a car -- a reference to Cuba's hard economic times, which some say have diminished the state's security apparatus. They also find his anti-government remarks insightful.
"Most people who think like you limit themselves to criticizing the roundtable [pro-government nightly news show], the blackouts, the Granma [government-run newspaper]. To ask themselves, `How long will this last?'" agent Rodríguez says. "However you have made shrewd analyses of our emigration policy."
After surveying the house the agents decide to place the microphones in the bathroom.
Nicanor objects, explaining that it will be impossible to coax his friends and other guests into the bathroom for conversation. But the agents insist those are their "instructions."
To test their eavesdropping device they instruct Nicanor to, "say something subversive." He blurts out, "I'd love to have a parabolic antenna!"
In Cuba, satellite dishes and antennas are illegal but highly coveted. Owners keep them hidden in planters on rooftops and sometimes splice cables to neighbors' homes, splitting the cost of the pirated cable service.
The clip ends with agent Segura surreptitiously offering to sell Nicanor an antenna.
"But that's between you and me because that guy is a little square," he says of his partner.
Del Llano, who filmed Monte Rouge last May with a group of friends, says he originally intended for the clip to be shown at Havana's International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in December. It was rejected, but he has since entered it in several European film festivals and another Cuban festival for low budget films. It's only in the last two weeks that Monte Rouge seems to have been seen by a large number of people in Havana, del Llano said.
The movie is not meant as an indictment of Cuba's state security system, del Llano said. The agents are used as a vehicle to present an absurd situation. Still, the movie has been popular precisely because it reflects Cubans' fear of state security surveillance and the notion that somewhere someone is listening.
In Cuba and Miami some viewers have speculated that del Llano and the other actors in Monte Rouge, Luis Alberto García and Néstor Jiménez, could face reprisals for the irreverent clip. Del Llano, whose credits include Life is to Whistle (1999) and It Happened in Havana (2000), said he has not been questioned about the clip and does not expect his career will suffer.
"All the movies I've written have been analytical, critical about some aspect of Cuban reality," he said. "I like to say what I think about what I like and don't like. It's a way to change, generate debate."
Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at email@example.com
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