A legendary filmmaker, Humberto Solás made Lucía (1968), arguably the most celebrated Cuban film of all time. Lucía depicts progressive changes in Cuba over more than half a century (beginning with the 1895 struggle to gain independence from Spain), where the formal design of the film—three episodes, each in its own visual style, showing the role of Cuban women at different times—implies quantum leaps in political consciousness. In each episode, the name of the female radical or revolutionary is Lucía. Solás centered the film on women, he has explained, because “women are traditionally the number one victims in all social confrontations. The woman’s role always lays bare the contradictions of a period and makes them explicit.” Solás also believes that all films are political, adding, “though I certainly don’t consider all films to be revolutionary . . . Cinema takes on a revolutionary character to the extent that it becomes a weapon of struggle.” Solás’s career has had its ups and downs, in part due to his homosexual orientation, but he is regarded today as the founding father of cinema in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Honey for Oshun (Miel para Oshún) is his first film in nearly a decade, and it has been, for the most part, either highly praised or panned in the U.S. It doesn’t seem to be a piece that invites a moderate response. (In Mexico, it won the Silver Ariel as the year’s best Latin-American film.) It is very much the work of a man approaching sixty, and it is imbued with Solás’s biting edge and distinct sensibility. Its central character is Roberto, a beautiful young man (Jorge Perugorría, who played Diego, the politically discontented gay man who falls for a straight communist, in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío’s 1994 Strawberry and Chocolate). Roberto is a professor of Spanish literature in a university in Miami, Florida. Now that his father has died, Roberto is in Cuba on a mission: to find his mother, Carmen, whom he believes abandoned him when he was a small boy. However, he will learn from a cousin, Pilar, that his embittered life has been built on a faulty premise; Carmen never abandoned Roberto. Rather, his father abducted him and illegally moved to the States. Pilar’s well-positioned family didn’t keep in touch with Carmen, whom they regarded as beneath them. Now Roberto, Pilar and a taxi cab driver, Antonio, will comb the island in what at many turns seems a futile search for Carmen, who went insane and was institutionalized for a spell, all those years ago, when her beloved son was taken away from her. The film is a borderline comedy, and it ends happily, with an emotional payoff of tidal force.
Co-scenarists Solás, Sergio Benvenuto and Elia Solás adapted Solás’s original story, and they have done an emphatic job. At one point Roberto, whose veneer of charm covers a certain arrogance (Perugorría is excellent), breaks down in public, declaring that he doesn’t know who he is, that he is neither Cuban nor U.S. American, and Antonio, whose son died in a road accident at twenty, is similarly given to arduous displays of self-pity. The script implies that Antonio somehow feels that a reunion between Roberto and his lost mother will spiritually translate into a reunion between himself and his lost son. To me, this is farfetched. Too, the long odyssey is too beset with jokes about faltering transportation, apparently a recurrent problem in Cuba. A nation that provides medical care and higher education to all its citizens is entitled to a bugaboo or two (there is also a power blackout), but that doesn’t make such problems of efficiency as funny as Solás seems to think they are. Moreover, so long as the film keeps to the road, keeps on the move, it is elegant and captivating, and lovely (the color cinematographers are Porfirio Enríquez and Tote Trenas), but its pit-stops in this village or that are only of interest when they survey the locals. Our threesome is not of unlimited interest. There are arid patches involving them, and a number of times the film’s action—the trip variously by bus, bike, truck, car, foot—feels as if it is being cranked up after a dead stop.
The journey itself is transporting. Cuba is a ravishingly pretty island, and the people, warm and caring for the most part, suit the filmmaker’s love of humanity. Even when Roberto’s bicycle is stolen, our instant recollection of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) impresses on our hearts that there may be a story here that we don’t know about. Only a hotel clerk who calls the police, resulting in the trio’s brief incarceration, appears villainous, and the police themselves seem paranoid, with the interrogating officer obsessed with the notion that the trio is making fun of him, which they are not doing. The delight of Carmen’s plentiful neighbors at her reunion with the son they have all heard her speak about for so many years (“Look at how handsome your son is!”) is nearly the high point that the reunion itself is. Playing Carmen is the same marvelous actress, Adela Legrá, who played the third-episode Lucía more than thirty years earlier.
One hopes at the end that Roberto, who has had his passport taken from him (by the bicycle thief) anyhow, will remain in Cuba. What is there in the U.S. to go back to, a nation that regards people as unimportant and disposable, and is fundamentally rootless even for those who haven’t been, like Roberto, ripped from their roots? Besides, Roberto and Pilar have become kissing cousins, and it may be time for the bachelor to settle down and settle in. It’s a comedy, after all, not a documentary about incarcerated journalists and other dissidents. One is entitled to dream of one happy ending after another.
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