What is the malaise? you ask. The malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.
In the summers of 1994 and 1995, two films by the renowned director and proclaimed defender of la Revolución, Alejandro Tomás Gutierrez, were shown in my hometown of Barriquita and convinced me to leave it forever. The first one, La rebelión y la paz, I had to sneak into because my grandmother, who knows how, because by then she was on her deathbed and inanimate the daylong, had two of her sons twice prevent me from entering the theater. The film had caused a big furor in the capital, and from what we heard in school and in the cathedral plaza, it would revolutionize how the world looked at homosexuality in “late Castro Cuba,” a term that our English teacher had taught us—though no one ever used with a straight face—for a period which seemed most remarkable in its open-endedness. It was a rather ordinary películita about a young well bred pato, a photographer, who falls in love with a hard-line communist, a soldado (the “rebelión” of the title), who just happens to be “monitoring” him for counterrevolutionary activities, and through various travails, they come to an understanding of each other and establish what can be finally accepted as a devoted, if still tenuous, friendship (the “paz”). There is the requisite santera also, as there has to be in any Cuban story—one of the divas of Cuban cinema, who also happened to be married to the director, though right now I can’t remember her name. She lives in the run-down building with the photographer, performs a cleansing for him, and mostly eggs him on to pursue his romance with the communist, something which will allow her to enjoy her own obsessions vicariously, though the viewer gets a sense that she is sending him into a burning house. This is where most of the tension in the film comes from—and from the way the camera dotes on the body of the tall dark communist, catching him from almost every angle, even in the quotidian minutiae of folding his undershirts, although he is never out of the creased, tight-fitting, tucked-in uniform that the camera and the photographer (and, sí, the viewer) are led on to believe will soon be ripped off him. It never happens. Instead, the mentioned peaceful friendship develops over a series of ice cream dates. This is what I remember now. When I mentioned the film to Nicolás, on our first trip from Cójimar to his mother’s house in La Habana, he assured me that there had been a kiss somewhere, which the Spanish couple who gave us a ride confirmed, though they said that they had been smoking too much marijuana on the night they saw it to remember exactly. But sure, there had to be a kiss, that’s what made the film such a big deal, right? We all shrugged and Nicolás continued his tour guide monologue as we made our way into the city.
The second movie is perhaps more memorable. La última aria features a main character, a true diva, who drops dead in the opening scene, six and a half notes into her first aria, center stage in el Gran Teatro de la Habana. We never see her again. The entire movie is the corpse’s trip back to her hometown in Oriente, to a plot beside the boy she had loved as a girl and who had died of dysentery as a teen, all this as expressed in her last will and testament, through the labyrinth of the communist bureaucracy and in spite of the insatiable sexual appetite of the young stud who is the fruit-truck driver put in charge of the mission, the same actor who played the pato photographer, now almost unrecognizable as the prototype of raw Cuban machismo. Stealing the movie is the grubby actor who plays a disgruntled civil servant newly in charge of transporting corpses under the auspices of the Ministry of Health. Being the nineties, there is no gasoline and the diva has left nothing but a crumbling Miramar mansion that is soon appropriated by the Ministry of the Interior and converted into enough units to house an entire block of families, so the old civil servant has to make do with the aid of his sultry much-younger wife (a Party social climber) and invent the way home for the old diva, setting the way for a full-scale exposure of the crumbling political and economic system throughout the entire Island (though it takes them over five days just to make it out of the province of Havana) and the gullibility of most of its citizens (at one point the civil servant convinces a group of students in Santa Clara that it is the law of la Revolución that they must assist in finding him gasoline for the hearse, the makeshift fruit truck driven by the above mentioned macho, so the students recruit the town puta to siphon gasoline from passing tourist rental cars, and soon are all performing this civil thievery as well or better than she does; at another point the civil servant is convinced by his wife to take a detour in the countryside where some campesinos are said to convert a mixture of cow dung and sugar cane into usable fuel, all so she can get a little alone time with the truck driver, who may or may not have been a past lover). The movie, on the surface more lewd and less serious than La rebelión y la paz, was unintentionally the solemn filmmaker’s last. During its premiere at the Havana Film Festival, the not-so-ancient tuxedoed Gutierrez, it is said, laid down his head on his wife’s shoulder and fell asleep. Embarrassed, she nudged him once, then harder, and then let out a squeal that many thought was coming from the screen at first, since she was playing the same type of hysterical character in the film as the civil servant’s wife. As the projector inexplicably kept on rolling even after the house lights went up and the medics made their way to the front, some, apparently to the filmmaker’s credit as an artist and perhaps his detriment as a person, continued to watch and even laugh at the hazy antics on the screen. At the new premiere a few weeks later, the widow sat in black in the same seat that she had been sitting when her husband succumbed, the seat next to her the only empty one in the house, a scene worthy of the filmmaker himself.
After his death, his last two movies took on the aura of prophecy, the daring visions of a man already on the other side (as if he could have known about the clot curdling up in his brain). His tame critiques of the system, the basis for a kind of whispered comedy of privation that was commonplace in any neighborhood plaza on the Island were seen by foreign critics, as reprinted in our government papers, as so daring that it was a wonder that Fidel had sat at all three premieres as guest of honor, and on the evening of the filmmaker’s death, personally escorting the stretcher out, supporting the grieving wife.
The truth is—and I was only able to put this together after watching both movies over a dozen times by myself, or with Nicolás in the capital (there was no kiss, claro), after living for a while with the Cecilia and the Zúñiga brothers, long after the films had touched some primal nerve in me to abandon the grooved life that my diligent schoolmasters and my dying grandmother had set me on—that both of these films are such a broad swipe at the troubles the Island was facing in el período especial that they (intentionally?) miss the mark completely and settle for a bland, if hilarious, sentimentality about the hardy good-heartedness of cubanos. Things were much more tedious than that, as our daily coveted life serving tourists taught me (which Nicolás and Renato from the first saw clearly for the insult that it was, and the rest of us, their mother, Colonel Juan, Innocent St. Louis and me, saw as a blessing, a way to make a living unavailable to hundreds of others), and much more dangerous as well, as we were about to find out.
There is a scene in La rebelión y la paz where the photographer and the santera invite the handsome communist to one of their shared dinners. He agrees to go only because of his sense of duty. It is rumored that many in the capital are now feasting on stray cats, who have in their migratory nocturnal lives sharpened their vision to an extent that those who consume their flesh are said to acquire the power of momentary clairvoyance, long enough perhaps to foretell the numbers in the illegal juegos, los númeritos, a black market lottery of sorts. The communist, claro, sees it as his duty to uproot this sort of counterrevolutionary activity, for la Revolución cares as much about its stray cats as it cares about its people. So we are treated to a delicious scene rife with confusion about the served meats that ends up with the communist’s gorgeous head in a toilet bowl, with the photographer and the santera gleefully at his side, patting his neck and cheeks with a damp cloth. Their chatter about the quality of the chicken meat they bought through the bolsa only serves to induce more violent retching from the helplessly gorgeous macho, who looks like an exquisite headless condemned soul from the camera that watches the scene kneeling behind them, both the photographer’s and the santera’s free hands inching down his sweaty back to his perfectly round nalgas. It is a critique of the economic and political system anyway you look at it, but it is also a comic celebration of the cubano’s ability to be human above anything else, to cast away politics for more pertinent needs, the visceral revulsion of certain types of food, the allure of a perfect set of nalgas. The political is cast aside to celebrate a certain type of human comedy of survival, and by and by, not even the homeless cats are harmed, not even the dead, for in La última aria the diva gets her wish after all and lies in eternity with her first love, those left alive in the devastated Island the butt of the comedy after all.
But what all this misses (or likely leaves out on purpose) is the flip side of the coin, the unfilmable tedium that is the better part of day to day survival on the Island and that with its infernal trickle carves away at our stony souls, a tedium that begins from a day before you even learn how to read, to make sense of reality, and don your first pionero’s hanky. The farce of some of the outrageous things that we have to do to resolver, to live on, is nothing compared with this, a mere sideshow, an afternoon’s entertainment that strung one after the other can make for a tolerable comedy. But let the camera linger for a moment on that hilarious whore with her gasoline breath as she kisses her first tourist that night, on the photographer’s toilet when he sits down later that evening to masturbate thinking about the man who is his oppressor, on the petrified eyes of the civil servant’s wife, whose husband has surrendered the best of his nature to the fleshless cause. Not much of an international sensation there for the critics, not much of a story at all. So it hasn’t been filmed, it won’t be written. We survive though, and the valor of our survival is pulverized into folly for the world to see and marvel at and label our great humanity.
But in mid-summer of 1997, a year and a half after I had arrived with Nicolas at Cecilia’s house on Calle Obispo, two years after the filmmaker’s sudden death at the premiere of his last movie, it seemed for a moment as if his tame comical vision of our world might vanish forever, in the early hours of a breezy July morning, a bomb went of at one of the busiest tourist hotels, killing, Granma said, an unnamed German tourist who was traveling alone.
Ernesto Mestre-Reed is the author of two novels, The Lazarus Rumba and The Second Death of Única Aveyano, and has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He is Professor of Fiction and Latin American Literature at Sarah Lawrence College and Brooklyn College. This excerpt is from a novel called Sacrifico.