The Golden Age of auteur cinema may be over internationally; it certainly is within Cuba, a country which has more serious issues to attend to in the present moment than promoting art cinema. Nevertheless, the country does have one filmmaker whose name is on the cinephile radar at international film festivals, that of Fernando Pérez, and we’re delighted to be hosting the UK premiere of his latest film, “El Mundo del Nelsito” (The World of Nelsito).
Pérez is now in his 70s, and the elder statesman of Cuban cinema, having begun working in documentary in the 70s, but not making a major impact until 1989, with his first feature, “Clandestinos”, which has become a cult film on the island. This film begins deceptively, like a nostalgic coming-of-age film set in the late ‘50s – a period few Cubans are nostalgic about, since it was under Batista’s dictatorship – where a group of young people come to political consciousness, and rebel, leading to a shatteringly bleak climax.
This set him up well for another period piece exploring the tangled relationship between Cuba and its powerful neighbour, “Hello Hemingway”, discovering a young Laura de la Uz’s power and range as an actor, playing a young girl with aspirations to go and study in the US in the late ‘50s.
“Madagascar” would cement his international reputation, a midlength work that would see him move into a more poetic, abstract register, but one that is deeply grounded in a precise observation of social reality. As Hugo Rivalta has observed: “This was the fiction film that best captured the spirit and essence of the convulsive ‘90s in Cuba, a time of total crisis, known euphemistically as the Special Period, caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and strict embargoes from the U.S.” Despite these conditions, Pérez’s career would flourish, with his next film, “Life is to Whistle”, taking more creative risks, telling the stories of three separate characters in a daring blend of comedy and magic realism.
“Suite Habana” would prove to be one of his most ambitious and accomplished works, a rigorous fusion of drama and documentary exploring the reality of contemporary life in Havana purely through visual, eschewing dialogue. Variety hailed it as a “lyrical, meticulously crafted and unexpectedly melancholic homage to the battered but resilient inhabitants of a battered but resilient city.”
If some of Pérez’s subsequent work would prove to be more uneven in quality, he’s still capable of making startling films. Case in point – “La Pared de las Palabras” (The Wall of Words), a particular favourite of this festival, and the festival’s director, Eirene Houston, who states, “it’s the deep humanity, it represents so much about Cuba to me, all the problems but the humour and humanity of the people shines through. And there are no goodies and baddies, you can see why all the characters act as they do, and you care for each one of them even as you think they’re doing the wrong thing. It’s not often a film can make you do that.”
The film tells the highly emotive story of a mother, Isabel Santos, and her attempts to maintain a bond with her son who is slipping away from her into a neurodegenerative disease that is denying him even the ability to speak. With much of the film shot in a real hospital, with real patients with these conditions playing themselves, it takes some risky creative decisions which pay off, finding a vividly haptic manner in which to covey the voice of the literally voiceless.
Perez’s new film, El Mundo del Nelsito, reunites him with Laura de la Uz, who will attend the screening and take part in a Q&A afterwards, and returns to exploring themes of marginality and interiority, as it explores the world of a teenager with autism recovering from a car accident sustained while running away from home. The Cuban reviews are promising us black humour and unreliable narrators – we can’t wait.
EL Mundo de Nelsito screens at Glasgow Film Theatre on Thursday 16 Nov 2023
Brian Beadie, Nov 2023