Daisy Valera

Daisy Valera:Soil scientist and blogger. I write from Mexico City, where Havana sometimes becomes so small that it disappears. However in others, the Cuban capital is a city so past and present that it steals your breath.

Havana: A Portrait of Paralysis

Daisy Valera

From the Fernando Perez film Last Days in Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — I have obviously come a little late to write about the film Ultimos dias en La Habana (Last Days in Havana),  now showing at the National Film Library (Cinemateca) in Mexico City, the best place to see art films in this city. This feature movie from Fernando Perez continues to be shown, maybe because it won the best Ibero-American film prize at the Malaga, Spain Film Festival.

I watched “Last Days in Havana” a few weeks ago and the first feeling I remember having is that of wanting to get up out of my seat, more than once, and leave the cinema. The other thing I remember is the Mexican people’s sniggering at the swear words that they could just about understand while I felt like something was being squeezed inside of me. I couldn’t laugh at anything, for anything.

I have been forgetting Havana, or maybe I’ve made a conscious effort to wipe out it out of my memory, that’s something I’m still not sure about. Who knows why, today, I’ve woken up with a strange curiosity to read this movie’s reviews and I found one by a smart Spanish man who called the movie “flat”. Flat? This adjective has no place here.

In the end, Last Days in Havana isn’t a movie about death, because it would be superficial if it were; the focus of the drama isn’t the man who is dying of AIDs in an old room in a crowded apartment block. I also don’t feel its purpose is to show a city that is falling apart along with its characters who are also falling apart like in Fernando Perez’s “Suite Habana” (2003).

I believe that the moment of showing the capital’s aesthetic decadence has already passed in Cuban film. The setting in ruins is no longer a call for attention; it’s simply the everyday setting where the lives of the film’s characters, and ordinary Cubans, unfold. Havana is in ruins, full stop.

And so the movie is quite possibly “more of the same”, for those who everyday get on over-crowded buses, sweat under doorways and are happy with eating a piece of pork. The same with the same for the Cuban people who have had to learn to work in private businesses or for the thousands whose personal goal is to escape Cuba.

But, I have been living in Mexico for three years now, adapting to an extremely different life and culture. Maybe what took me to sit down to watch this film was a naive curiosity and respect for this director who, in my opinion, continues to be the best in Cuba right now.

The movie is one-of-a-kind maybe for those who watch it outside of Cuba, who once in a while take a look at the country that they left behind. For those Cubans, like me, who don’t know just how much is changing in Planet Cuba. After 10 minutes into the movie, you feel like a bucket of cold water has been thrown over your head.

This well-known phrase suddenly pops into your head: everything is just the same. And that’s where the movie’s drama lies; the director portrays with disquieting accuracy just how nothing has practically changed in the lives of ordinary Cubans. This simplicity of people waiting for a loved one to die so they can have a space to live; the lightness with which rampant prostitution is dealt with, and emigration as the only path to happiness.

After some years, I hoped to find a Havana which had slightly changed, but no, and this is what frightens and hurts you in the movie. Last Days in Havana is the portrait of a country in paralysis.

  • Sven Normand

    I’m glad to see you back at Havana Times, Daisy. :) You had not written anything for two years. Your articles are always interesting. Continue!

  • bjmack

    Thank’s Daisy, great to know you’re alive and well. Great piece of writing.

  • Carlyle MacDuff

    You are right on the nail Daisy Valera!
    There are many pious hopes or politically driven motivations expressed on these pages about “change” in Cuba. The reality is that for the ordinary Cuban without remittances from relatives in the capitalist world, nothing has changed!
    There has been so much meaningless chatter in support of the Castro dictatorship. But if I take a niece and her husband with their two children as examples – she is a school teacher (65% of Cuban professionals are women – not reflected in the government) and he commutes to work at Mariel. Their income has not changed at all in seven years. That is reality! When did the Poder Popular last discuss how to improve the living standards of Cubans?

  • Eden Wong

    I tried, but I couldn’t get into this film. I doubt it will ever see the light of general release and will only do the festival circuit then fade into obscurity like so many other Cuban projects.

  • Dan

    I only saw the trailer and read about the film, but still, how is it that a film critical of conditions in Cuba gets shown at the film festival ? Yet people who are disingenuous, or don’t know Cuba, continue to talk of a Stalinist system where all non-official expression is suppressed . This has always amused me.

    • Eden Wong

      “… but still, how is it that a film critical of conditions in Cuba gets shown at the film festival?…”

      Huh? It was shown in Mexico City!

      • Sven Normand

        But the film is a Cuban and Spanish co-production. And it was premiered at the Festival de La Habana: Sección Oficial de largometrajes a concurso in 2016.

        I suspect rather (but I have not yet seen the film, then only a hypothesis) that the Cuban authorities did not see social criticism by reading the script. It seems that it is the images that illustrate this aspect of reality but the script should not specify that the images would show the decadence of Havana.

        • Eden Wong

          Nope. The film is a lightweight in terms of being censored by the Cuban government and Perez is still too well known to risk being censored, he knows who butters his bread.

          This is not an important or overly interesting piece of work.