HAVANA TIMES — When, some years ago, I saw Los dioses rotos (“Fallen Gods”), Ernesto Daranas Serrano’s first feature film, I had the feeling we were witnessing the emergence of one of the most promising Cuban filmmakers of our times. It wasn’t until now, with the release of his second film, Conducta (“Conduct”), that my suspicions were confirmed.
In Los dioses rotos, Daranas told the story of a university professor whose Master’s thesis sought to demonstrate that the myths surrounding the life of Alberto Yarini* were still very much alive. To support her theory, the professor conducted interviews in different suburbs around Havana and penetrated the rough neighborhoods where prostitution, the oldest profession, and its partenaire, procurement, are still the livelihood and means of survival of many.
The film gave us a close look at the tragedy played out by the inhabitants of those neighborhoods in Havana that do not appear in tour guides. For a first film, it was rather daring.
Now, Daranas returns to mercilessly rub salt on the wounds. Almost recklessly, he goes beyond the image of a decadent Havana, beyond its filth and garbage. He weaves the much revisited family yarns and tales of a society in crisis – but he does so with sincerity.
Conducta is a sincere film. We do not get the feeling that were are seeing more of the same, hearing accommodating arguments that anyone can invoke as a defense in the event one is called on to answer for one’s statements. The film does not rely on superfluous diatribes or stale jokes.
It does not take refuge in facile formulas. The photography, done in tones of sepia, is excellent. The discrete but apt score appears to remind us that we are no watching a simple melodrama.
A bit of dialogue which alludes to how long those in power have been around and how little things actually change prompts spontaneous ovations and rounds of applause from the audience.
The excellent cast includes the already established, unparalleled Alina Rodriguez as Carmela (the old primary school teacher) and young actor Armando Valdes as Chala (a student living in a dysfunctional home).
The film, however, does not tell the story of a child and the adverse circumstances he faces. It is also not the story of a teacher and the bad accident she suffers on the eve of her retirement. It is story of a dogmatic – and thus failed – educational system. It is the story of institutionalized social prejudice.
It is easier to send a problem child to a correctional school than have teachers and others do their jobs properly. It is easier to deport someone from Havana because he/she has no legal residence there than to allow his girl, Yeni (the smartest in the class) continue at school and in her song and Spanish dance lessons.
It is easier to bar someone from posting a stamp showing the Virgin of Charity on the school bulletin board than to explain to the higher-up who comes to inspect the school why this was done. It is easier to retire a teacher who swims against the current than to try and learn from her experience.
The movie does not have a happy ending. Chala’s mother shows no signs of wanting to turn her life around. The absent father does not afford us the benefit of the doubt. Yeni and her father are deported from Havana. The education official does not learn anything in the end.
Carmela walks among the crowds, exhausted. Chala yells out her name and she smiles. It is not a triumphant smile, but a new war cry. Nothing changes, but one has to keep moving…
*Alberto Yarini Ponce de Leon. Renowned procurer, born in Havana in 1882. From a wealthy family, Yarini was a handsome man of great charisma and no stranger to vice. A dandy, friend of the rich and poor, of whites and blacks, he practically governed the humble neighborhood of San Isidro. He died in 1902 in circumstances that remain unclear, presumably in the hands of French procurer Louis Lotot. He has inspired books, plays and films.