HAVANA TIMES — Conducta (“Conduct”), Cuban filmmaker Ernesto Daranas’ most recent feature, is currently being screened in movie theaters around Havana. Having explored the winding labyrinth of prostitution and procurement in Los dioses rotos (“Broken Gods”), his previous film, Daranas now takes on another sensitive issue – one that is barely talked about – with his habitual crew and actors.
In the film, an elderly school teacher struggles to help her students overcome the crude reality of the humble, Havana neighborhood they live in. The school is located in Old Havana: not the pretty part that has been refurbished for tourism but the other, the one we don’t often read about in the newspapers.
Carmela, the teacher, spares no effort to achieve this: she teaches rigorously and affectionately, tears down deeply-rooted dogmas that everyone blindly accepts, reaffirms her authority and becomes emotionally involved with the children. Her work transcends the boundaries of the school and comes into contact with the children’s families.
All the while, other distressing thoughts gnaw away at her and wear her down. The shadows of emigration, death, exclusion and violence have settled in her classroom, the classroom where she has taught so many years, time and time again. These shadows remind her that not everything depends on her struggle.
Chala, the other protagonist in the film, is one of Carmela’s headaches. The son of a drug addict, the child is forced to maintain the house. He does so by looking after fight dogs, breeding and selling pigeons and even taking numbers for the neighborhood’s illegal lottery – anything that will give him the money he needs to make ends meet. His sordid surroundings have made him restless and aggressive. Used to confronting others, he knows no fear. Ultimately, this lands him in a correctional school.
Though Cuban cinema has been flirting with issues related to the social underworld for some time, it hasn’t always produced good results. Conducta is one of the more sincere films dealing with these issues I’ve seen, for it does everything to avoid melodrama, stereotypes and paternalism.
This story about broken lives is told through great performances, particularly by the children, who stand the test of the close up and manage to distance themselves from the stiff, phony acting style typical of Cuban kids.
The warm palette of the photography unflinchingly depicts the city and even finds beauty in its most run-down corners. The film touches on a number of important issues, delving more deeply into some as the plot unfolds.
The film alerts us to how deficient Cuba’s educational system is in terms of dealing with minors with behavior issues, portraying it as a rigid structure that encourages violence and stigmatizes children.
It hints at the issue of dissidence – one of Chala’s friend has a father who was imprisoned for political reasons – and the difficulties that those who move illegally to Havana from Cuba’s eastern provinces face upon arriving in the city (they are unable to enroll their kids in schools, and they are extorted or deported by the police).
The best aspect of the film is how it conceives of the classroom, not as a prison cell where students are monitored, restrained and controlled, but as a place where kids are treated with affection, are allowed to express themselves and are respected.
I feel that Chala has far too many positive values (he is tender, loving, thoughtful, kind, responsible, a good son, intelligent, a good friend, funny) and that this makes the film a little less believable. Were these deliberately conceived to make the audience identify with him?
Occasionally, this character reminds me of Raul Ferrer’s poem Romance de la niña mala (“Romance of the Bad Girl”), which tells us of Dorita, a girl everyone criticizes who is the only one who is concerned over the teacher’s health, takes flowers to the school’s bust of Jose Marti and shares her snacks with others. Her rebelliousness, however, gave her the reputation of being a bad girl. As for Chala, I wonder: is he simply “bad” or a victim of circumstance?
Carmela is a more well-rounded character: her sermons aren’t punitive, they are explicative (though she overdoes it sometimes). She yells and caresses and, when she lets passion blind her, she apologizes for her mistakes.
The least believable part of the film is the romantic relationship between Chala and the most intelligent girl in the classroom. Children today tend to be far more practical, they do not rely on the elaborate strategies of seduction the film portrays and aren’t that romantic – reggaeton music is their inspiration.
Conducta lends itself to different interpretations. It is already playing at theaters and I urge you not to miss it. The film doesn’t arrive at any particular conclusion – as in real life, our problems continue, unresolved – and reveals what little impact the “reform process” has had in the humblest sectors of Cuban society.