‘His Wedding Dress’ (‘Vestido de Novia’): Film Review

Courtesy of ICAIC
Fine performances, heavy-handed treatment

Marilyn Solaya's film was a double nominee at Spanish-speaking cinema’s recent high-profile Platino awards.

An issues movie that features too many issues for its own good, Cuban Marilyn Solaya’s debut, His Wedding Dress, is nonetheless worth the time for its clear-eyed take on the machismo and gender stereotyping that continue to plague Latin America, and indeed much Latin American cinema. Built around a memorable award-nominated central performance by Laura de la Uz, which goes a long way toward redeeming its faults, this is Cuban drama at its most tub-thumping: Dress is thus more valuable for what it says than for what it is, but LGBT and Latino-themed fests should still take a look.

The title promises comedy, and for 10 minutes we get it, but things swiftly turn darker. Rosa (de la Uz) is a nurse, looking after her aged father. Rosa, it’s giving little away to say, has had a partial sex change op and is now seeking a regular life with Ernesto (Luis Alberto Garcia), a foreman on a construction site. She is pretty much as good a person as nurses are supposed to be: Ernesto and his colleagues are pretty much as sexist as construction workers are supposed to be. Though Ernesto appears not to have spotted it, Rosa’s best friend is transgender Sissi (vet Isabel Santos, playing it so camp you can almost smell the firewood); Rosa spends her free time singing soprano in a male choir, dressed as a boy (and yes, apparently, the film is based on a true story).

Corrupt local government official Lorenzo (Jorge Perugorria) is a former lover of Rosa who still obsesses over her. But he’s also in charge of the construction work Ernesto is overseeing. When it is revealed that materials are being stolen from the site, Ernesto opens an enquiry, which threatens to expose Lorenzo. Lorenzo defends himself by finding documentation that proves Rosa Elena was formerly a man. When this comes out, Ernesto is thrown out of his job and, with regard to Rosa, he quickly crosses the thin line between love and hate, and the suffering begins.

Subtle it ain’t, and indeed at several points we might be watching Lat Am soap — the park bench scene where Rosa tells Ernesto all about her past life is an example, with the basically fine actor Garcia struggling to persuade us that he could have known Rosa all this time without knowing this about her. Such a hammerhead approach to its themes may, however, be a concession to local audiences unused to to seeing such issues tackled in their mainstream fare.

Despite its occasionally soapy feel, the film is uncompromising in its portrayal of the less appetizing aspects of life in Cuba: the arrests following a cabaret in which Sissi performs; the machismo of the factory, which will feel neolithically over-the-top to non-Latin American viewers, The problem is that, machismo apart, Dress takes on too much in the name of its anti-establishment message, and in doing so loses nuance: It’s hard to find a woman or a transgender person is the film who isn’t lovely, and harder to find a heterosexual man who isn't repellant.

Dress is set back in 1994, when Jorge Perugorria made his international name with Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio’s classic Strawberries and Chocolate. Twenty years later, he still has charisma to burn, but Lorenzo is the weakest and least convincing character. Other characters and performers fare better, particularly the committed de la Uz, in a challenging role designed to stretch her to the limits

It’s conventionally told, but Solaya does sometimes show real bravura. The best example is remarkable, daring one-minute shot in such a narratively busy film of Rosa and Ernesto looking at one another, creating an unbearable tension about what will happen next. To have included Rosa emerging sobbing from a screening of the Strawberries while Ernesto reassures her that “it’s only a film” — for Rosa , it is not — is another subtle, bravura touch in a movie that could have done with more.

Production company: ICAIC, Bitart New Media
Cast: Laura de la Uz, Luis Alberto Garcia, Isabel Santos, Jorge Perugorria
Director, screenwriter: Marilyn Solaya
Producers: Isabel Prendes, Fernando Diez
Director of photography: Rafael Solis
Production designer: Nanette Garcia
Editor: Miriam Talavera
Composer: X Alfonso
Sales: ICAIC

No rating, 100 minutes

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