'Santa and Andres': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of Habanero Film Sales
Love versus ideology.

Cuban Carlos Lechuga’s odd-couple political drama explores the profound emotional effects of life under Fidel.

A novelist under house arrest and his house guard are the titular odd couple at the heart of Santa and Andres, a careful, involving rural drama about two supposed enemies who find they have more in common than either could have imagined. Offering a refreshingly low-key take on an idea that could too easily have become strident, noisy and melodramatic, the virtues of Carlos Lechuga’s second feature are the quiet, human ones, the script carefully and respectfully training its gaze on two unwilling outsiders struggling to live a life that the system has stolen from them.

In 1983, Andres (Eduardo Martínez) lives in a run-down hillside hut, having been banished there by the Cuban authorities as punishment for his counter-revolutionary views. Santa (Lola Amores) has been sent by local party rep Jesus (George Abreu) to sit on a chair, which she rather fetchingly hauls around with her, and keep watch over Andres while rather ironically a "peace forum" is taking place nearby. Most of the film is devoted to unpicking the human consequences on this odd couple and their bizarre situation — a situation that is so bizarre, it can only be rooted in historical fact.

By night, Andres spends his time penning a book, which he keeps hidden in the toilet (cue jokes about "smashing the cistern") and having sex with a mute local lad (Cesar Dominguez), who he pretends to Santa is his nephew. We learn that Santa and Jesus have had a brief fling, but after Jesus makes it clear that they’re going nowhere, Santa’s attitude to Andres changes. After the writer is beaten up by his lover, it's Santa who tends to his wounds, saving his life, and after that, their relationship starts to alter in interesting, thought-provoking ways.

Leaving aside its sometimes comic rendition of the sheer absurdity of its characters' plight, Santa is particularly strong on the way that politics gets into people’s heads and damages the relationships between them, even when they are far away from the political center: Even in this remote location, everyone's running along on lines laid by the party. This clearly shows how far Cuban indie cinema has come of late in its criticisms — but it’s never preachy, Lechuga’s script keeping the focus tightly on the quiet human drama as both characters struggle internally with the system’s effects on them. (The system in Santa and Andres, incidentally, is brutish, thoughtlessly automated, somewhat pathetic and clearly in decline, one from which any noble ideals seems to have evaporated in the Cuban sun.)

Martinez plays Andres as a deeply troubled man whose life has essentially been taken from him. A double victim of his culture — he’s both homosexual and a counter-revolutionary, that most unfortunate of combinations in Castro’s Cuba — Andre's real life is lived in hiding, and the haunted expression in his eyes is continuous testament of it. Martinez does a good job of playing the ghost of a man. But, already hardened when we first meet him, Andres doesn’t really change as a character.

This makes him less interesting than Santa, a country girl with only a dim comprehension of how she got into this position in the first place, and whose only understanding of Andres’ plight is that he’s written books that Jesus doesn’t like. (She also has a backstory that comes to the fore too late, and which feels somewhat tacked on.) In a system that sees her as little more than a means to a political end, Santa is lonely and driven by her powerful need for companionship, which counts more for her than party politics. When Santa sheds her uniform and tremblingly stern expression, lets down her hair and dons her red dress, she suddenly becomes an intriguing and memorable mix of the magnificent and the pathetic.

On the downside, there is too much dead air through some scenes, while the last 10 minutes seem narratively at odds with what has come before, raising doubts about why something that happens at the film’s end didn’t happen much earlier.

Music is crucial throughout, the Cuban jazz that blares out of Andres’ radio cassette player surreally at odds with all the rural silence. Indeed, music throughout brings a passion and sensitivity to a world that has largely been stripped of such qualities. Haydee Milanes’ version of Silvio Rodriguez’s ‘The Humming bird and the Flower,’ playing behind the final credits, is achingly beautiful, while Santiago Barbosa Canon's lightly plucked mandolin score is deft and winsome.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Production companies: Producciones de la 5ta Avenida, Igolai Producciones, Promenades Films
Cast: Lola Amores, Eduardo Martínez, George Abreu, Luna Tinoco, Cesar Domínguez
Director, screenwriter: Carlos Lechuga
Producers: Claudia Calvino, Carlos Lechuga
Director of photography: Javier Labrador
Production designer: Alain Ortiz
Costume designer: Celia Ledon
Editor: Joanna Montero
Composer: Santiago Barbosa Canon
Casting director: Julieth Gaviria
Sales: Habanero Film Sales

No rating, 105 minutes

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