'Carmita': Film Review

Courtesy of Aurora Dominicana
Though it promises more than it delivers, this remains an intriguing movie footnote story

Echoes of "Sunset Boulevard” sound throughout this lightly fictionalized documentary about Cuban actress Carmen Ignarra

The beautiful Cuban actress Carmen Ignarra married Mexican-Lebanese producer Santiago Reachi at 27, poised for a stab at Hollywood fame. But with the marriage, Ignarra's budding US career came to an abrupt end as Reachi, one of the founders of the Cantinflas legend, declared "I do not wish to be pointed out as the husband of Carmen Ignarra" and forbade her from ever again taking on a major acting role.

Sixty years later, Carmita, once a star known as "Cuba's little princess" and who later modeled for Diego Rivera, lives in a decaying mansion in Monterrey, Mexico, where the gas hasn't worked for two years. Despite her belief that an old woman can never be beautiful, she still is. Over a period of six years, the Dominican directing tandem Laura Amelia Guzman and Israel Cardenas gained intimate access to the mansion and to Carmita's life, working up a hybrid fiction/documentary in which the latter works better than the former. Though the film leaves too many questions unasked about a life that has been a roller-coaster ride and supplies too little context, it's still a quietly beguiling piece, always interesting on the human level, which merits play at Latin-American-themed festivals.

Guzman, whose last film, Sand Dollars, performed well on the fest circuit and likewise dealt with the solitude of an aging woman, seems to have sought employment by Ignarra as a cleaner — but like too much else in Carmita, we're never told this explicitly. The film is the record of their conversations, filmed secretly sometimes by Cardenas, alongside clips of Carmita's somewhat humiliating appearances on a Mexican gossip show on which she was a regular guest, living off her old stories. On these shows, as she herself is aware, she is often more open and frank about her life than she is in the documentary itself.

The magnificent, excitable Carmita still behaves defiantly and heartbreakingly like the star she no longer is, busy seeking to control her image for the cameras whenever she can but often more revealing when her mind is on other matters, for example when washing her hair. She spends her economically precarious days getting into arguments about rent she is owed by a tenant, dictating answers to admirers on her blog, complaining ("only God and a good rheumatologist can appreciate what I'm going through") and later accusing a tearful Guzman of stealing a ring from her. She's both tough and tender, and the viewer quickly falls for her.

There's a darker side too: leafing through Carmita's albums of clippings, we see that someone, perhaps Carmita herself, has scrawled the word "ugly" over her pictures, sometimes scratching out the faces altogether. But the film never explores this, presumably because it would be Sunset Boulevard-style cruel to do so. There's the feeling that, having had this terrific idea, Guzman and Cardenas are uncertain about how to follow through the project without hurting Carmita by stripping away too forcefully the illusions that are sustaining her through her final years. There must be a lot of good stuff on the cutting-room floor.

Intriguingly, the issue of how much of Carmita's stardom is real and how much is only in her mind remains open, which is the point. Is this a movie about Carmita or starring her? The fragility of this remarkably resilient and charismatic woman comes over loud and clear as she tells a studio audience that she has never met her granddaughter, who is living in the U.S., and in her tears as she listens to an old radio show, we suspect for the millionth time, and still without a trace of bitterness, how her blossoming career was truncated by Reachi.

It must be clear from their film, Carmita tells Cardenas and Guzman in a letter, that it was she who destroyed her own career. This way, her pride and dignity can remain intact. But in Carmita, that's not clear at all.

Production company: Aurora Dominicana, Rei Cine
Cast: Carmen Ignarra Guell, Laura Amelia Guzman, Israel Cardenas
Directors, screenwriters: Laura Amelia Guzman, Israel Cardenas
Producers: Laura Amelia Guzman, Israel Cardenas, Benjamin Domenech, Santiago Gallelli
Executive producers: Victor F. Freixanes
Director of photography: Israel Cardenas
Editors: Israel Cardenas, Theo Court, Benjamin Domenech
Sales: Aurora Dominicana

No rating, 72 minutes