‘The Companion’ (‘El Acompanante’): Chicago Review

The Companion Still 2 - H 2015
Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
One part fascinating glimpse into a hidden world, one part standard sports drama.

Cuban Pavel Giroud’s follow-up to his multiple award-winning 'The Silly Age' is an '80s-set drama set in a sanatorium for AIDS patients.

A distinctive Cuban drama set in a distinctively Cuban setting, Pavel Giroud’s stylistically more austere feature follow-up to The Silly Age -- his co-directed docu Playing Lecuona is currently doing the rounds -- is indeed Cuban through and through, but at bottom The Companion is a universal tale of struggles against adversity. The struggles it recounts -- against the political system, against disease, and against the past -- work fine separately but less well in combination, leaving the film looking like an uncertain hybrid of prison drama and boxing comeback yarn.

The connections between the two parts are not always clear, despite a final reel attempt to yank them together: but such quibbles should not prevent The Companion, with its intriguing context, from finding further festival action following its Busan and Chicago screenings.

Giroud intriguingly lifts the lid on a dark episode in recent Cuban history. The initial credits reveal that during the 80s AIDS epidemic, the Cuban government decided it would be a good idea to set up Los Cocos, a sanatorium in the outskirts of Havana where all the island’s HIV patients would live. The problem could therefore be easily contained. Each patient was assigned a ‘companion’ whose real job was to inform the authorities about their habits.

So far, so jaw-droppingly true. One of the patients on this bizarre establishment, run with an iron hand by the chilling Doctor Mejias (Yailene Sierra), is Daniel Guerrero (Armando Miguel), a lively, cheekily smiling rebellious type whose new companion is the former boxing champ Horacio (singer Yotuel Romero, a former Latin Grammy award winner, here in a less bouncy mood), himself being punished by the system for drug-taking.

Their relationship is initially wary, but it quickly becomes clear that Horacio’s allegiances are not with the system, unwilling as he to reveal Daniel’s secrets to Mejias -- including the fact that Daniel makes regular nocturnal escapes from the sanatorium. (The film is partly about issues of who we can and cannot trust, which are big issues in surveillance-run states: “you don’t need to keep an animal in a cage to stop it biting,” Daniel pointedly remarks at one point.) Other characters in this busily plotted piece are the weasley, pathetic nurse Boris (Jazz Vila), a small man with a surprisingly big punch who will later fall victim to the virus himself, and Lisandra (Camila Arteche), who takes a shine to Horacio and on whose account Daniel will later become Boris’s mortal enemy.

The Companion’s most fascinating plotline involves Daniel’s attempts to escape, aided by a mysterious woman called Cheli (Yerlin Perez), who wants to infect her husband with Daniel’s blood so that she can get him transferred from jail to the sanatorium. Blood therefore becomes a medium of exchange, like money, and ultimately the impact of this on Daniel plays out in final scenes which should be wrenching but which are actually over the top and stagey in a way that the film has managed so far to sidestep. They’re a reminder of The Silly Age, where such a style was far more appropriate.

If you had a story built around a remarkable place called Los Cocos, a place from which there so much to be learned, you’d probably think twice about dedicating half your film -- and its title -- to a plotline involving the somewhat deja-vu comeback of a fading boxer. But that’s just what Giroud does: inspired by Daniel not to just abandon his career, Horacio sets about a return, aided by his weather-beaten old coach Vicente (marvelously played by Salvo Basile).

Amateur boxing is immensely popular in Cuba, and its central role here should help The Companion to do decent local business, as well as opening up debate about machismo and attitudes to homosexuality (a former soldier, Daniel has contracted his virus from straight sex in Africa, and it was encounters between the Cuban military and African prostitutes which opened the Cuban door to the disease). But there’s nothing truly distinctive about Horacio’s story, or the way it’s told -- though it does briefly touch on the issue of how Cuba’s non-participation for political reasons in the LA and Seoul Olympics extinguished the dreams of a generation of Cuban athletes.

Cuba famously takes care of its citizens’ bodies whilst depriving them of their civil liberties. And bodies are everywhere in evidence in The Companion, and suffering a variety of fates, whether in unflinching closeup on needles being injected or celebrating Romero’s frankly fabulous frame. It is dedicated to the memory of Camilo Vives, the great Cuban film producer who died in 2013.

Production companies: Arese, Tu Vas Voir, Igolai, Nativa
Cast: Yotuel Romero, Armando Miguel, Yailene Sierras, Camila Arteche, Jazz Vila, Jorge Molina, Salvo Basile
Director: Pavel Giroud
Screenwriters: Pavel Giroud, Pierre Edelman, Alejandro Brugues
Producers: Lia Rodriguez, Antonio Anibal Lopez, Edgard Tenembaum, Gustavo Pazmin Perea, Delfina Catala
Director of photography: Ernesto Calzado
Production designer:
Costume designers: Celia Leon, Lisandra Ramos
Editor: Jacques Comets
Composers: Ulises Hernandez, Sergio Valdes
Casting director:
Sales: Habanero Film Sales

No rating, 104 minutes