Cuba si, Cuban cinema no

By DAVID DENBY  |  November 14, 2006

The best new film in the Festival, Sergio Giral’s The Other Francisco (1975), is almost an explicit demonstration of this process. Giral begins his film with a flourish of cheap Latin clichés: a black slave of the 1830s pounds his fists in paroxysms of despair on the seashore; a mulatto girl in a white dress runs across the sands and falls into his arms. “Oh, Francisco, I slept with the master only to save your life,” etc. All accompanied by a third-rate romantic musical score. Suddenly a stern narrator interrupts to explain that we are watching a dramatization of Francisco, a famous Cuban anti-slavery novel of the early 19th century by Suarez Romero, an aristocratic slave-owner with humanitarian leanings (we see the author, in a ruffled shirt, reading his book to a collection of swells who are much moved by the narrative). In classic Marxist terms, the narrator explains that Romero created Francisco as a passively resigned Christian rather than a rebel, because the author unconsciously represented the interests of his class and feared revolution. The upper-class Cuban abolitionists wanted the slaves freed so their labor would be available, at low wages, to joint exploitation by the landowners and British capital. Unaware of his own “true” motivation, Romero used the bourgeois clichés of a “love triangle” and “lust,” rather than economic determinism, to explain his characters’ behavior. Giral then proceeds, in a slightly more astringent style of filmmaking, to show us the “other” Francisco – the true slave of the period, proud, defiant, joining the other rebels in the hills at night to plot vengeance and freedom. This is accompanied by narration explaining how slavery really worked.

The trouble with this scheme is that Giral’s two styles aren’t distinctive enough to comment on one another (which might have been fun) without the aid of narration, and sometimes we can’t even tell them apart. Further, if the “other” Francisco and his friends were as typical as the movie implies, the institution of slavery would have perished immediately from continual rebellions, a consideration Giral seems not to be aware of. His rebellious slave is as shallow an image as Romero’s passively resigned one.

Giral’s scrappy, seemingly unarranged black-and-white compositions are occasionally exciting to watch, but the film is marred by a rather disgraceful amount of violence. Despite its austere Marxist framework, The Other Francisco has more cartoonishly hysterical villainy and whippings than Mandingo and Drum put together. Perhaps a little investigation into Giral’s “true” – commercial? – motives is in order. Erotic fantasies of rebellious slaves, masters with whips, and mulatto girls in white dresses are popular all over the world. Forced to kill a few hours in a provincial airport in New Zealand (easily the world’s least eroticized culture), I was presented with the following choice of best-selling authors on a book rack: Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie…and Kyle Onstott, master of the whipped-slave genre, author of Drum, Mandingo, etc. In Giral’s The Other Francisco, the combination of Marxism and Onstottism is uncomfortable  and, at times, absurd.

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