Fátima o el Parque de la Fraternidad guarantees a complete upheaval of any prejudices foreigners may have about the freedom of the arts in an authoritarian state.
A few nights ago, a couple of fellow travellers and I attended the national premiere of Fátima in Havana’s main cinema. Going to see a film in a foreign country is always a fun experience, whatever is on offer – so stumbling upon this event felt like quite a coup. Directed by Jorge Perugorría and produced by the ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography), the film was first exhibited at the Festival de Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano last year, but this was its first showing in cinema.
A little intimidated by the glamour of all the spectators (I almost got turned away in shorts), we were soon reassured by the familial warmth of the event. The vibe was of excitement and achievement rather than elitist snobbery, as would no doubt have been the case the other side of the Atlantic. Before the showing, the cast were invited up one by one onstage and each presented with a kiss and a single rose. Emotional speeches followed as everyone, down to the last technician, was remembered and urged to come up and join them – we were a little worried at one point that soon the whole audience would be onstage with just a few bewildered tourists to applaud…
Based on a short story by Miguel Barnet, the film traces the story of the charming and kind-hearted Manolito. It eschews chronology in favour of constantly flashing back and forth, from the protagonist’s youthful homosexual affairs in the provinces and conflicts with his stepfather, to his migration to the capital, where the tranquil Parque de la Fraternidad becomes the illicit meeting point for all sorts of ‘buscadores de experiencia’.
The story doesn’t really kick off until he meets Andrés, a suave, unscrupulous lover who comes to dominate his head and heart. The relationship hits the rocks when Andrés persuades Manolito to prostitute himself as a transvestite to earn extra money – and so the persona of Fátima is born, after a deity Manolito envisioned as a child. Andrés eventually leaves him for the possibility of a better-heeled life in Miami, and we first meet the protagonist in the aftermath; dressed to kill in a blond wig and heavy makeup, mascara smudged in tearful resentment, shouting accusations at the camera.
Their relationship is mapped through initial scenes of honeymoon bliss, most memorably the first liaison in Manolito’s bedroom, where their passion is forever delayed by a hilarious dance just shy of a strip tease. Exaggeration is the name of the game here; the filming reflects the lovers’ heady emotion, and the scene ends in a brilliant freeze shot of the two dancing together like good friends.
Romance gives way to raunchy comedy as Manolito becomes diva of the cabaret, regularly pimped out by his boyfriend to clients who stop by the park to pick him up in dark American cars. This funny but unforgiving portrait of sex tourism and Havana’s racy underworld may be a surprise to those unfamiliar with Cuban cinema, given the regime’s repression of homosexuality. Since the ICAIC’s golden age of the 1960s, directors like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío have tested the censorship and questioned the system without overtly criticising it. Fátima enters the country’s celebrated canon of LGBT cinema that includes the Oscar-nominated classic Fresa y Chocolate (1994), which tells of the relationship between a homosexual and a macho Communist militant. These films challenge the viewer’s expectations – they both shock and amuse – although some viewers may regard the humour of Fátima as slightly less than politically correct. I wondered, as the audience erupted into fits of laughter for the umpteenth time, whether every punch line was based on the protagonist’s status as a gay prostitute, or just most of them.
That said, the depiction of a society entrenched in homophobic prejudice is realistic and poignant. One violent scene where Manolito is tricked into following a would-be lover into a secluded backyard, only to be beaten up, is particularly harrowing. Another all too accurate theme tackled is the economic crisis of Cuba’s ‘Special Period’, as we are shown a thriving black market and the struggles of individuals who are forced into the sex trade to earn their keep. Manolito’s freedom to send his mother presents and eat well in a time of strict rationing (the film constantly zooms in on meat being chopped up and fried) comes at a high price. Most moving is the nocturnal scene where Andrés leaves Havana for Miami in a packed motorboat – as thousands did, and still do – leaving his lover heartbroken and alone on the Malecón.
Probably in defiance of US Hollywood blockbusters, Cuban film has instead imported many traditions of European art-house cinema. Fátima is no exception, paying homage to Pedro Almodóvar in its irreverent humour, innuendo and delightful celebration of kitsch in all its forms. Ernan López Nussa’s lovely, if slightly schmaltzy soundtrack has strong hints of pianist Yann Tiersen, renowned for films such as Goodbye Lenin and Amélie, whose wayward, loveable characters would no doubt find a kindred spirit in Manolito.
Whether or not Fátima has reached or will reach international audiences, it certainly deserves acclaim. The film treads an excellent balance between scandalous humour and real issues very close to its home. While the plot and characters are maybe a little over the top for some viewers, the film avoids cliché, and the series of improbable events rarely descends into farce.