Life Is to Whistle

Co-written and directed by Fernando Pérez

May 31, 2000 at 4:00 am
The current reliance of the Cuban film industry on co-productions with European companies has loosened to a certain extent the control wielded by the Cuban Film Institute, the official government organization that oversees filmmaking in Cuba. A co-production by the Cuban Film Institute and the Spanish corporation Wanda Distributions, Life Is to Whistle plays a dangerous game with the censors, delivering a barely encoded message.

Inspired by the surrealist painter Magritte, Fernando Pérez's contemporary Havana is swimming with dreamy juxtapositions of absurd images. Sex scenes are crosscut with snails. An underwater narrator (Bebe Pérez) is kissed by a fish. But the debt to Magritte does not end there. The French artist shook the hold representational painting had on reality when he scrawled across his picture of a pipe: "This is not a pipe." When Pérez follows three archetypal Cuban characters to Castro's Revolution Square, he proclaims in his own way: "This is not a revolution." Without losing the bite of Magritte's humor, Pérez shows how the words repeated in Cuba for the past 40 years wreak violence on reality. Legions of Cubans faint in the street when they hear the hollow sounds of words such as "morality" and "liberty."

Pérez tears down revolutionary icons from the most lofty to the most mundane. The character Mariana (Claudia Rojas) is a ballerina of the new generation meant to carry on the legacy of dance legend and cultural dictator Alicia Alonso. Mariana's handling of Giselle, Alonso's most celebrated role, is a direct challenge to the revolution's authoritarian grip on culture. Male protagonist Elpidio Valdes (Luis Alberto Garcia) takes his name directly from a cartoon superhero broadcast on Cuban television in the 1970s that was invented to keep the minds of socialist tykes off the capitalist likes of Superman and Wonder Woman. In Pérez's film, the character once famed for fighting "against dollar and cannon" now trails tourists in search of greenbacks. A longhaired, pot-smoking ne'er-do-well, Elpidio is frequently visited by his conscience. Rather than the voice of Che Guevara's New Man, the moral imperative of this imperfect son of socialist society sings with the raspy voice of the sad-faced, dark-skinned prerevolutionary crooner Bola de Nieve (Snowball).

If some familiarity with recent Cuban history is required to decipher these revisions of the revolution, other aspects of Life Is to Whistle verge on the obvious. The mother who rejects Elpidio despite his undying love for her is named Cuba. Nearly every character in the film is an orphan who declares at some point: "I never knew my parents, either." Ringing from the cold orphanages of Havana to the comfortable homes of exiles in Miami, this symbolic lament of the abandoned children of the revolution might be the most powerful reason of all to see the film.

In Spanish with English subtitles.

Plays at 8 p.m. June 2-4 at Webster University.