Tropical Maladies

New and recent films from Latin America screen at Lincoln Center this month

There must be some reason why the city’s major surveys of Latin American cinema huddle together in the torpid dog days of summer, though I have yet to fathom it. Late July brings the first of these, the New York International Latino Film Festival, functioning effectively as a branding vehicle for HBO, joined as of this year by McDonald’s. August is staked out by LaCinemaFe, with its rangy offerings and perceptibly queer spin (is it coincidence that both festival directors are familia?)

Back to school season heralds the toniest of all, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Latin Beat series of recent Latin American films, which runs September 7–21 at the Walter Reade Theater. The 19 selections, predominantly from Argentina’s powerhouse industry but also including works from Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Bolivia, are rounded out with a tribute to the veteran Argentine star Federico Luppi (“The Devil’s Backbone,” “Funny Dirty Little War”).

If the respectable lineup is perhaps short on sizzle, it may be partly the result of several outstanding new Latin American releases—Lisandro Alonso’s “Los Muertos,” Fernando Eimbcke’s “Duck Season,” Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez’s “La Sierra”—already having surfaced in other Film Society programming earlier this year. Some of the excitement comes in the first-time, concurrent distribution of selected Latin Beat titles in partnership with Emerging Pictures’ “digital syndication” network, a welcome complement to the already-established nationwide Cinema Tropical circuit.

Mercedes Moncada-Rodríguez’s documentary “El Inmortal” (“The Immortal”) warrants attention due to the sheer rarity of films we see from Nicaragua; it also happens to be one of the best works in Latin Beat. “The Immortal” (screened September 8 and 10) excavates the armed conflict that followed the Sandinista revolution of 1979 through one peasant family’s saga of veritably classical dimensions. When the conflict engulfed their rural village in 1983, twin brothers José Antonio and Juan Antonio Rivera found themselves on opposite sides of the war. José and sister Reina were recruited by U.S.-backed Contra forces; Juan joined the Sandinistas after the death in combat of a third brother, Emilio.

Lucidly observed and gracefully shot in black-and-white by Javier Morón Tejero, the Riveras’ harrowing recollections unfold within an eerie ambience of cockfights, evangelical congregations, and grinding, ubiquitous poverty, while at intervals an allegorically freighted truck lurches repeatedly past, its windshield proclaiming in duct-tape letters: “El Inmortal.”

Of principal interest for queer audiences is the documentary by 30-year-old director Manuel Zayas, “Seres extravagantes” (literally “outrageous beings,” translated awkwardly here as “Odd People Out”). Taking its title from the endlessly quotable Fidel Castro’s derogation for the queens who used to promenade in Havana’s La Rampa district, “Seres extravagantes” (screened September 16 and 19) revisits the life of gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas (1943–1990), popularized by the recent screen adaptation of his memoir “Before Night Falls.”

The writer’s impoverished childhood, youthful revolutionary exuberance, precocious literary renown, censorship by the state, incarceration, flight in the 1980 Mariel exodus, decline from AIDS, and eventual suicide are of course the raw material of legend. But whereas Julian Schnabel’s bloated hagiography amplified the hyperbolic tone of the memoir, “Seres extravagantes” restores Arenas to us in approachably human dimensions. Remarkably, it does so with a mere handful of images of the writer, instead relying on his voiceover narration, smartly edited from archival sources, to span a series of successively more revelatory interviews with his literary peers and family.

Made underneath official Cuban radar with Spanish financing, the film opens with Arenas’ uncle Carlos in the boondocks of rustic Oriente province, pointing out the verses that little Reinaldo would carve into the trunks of palm trees. Zayas managed to draft the uncle into searching for Arenas’ long-vanished biological father, José Antonio, providing a loose pursuit structure that alternates with copious archival footage and interviews with other gay Cuban authors suppressed to varying degrees by Castro’s regime.

The courtly, silver-maned dramatist Antón Arrufat makes a study in contrasts with the poet Delfín Prats, once Arenas’ cruising buddy but today a fretful pauper living in a threadbare shanty. More riveting still are the encounters with the writer’s next of kin. Impish and droll, the actress Ingrid González recalls their marriage of convenience; Uncle Carlos actually does track down the biological father, now a diminished vagrant. Reinaldo’s enfeebled mother Oneida drops the biggest emotional bombshell, reminiscing over her “clever” boy but steadfast in her homophobic rejection of the man.

With masterful restraint, the live-action footage of Arenas is saved for the final minutes, and after hearing his voice throughout the film it comes as a shock to see him in a silent, melancholy reverie. A closing title noting his 1990 suicide serves to remind us of how profoundly the island has changed since that moment, when the ruinous consequences of the Soviet Union’s disintegration were not yet fully apparent. It is across precisely this distance that “Seres extravagantes” responds to “Before Night Falls,” but in fine dialectical fashion it also refers back to “Improper Conduct,” the 1984 documentary by Néstor Almendros and Orlando Jiménez Leal that started the whole bulla, or ruckus.

Two decades on, it is harder for us to appreciate the firestorm that once raged over “Improper Conduct,” which featured Arenas among several other prominent exiles denouncing Castro’s appalling UMAP camps where homos, with other “antisocial” elements, were imprisoned from 1965 to 1967. Against the commonplace leftist presumption of a calculus in which some individual freedoms would necessarily be subordinated to collective values because of the scope of the revolutionary enterprise, “Improper Conduct” insisted that Castro’s repressive policies were irreconcilable with enlightened ethics.

Even in 1984, however, “Improper Conduct” had a curiously time-locked quality, fulminating against bygone tragedies. To be sure, Castro’s Cuba has been, and remains, an inhospitable terrain for gay and lesbian Cubans. Yet the enduring fixation on the UMAP infamy obscures the complicated ways that homosexuals’ fortunes have evolved over the revolution’s 46-year history. Through its nuanced portraits of contemporary gay authors and indeed by its very existence, “Seres extravagantes” attests to a more perplexing 21st-century Cuban reality.

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