Review of José Martí: el ojo del canario

 Carlos Espinosa Domínguez analyzes the most recent film on the Cuban leader’s life, José Martí: el ojo del canario (2010), directed by Fernando Pérez (Clandestinos, Madagascar, La vida es silbar, and Suite Habana).

He starts out by mentioning what a daunting task it is to represent a figure that is larger than life to explain why the figure of José Martí (1853-1895) has had a very limited presence in film. He says that it is particularly difficult to bring to the big screen characters with great merits that are venerated by the public. In the specific case of Martí, he states, who was called “The Apostle,” the “Mystic of Duty,” the “Saint of America.” Espinosa asks, “How can one recreate for the cinema, literature, and theater the biographical history of an apostle, a mystic, a saint?” Here are excerpts from Espinosa’s commentary with a link to the full review below:

To date only two titles had been produced so far for [Martí –based] filmography: one is La rosa blanca [The White Rose (1954, a Cuban-Mexican co-production)], which was accompanied by controversy for having been commissioned by the dictator Fulgencio Batista. It was directed by the Mexican Emilio El Indio Fernández, who was hired because of his great prestige. His compatriot Mauricio Magdaleno, author of the book Fulgor de Martí, despite having written the script, did not hesitate in qualifying the movie as “bad, very bad,” adding that the director did not understand Martí. The latter [figure] did not reappear on our screens until to seventeen years later, when José Massip’s Páginas del diario de José Martí (1971) arrived in theaters. Poorly received at the time by viewers and critics, today there are some who recognize that this is a film that needs to be revisited and re-evaluated.

One person who thinks so is Fernando Pérez (La Habana, 1944), who brings the third work that Cuban cinematography has dedicated to this outstanding figure. For the director of films such as Clandestinos, Madagascar, La vida es silbar, and Suite Habana, a project such as José Martí: El ojo delcanario (Cuba/Spain, 2010) meant a risk. The difficulty that I pointed before, is something that Guillermo Cabrera Infante referred to in his criticism of La rosa blanca: “If the exact dimension of Martí has escaped all biographers—using thousand biographical tricks, how does one expect the cinema to discover a man who was never a spectacle? [. . .] If there are lives that one thinks are impossible and imagine them as miraculous, it is Martí’s. Making it tangible, even if in the fleeting shadows of cinema, is like trying to portray the conscience. For Martí is the conscience of Cuba.”

Fernando Pérez explains that he did not construct a biography of Martí on film, but rather, he recreated fictionally what should have been his childhood and adolescence. Once you see the film, there are two fundamental reasons that confirm why his decisions worked: on the one hand, he avoided falling into hagiography and exegeses without nuances; he did not need to recreate his political and literary activity. On the other hand, he concentrated on the period of [Martí’s] formation [. . .], the years that shed light on the figure of the adult Martí, reflecting what Beatriz Maggi defined as “the growth of a soul.”

[. . .] To create certain scenes, Fernando Pérez was inspired by Martí’s own texts, as if he were imagining the context in which his experiences arose. [Pérez] has avoided the weight of didacticism, as well as the affectation and theatrical rhetoric so common in historical film. These are some of the aspects that make his film pleasurable and interesting.

For full article (in Spanish), see

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