One of the films screened earlier this month at the 37th Havana Film Festival was Cuban director Pavel Giroud’s El acompañante [The Companion], a drama set in the 1980s in a sanatorium for AIDS patients. [Also see previous post 37th Havana Film Festival.] Jonathan Holland reviews the film:
A distinctive Cuban drama set in a distinctively Cuban setting, Pavel Giroud’s stylistically more austere feature follow-up to The Silly Age — his co-directed docu Playing Lecuona is currently doing the rounds — is indeed Cuban through and through, but at bottom The Companion is a universal tale of struggles against adversity. The struggles it recounts — against the political system, against disease, and against the past — work fine separately but less well in combination, leaving the film looking like an uncertain hybrid of prison drama and boxing comeback yarn.
[. . .] Giroud intriguingly lifts the lid on a dark episode in recent Cuban history. The initial credits reveal that during the 80s AIDS epidemic, the Cuban government decided it would be a good idea to set up Los Cocos, a sanatorium in the outskirts of Havana where all the island’s HIV patients would live. The problem could therefore be easily contained. Each patient was assigned a ‘companion’ whose real job was to inform the authorities about their habits.
So far, so jaw-droppingly true. One of the patients on this bizarre establishment, run with an iron hand by the chilling Doctor Mejias (Yailene Sierra), is Daniel Guerrero (Armando Miguel), a lively, cheekily smiling rebellious type whose new companion is the former boxing champ Horacio (singer Yotuel Romero, a former Latin Grammy award winner, here in a less bouncy mood), himself being punished by the system for drug-taking.
Their relationship is initially wary, but it quickly becomes clear that Horacio’s allegiances are not with the system, unwilling as he to reveal Daniel’s secrets to Mejias — including the fact that Daniel makes regular nocturnal escapes from the sanatorium. (The film is partly about issues of who we can and cannot trust, which are big issues in surveillance-run states: “you don’t need to keep an animal in a cage to stop it biting,” Daniel pointedly remarks at one point.) Other characters in this busily plotted piece are the weasley, pathetic nurse Boris (Jazz Vila), a small man with a surprisingly big punch who will later fall victim to the virus himself, and Lisandra (Camila Arteche), who takes a shine to Horacio and on whose account Daniel will later become Boris’s mortal enemy.
The Companion’s most fascinating plotline involves Daniel’s attempts to escape, aided by a mysterious woman called Cheli (Yerlin Perez), who wants to infect her husband with Daniel’s blood so that she can get him transferred from jail to the sanatorium. Blood therefore becomes a medium of exchange, like money, and ultimately the impact of this on Daniel plays out in final scenes which should be wrenching but which are actually over the top and stagey in a way that the film has managed so far to sidestep. [. . .]
Amateur boxing is immensely popular in Cuba, and its central role here should help The Companion to do decent local business, as well as opening up debate about machismo and attitudes to homosexuality (a former soldier, Daniel has contracted his virus from straight sex in Africa, and it was encounters between the Cuban military and African prostitutes which opened the Cuban door to the disease). [. . .]
Cuba famously takes care of its citizens’ bodies whilst depriving them of their civil liberties. And bodies are everywhere in evidence in The Companion, and suffering a variety of fates, whether in unflinching closeup on needles being injected or celebrating Romero’s frankly fabulous frame. It is dedicated to the memory of Camilo Vives, the great Cuban film producer who died in 2013. [. . .]