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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Revision and Deconstruction
by Donald Levit

However tremendous the effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s familiarity with the “peculiar institution” was nil and her story and storytelling melodramatic rather than hard fact-based. So, too, were Cuban Anselmo Suárez y Romero’s in Francisco, likewise humanitarian and emotional but getting screen “correction” in The Other Francisco/El otro Francisco.

The 1974 drama is the first of the “slavery trilogy” showing alongside three others by Sergio Giral during the 2011 African Diaspora International Film Festival, at which the Miami-based Afro-Cuban director-writer is participating on two panels as Filmmaker in Residence.

The film is similar in purpose to DJ Spooky/Paul D. Miller’s Rebirth of a Nation, though it aims to straighten out a Caribbean novel rather than another film (derived from a popular romance masquerading as fact). In RN, re-mix digital technology highlights aspects of the 1915 original while a voice-of-God narrator drips irony in exposing Griffith’s racism.

Giral’s, in contrast, mixes the melodramatic written original as script with reconstruction, often in a pseudo-documentary style which makes it difficult to know when the screen story is fully imaginary and when it is the equivalent of mid-nineteenth non-fiction. Voiceover interrupts, saying that the previous scene is from the source novel but patently counterfactual and now we will consider what seems more likely to have happened given historical time, place and people.

“Story” is additionally intercut by flashes to the Domínico Delmonte Havana soirées where liberal dilettantes exercise intellects playing chess, theorizing about abolition and the rights of man, and applauding young Suárez y Romero’s reading of his novel which, given mother Spain’s censorship, cannot be printed but must be circulated clandestinely among the likeminded.

Not indicated anywhere, the book’s subtitle, El ingenio, o Las delicias del campo/The Sugar Plantation, or The Delights of the Country, unintentionally underlines the cinema theses that, while not rose-colored Gone with the Wind and in fact history’s first written anti-slavery piece, the novel Francisco sentimentally ignored the violent reality of social context and in particular the capitalist interests dictating at home and abroad.

Field slave Francisco embraces love Dorotea, who through tears reveals that her mistress-owner’s son Ricardo has had his way with her by threatening to increase Francisco’s burdens. Devastated that she is also being moved to Havana, he hangs himself “for love,” at which the omniscient voice asks whether this is realistic and answers its own question in the negative.

What follows is a mixture of dramatized romantic sentimentality of the novel (and the times) with footage of the reality, ultimately to conclude with the voice and printed end-titles’ insistence that such suicide was in truth an assertion of manhood in denying the brutal reigning system.

The deteriorated print and difficult white-on-white subtitles cannot bear this out, although there are powerful sequences of slaves dancing around bonfires and of a squelched uprising led by Guinean Crispin. There is no disputing the title character’s mistreatment and suicide, but there is also nothing really to prove one way or the other about his final act -- dishonored love or dignified defiance, both equally romantic conclusions.

Sadistic overseers like the novel-film’s Antonio undeniably existed, but his Simon Legree character is so melodramatic that he, too, comes across as a caricature of evil rather than a dramatically satisfying villain. More convincing even if essentially told rather than shown, are the monetary concerns that played a major rôle, from improved sugar-milling machinery to British financiers and manufacturers. Again narrated or printed more than acted out, there was the fear of successful rebellion and bloodbath as in nearby Saint-Dominique (Haiti), and the memory of previous uprisings in Cuba, an island of three hundred thousand whites and almost twice that number of blacks.

Certainly valid and not widely known points are made, though the presentation in OF does not succeed in bringing them all together, awkwardly centered as they are around a “historical” opinion about a suicide.

(Released by Tricontinental Film Center; not rated by MPAA.)

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