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Movie Review: DE ESPALDAS (Cuba, 1956)

"Backs Turned"
Cuba, 1956
Directed and Produced by Mario Barral
Screenplay by Mario Barral, Francisco Pazos, Francisco Forcade, Oscar Luis Lopez
Cinematography by Manuel S. Conde
Edited by Michael Cerone
Music by Jose de Aguilera
Emilio G. Navarro
Maria Brenes
Jose de San Anton
Manuel Estanillo
Armando Martinez

A man awakens to find his mood troubled. While walking to work he unknowingly wanders into a graveyard and so begins an existential musing that lasts for the rest of the day and the film. Mostly he aimlessly wanders the streets, constantly asking himself ‘Why?” when stumbling across social injustice. He ponders the evils of sick children, poverty and Marxism. At one point he flashes back to a fortune teller and her witchy words make him believe he has power over life and death. He informs a dying boy that he will not die after all, only to hear mere seconds later that the child has gone and croaked anyway. This does nothing to alleviate his mood. While stopping outside a prison, a warden appears and asks him to speak with a man condemned to die. It is his last wish to speak with the first man the warden comes across. The doomed man explains that his only real crime is being ugly, and therefore impossible to believe when he claims he did not murder his beautiful lover. Our hero does believe him and comes away more convinced than ever of the hopelessness of the world. Which is only further exasperated by a chance meeting with a random floozy (perhaps prostitute – the narrative is unclear) with whom he tries to make sense of the days events before her angry husband comes home to beat her in what appears to be a daily ritual. All his sadness and misery are solved, conveniently, by his return home. Met by his adoring children and maid-like wife, our man in Havana is welcomed by the warm embrace of family, of middle-class life and most importantly perhaps, of television. The films ends with the entire family gathered around its hearth-like glow, entranced by its angst-easing flicker. In an odd and ostensibly poetic bit of casting, his family are all played by the same actors who portrayed the various shady characters encountered in his long’s days journey into TV-illuminated night.

DE ESPALDAS has serious artistic aspirations. It’s full of 50s European-esque arty angst a la Bergman or Italian neo-realism, but it just doesn’t work. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still an entertaining and interesting movie. Just not for the reasons it is intended for. The hero’s completely ridiculous voice-over monologues seem almost like a parody of existential navel-gazing, it’s so over the top and full of square-jaw sincerity. Despite its utter seriousness of intent, it comes across completely comedic. The English dubbing may have something to do with this, sounding as though it were recorded through a megaphone rather than a microphone. The music, too, seems at odds with the grave events unfolding. It’s a swath of typically 50s sounding library cues more at home in a pirate adventure movie than a film about a man touring through the suffering of the world. It creates an unintentional frisson which works in spite of itself, but only though an unhealthy veil of snickering irony. The film’s best moments are the hand-held street scenes, particularly a lively street carnival, filled with outrageous, campy costumes. Meant to represent the main character’s disorientation, it the only time when the movie feels alive and in it’s own skin. The rest of the movie, with all it’s labored conscientiousness, feels a bit off, a bit fake. There’s also a palpable, and uncomfortable, feeling of propaganda about the whole thing. The condemnation of the socialist organizers, for instance, or in the film’s obvious pro-US middle class values of the finale. It’s weird and disconcerting and makes the whole thing even more interesting, despite the blatant flaws of the film on its own terms.

Little information is available about Director Mario Barral. He appears to have died in 2000, only two years before his son, Rolando Barral, himself a media celebrity in the Miami Cuban exile community. Mario worked mostly in radio, television and theater in pre-revolutionary Cuba during the 40s and 50s. He was the head of CMQ, Cuba’s largest and most successful television studio during the medium’s infancy. After the revolution, Barral made his way to Miami where he continued to work in Spanish language media, even publishing a series of poetry books and writing and producing several plays. DE ESPALDAS was his first film. His second, and last, is CON EL DESEO EN LOS DEDOS (“With Desire in the Fingers”), an even more obscure film which reportedly never played outside Cuba, LOS DEDOS is described by an IMDB reviewer as “one of the serious attempts of making a(n) … erotic film in Cuba in the late 50's”. But judging from this one available film, Barral was no natural film-maker. ESPALDAS is mostly stilted and crude, exuding only a whiff of cinematic poetry here and there. Obviously an attempt to make a serious “art film” ESPALDAS is compromised by Barral’s limitations as a director and by the awkward propagandic impulses bubbling just underneath the film’s surface. Something Weird Video has this film available as either a VHS (this is how I saw it) or a DVD-R. In typical exploitation ballyhoo fashion their catalog drastically oversells it, describing it as a “lost art film masterpiece” or a “bargain basement Bunuel”. It’s neither, though still of interest to those wanting to dig into the often obscure world of South American cinema.

Special Thanks to David Wilt for additional biographical info.