Isabel Santos; Jorge Perugorría ; Laura de la Uz
Photo credits: Rafael Solis ; Foto EFE ; Hector Garrido

This spring’s Havana Film Festival New York presented two powerful films: La pared de las palabras and Vestido de novia—one by a much-honored veteran director and one making her fiction-film debut. Different subject matter, yet both deal with difficult, challenging, potentially controversial topics. And both feature stellar performances by the same three actors.

Elena (Isabel Santos) and Luis (Jorge Perugorría)

La pared de las palabras The Wall of Words (90 min., 2014), by Fernando Pérez Valdés (Madagascar, Suite Habana), deals with mental and physical illness, maternal love, and the difficulties of communication. In present-day Havana, Elena (Isabel Santos) is a single mother with two grown sons. The eldest, Luis (Jorge Perugorría), has been afflicted since childhood with a psychomotor disease that renders him incapable of speech and with limited physical mobility. Luis is confined to a psychiatric institution and comes home for family visits on weekends.

Luis (Jorge Perugorría)

Elena’s devotion to her handicapped son is so overwhelming that it begins to take a toll on her life and her own health. She neglects her younger son, a talented artist (played by Carlos Enrique Almirante) and rejects the cautionary advice of her mother (Verónica Lynn). Her work in a marine biology lab also begins to suffer. When the doctor in charge of the psychiatric facility informs her that Luis’s condition is terminal and he hasn’t long to live, Elena refuses to accept the diagnosis and her stress builds.

Orquidea (Laura de la Uz)

Many scenes of the film take place in the institution where the inmates (both men and women) seem free to wander the premises during the day. Luis’s inability to speak and express his thoughts and desires is counterbalanced by the logorrhea of Orquidea, a volatile, hyperactive, often violent patient (played by Laura de la Uz), who incessantly spouts political rhetoric and attempts to bring order to the chaos around her.

Not all communication is verbal: images can transcend the wall of words. Throughout the film, Elena’s artist son works on a canvas, which is never revealed until the end. Installed in the asylum over the objections of a bureaucratic social worker, the work calms and enthralls the inmates. The closing credits identify the piece as Yoan Capote’s Mar de noche (Night Sea).

Mar de noche, Yoan Capote
Courtesy Cuba Contemporánea

Isabel Santos, Jorge Perugorría, and Laura de la Uz offer nuanced and moving performances in physically and emotionally demanding roles. At times painful to watch, especially the scenes in the psychiatric institution, this is a thought-provoking work that explores the difficulties of communication, the challenges of love, and the healing power of art.

For Fernando Pérez, awarded the Premio Nacional de Cine in 2007, this was his first film produced independently, although ICAIC (the Cuban national film institute) is handling the distribution. According to Pérez, the film, with its modern setting and theme, lent itself to independent production, allowing him to work with greater flexibility and with a small crew, including many young trainees. Pérez thinks there is a place in Cuba for both independent and industry productions.

Rosa Elena (Laura de la Uz) and Ernesto (Luis Alberto García)

Vestido de novia / His Wedding Dress (104 min., 2014) is the first dramatic feature directed by Marilyn Solaya. According to Solaya, she is one of only three women who have directed features under the auspices of ICAIC. Previously she had directed several documentaries, including En el cuerpo equivocado (In the Wrong Body, 2010) which told the story of Mavi Susel, the first individual to have a sex-change operation in Cuba in 1988. Vestido de noviais based on real-life events, but not exclusively on Mavi’s story. The title also refers to a poem by Norge Espinosa Mendoza, composed in the late 1980s and well-known in Cuban literature. The film explores issues of gender identity, love (both marital and obsessive), prejudice, violence, and betrayal.

Set in Havana in 1994, during the Special Period, middle-aged couple Rosa Elena (Laura de la Uz) and Ernesto (Luis Alberto García) are recently and happily married. He is in charge of a construction project for the tourist industry; she works as a nurse’s assistant and takes care of her (supposedly) wheelchair-bound father, who shares their apartment. Ernesto objects to Rosa Elena’s continuing friendship with Sissi (Isabel Santos), a flamboyant transvestite; Rosa Elena explains they have been friends since childhood and that she is loyal to her friends. But a secret in Rosa Elena’s past soon surfaces and introduces turmoil and anger into their newlywed happiness.

Rosa Elena (Laura de la Uz)

Years before she met Ernesto, Rosa Elena had undergone a sex-change operation. As a favor to friends, she now occasionally dons male garb again to perform with an all-male a capella group (the actual Cuban choral group Sine Nomine), unbeknownst to her husband. On one such occasion, she is spotted by Lázaro (Jorge Perugorría), a corrupt married businessman and closeted homosexual. Obsessed with the young man that Rosa Elena used to be—whom he remembers—he begins to stalk her. Meanwhile, with the aid of Roberto (Mario Guerra), one of Ernesto’s colleagues, Lázaro has been stealing construction supplies. To manipulate Rosa Elena, he pays Roberto to frame Ernesto for the missing supplies.

Lázaro (Jorge Perugorría)

As tensions escalate, Rosa Elena confesses her secret to Ernesto. Horrified, he rejects her and moves out. Shortly after, Roberto visits Rosa Elena, under the guise of offering friendship, and brutally rapes her. Her father, sitting in his wheelchair in the other room, does nothing to help her. Sissi, infuriated by this violence visited upon her friend, goes to the police station to report the rape, but instead she herself is arrested, detained, and forced to dress in men’s clothes. Following this ordeal, she joins a group of rafters who will attempt to make their way to Florida.

Asked by an interviewer why she chose to cast women in the role of the transgendered individuals, Solaya responded that these individuals are women, physically and mentally. When they begin to live as women, they experience all the stereotypes and prejudices of contemporary women. Therefore, she said, they should be played by women.

Vestido de Novia is a searing depiction of the complications and pain experienced by those who do not conform to traditional male-female stereotypes. It’s an accomplished production by a first-time director, and a vehicle for outstanding performances by three consummate actors, here in roles diametrically opposed to those they played in La pared de las palabras.

Sissi (Isabel Santos)

Isabel Santos transforms herself from a stolid, taciturn matron in La pared de las palabras into a hyperactive, motor-mouth drag queen in Vestido de novia. Laura de la Uz is unrecognizable as the agitated “loca” in La pared… and engaging as a hard-working wife and caregiver in Vestido…, whose newfound happiness is destroyed by violence and betrayal. Jorge Perugorría—who seems to have a role in virtually every Cuban film—lost weight and contorted his body and facial features to play Luis in La pared…, giving an affecting and believable depiction of an individual trapped in a deteriorating body, unable to communicate. In Vestido… , he reappears as a handsome but menacing manipulator.

Laura de la Uz, Isabel Santos, and Jorge Perugorría are unquestionably treasures of Cuban cinema. Below, links to trailers for both films:

La pared de las palabras, Fernando Pérez

Vestido de novia, Marilyn Solaya

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Nadine Covert
Nadine Covert is a specialist in visual arts media with a focus on documentaries. She was for many years the Executive Director of the Educational Film Library Association (EFLA) and Director of its American Film Festival, then the major documentary competition in the U.S. She later became director of the Program for Art on Film, a joint venture of the J. Paul Getty Trust and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Covert has served on the board of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, and is currently a consultant to the Montreal International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA).