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Latin American Cinema, Melodrama

Un Paraíso bajo las estrellas (Paradise under the stars, Spain/Cuba 2000)

paraestrel

I thought it was a bit of a gamble buying this Region 1 DVD and I was still not sure after an opening cabaret performance. However, when the narrative got going, I realised that this was quite a find in terms of genre cinema and Cuban representations.

I take the film to be a comedy melodrama related to the television telenovela, so popular across Latin America. Others have compared the film to the similar Spanish comedies of Pedro Almodóvar in the 1980s and I can see this as well. The whole point of the telenovela/melodrama is to offer a complex web of relationships, many of them family relationships that are not known to the family members involved. These relationships are then revealed in scenes that are sometimes farcical. In this film, Sissy is a young woman who wants to become a cabaret dancer – just like her mother before her. But her father, Candido, who was a cabaret singer himself, now drives a truck and is separated from his wife. He doesn’t want his daughter to join the family business. Sissy goes behind his back and impresses Armando, the cabaret owner/impresario. At the same time she meets Sergio (Vladimir Cruz, star of several Cuban films of the period) and immediately falls in love. The other major characters are Sonia (Armando’s young wife who also seems to know Sergio), Mabel (Daisy Granados, grande dame of Cuban Cinema) who is another ex-cabaret performer and a ‘creole’ couple, Promedio and Josefa, close friends of Candido and godparents for Sissy.

This is a standard cast list for the genre. What makes the film particularly interesting is the discourse on race in Cuba. Armando is African-Cuban and all the characters know each other. You can probably guess that it is all a question of who is really the child of who else. The general confusion also raises the possibility of incest and in a sense ‘plays’ one taboo against another. The complex racial composition of the Cuban population is also presented in economic terms when a Spanish impresario says that he’d like to book Sissy, even though the market usually demands black or mulatto stars.

I found the film genuinely funny and quite brave in its discussion of race (which also includes some references to Cuban Catholicism and an African spirit medium). I confess that cabaret dancing doesn’t do anything for me, though it looks well done and there is, I think, a genuine Tropicana club in Havana with a show titled ‘A Paradise Under the Stars’. The film is directed by a veteran producer/director, Gerardo Chijona and is a co-production of the Cuban state film organisation ICAIC and two Spanish companies, Ibermedia and Wanda. It’s not particularly ‘filmic’ and seemed to me to be more ‘televisual’ in aesthetic terms, with the ‘clean’ and ‘cold’ look of a television telenovela. The acting and pacing, however, overcame any of my qualms about the look of the film and I’d recommend this to anyone prepared to enjoy the preposterous narrative events and to engage with Cuban culture. The ‘special period’ of economic privation was lifting a little by 2000, but Cuba still has serious problems. This isn’t a ‘serious’ film as such, but the discourse about race in Cuba is interestingly presented for a popular audience.

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