The unlikely friendship between a gay dissident writer and the rural woman tasked by the Cuban Communist Party to watch him is sensitively rendered in Carlos Lechuga’s sophomore feature “Santa & Andrés.” Set in eastern Cuba in 1983, when Castro’s insistence on ideological conformity made life all but impossible for anyone whose political beliefs and sexual orientation veered from official policy, the film is an intimate, carefully paced and expertly played drama about the power of a shared humanity to override dogma privileging fear and separation. Sadly, Cuba’s official film propaganda body, the ICAIC, has sought to suppress “Santa & Andrés” from Cuba and Cuban film showcases, but its strengths have been praised since Toronto, and art-house demand will undoubtedly be helped by playing up the attempted censorship angle.
Farm worker Santa (Lola Amores) is assigned to monitor Andrés (Eduardo Martínez) for the three days in which a “Forum for Peace” is taking place nearby. The fear is that Andrés will try to contact a visiting foreign delegate and spread an anti-Revolution message, so each morning Santa arrives at Andrés’ hovel, chair in hand, and stays until evening, aiming for as little interaction as possible. Her cold, disdainful manner stems more from annoyance at being there than a conflict of principles, which come more from her handler Jesus (George Abreu) than any deeply held political stance of her own.
A torrential downpour forces Santa into Andrés’ shack, and she begrudgingly allows some conversation, in which he reveals he spent eight years in prison for writing a book the government didn’t like. A younger mute man (Cesar Domínguez) arrives, clearly Andrés’ volatile lover; this realization separates her further from the man she’s been watching, but when she finds Andrés badly injured the next morning after a fight with his lover, she takes him to the hospital.
Lechuga gives equal time to fleshing out the two main characters, both of whom harbor traumas that make them reticent to open up to others. Years of being treated as an enemy, of seeing friends and lovers hounded, imprisoned or risking their lives to flee the island, have left Andrés weary of fighting and distrustful of everyone. The script avoids direct exposition, allowing circumstance and off-guard remarks to reveal inner demons plaguing both figures, and perhaps because Lechuga is careful not to set up a hierarchy of suffering, he succeeds in granting each person their own pain without a sense of rivalry.
That said, it’s Santa who’s in need of an education, and she’s the one to have her eyes open to their shared humanity. The film indulges in one major misfire, when Santa tries to kiss Andrés; it’s a stereotyped moment, taken from too many lesser films about gay-straight friendships, and has no place here. Far more successful, for example, is a powerful scene toward the end, when Andrés’ tormentors sing the national anthem. If anything has incurred the wrath of Cuba’s culture czars, it’s this moment, certain to send a chill through all those who grew up inculcated by the song and its message.
Amores and Martínez convey a great deal via silence, their wounded physicality expressing far more than words. Both actors use this interiority to subtly convey the characters’ isolation, so desperately in need of links to a sympathetic other. DP Javier Labrador gives prominent place to the rural landscape and physical locations, like Andrés’ run-down hut, situating the actors in a very real setting that also acts as a determinant of behavior, from separation to temporary togetherness.