The intersection of politics and art is a messy one. But they do not converge like the deadly ones we find on the road; these differing disciplines instead collide like halls in an office building, tunneled and ignorant of each other until a few seconds before impact. But instead of panic, there is a cold appraisal of one another. How can I use this opposing force to serve my own ends?
There are cases of you-got-your-political-chocolate-in-my-arty-peanut butter that have resulted in great films that also scorch the political landscape (Costa-Gavras’ Z , Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle for Algiers ). More often than not, dogmatic concerns override artistic ones and we are faced with turgid consciousness-raising efforts that fail as drama and succeed in preaching only to the ideologically converted (Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, Sir Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom).
Fernando Pérez’s Clandestinos falls somewhere in the median. Ostensibly a story about a group of young radicals who contribute in escalating attacks meant to overthrow General Fulgencio Batista’s brutal dictatorship, this film stands in the very middle of the politics and art convergence. Perez waters down both in an effort to make it more accessible and more human. Neither side is well served.
In 1957 Cuba, impressionable Nereida (Isabel Santos) comes from a privileged world provided by her father, a doctor. She has been raised well and is drawn to help the less fortunate revolt for change. She takes a message to Ernesto (Luis Alberto Garcia) as he spends time in prison for his political actions. Leading a cell of committed rebels, the stern Ernesto is reluctant to allow a new member into his tight-knit group; treachery and deceit surround him and his brothers. Before long, she is woven into the collective, takes a place in Ernesto’s heart, and a stronger role in the increasingly violent acts against the Cuban establishment.
A government-backed film about rebels overthrowing the previous government should be approached with caution. However, Perez made an effort to avoid proselytizing and let the actions of a near-police state do the dramatizing. Unfortunately, this often results in a baffling elliptical quality to the narrative. Why are Ernesto and his fellow revolutionaries in prison? No idea. What prompts them to engage in a hunger strike for inmates at another detention center? Not so clear. What success have they attained that moves them to stop the hunger strike? Not important, apparently. How do they manage to get released from prison? Nuh-uh.
Even more disorienting (other than the stark late ‘80s synth-heavy score which is jarring in a late ‘50s context), is a poor sense of charting the passage of time. Ernesto agonizes over the fate of comrades in the hands of evil police chief Miralles (Miguel Gutiérrez) while also plotting the next political action. Suddenly, his friends are released from custody and the plan has passed the planning stage and is ready for execution.
Until the escalating violence starts eliminating members of Ernesto’s group, there is an affecting depiction of the camaraderie of those, especially the young, thrown together from different backgrounds but united in a single goal. Like St. Elmo’s Fire with small caliber weaponry.
The initial multi-protagonist view properly reflects the Marxist roots of the revolution this film seeks to document, but is given short shrift when those who surround the star-crossed lovers seem to exist only to support them. When the aspirations of the proletariat are elbowed aside to focus on whether Ernesto and Nereida will get married before the birth of their child, it feels like Marx’s Das Kapital has been abandoned for Harlequin’s Revolutionaries in Love.
More troubling is the complete lack of characterization of the antagonist Miralles. He exists only as a dark specter of the Batista regime, but we know little of him other than his flair for torture and love of impeccable white suits that betray his rancid soul. The only thing missing is a Snidely Whiplash moustache for him to twirl between blows delivered to a prisoner’s ears.
To complicate matters further is the murky quality of the print. The shadowy streets are in direct contrast with the political idealism of the freedom fighters, but in the future, such films should only contain revolutionary attacks committed in broad daylight.
What we have left is a well-meaning film that succeeds in presenting the heady sense of purpose political extremism can beget, and the toll it takes on the youth who more often than not initiate the action. Outside of this short-lived ‘glory days’ segment of the film, we have only a political film with little time for politics, a romance with no room to flourish, an art film with little sense of visual beauty, and a thriller that waits to spring but never quite has the chance.
That’s quite a four-way pile-up. Perhaps it is a surprise that the film is as entertaining as it is.