Saturday, May 27, 2017

El Super (1979)

          While the term “independent film” can be taken to mean any picture that was financed outside the Hollywood system, truly independent movies present viewpoints from beyond the mainstream. The charming character study El Super is a fine example. Exploring the life of a Cuban expat who endures an unglamorous existence as the superintendent of an apartment building in New York City, the film—adapted from a play by Iván Acosta—explores a host of meaningful topics. Beyond the familiar travails of a blue-collar worker, the story explores notions of national and political identity while working its way toward the existential question of what constitutes happiness. Yet even though El Super engages with heavy subject matter, the movie is never oppressive. Most scenes are amusing and lighthearted, and whenever the narrative goes dark, there’s an edge of satirical humor because sad-sack protagonist Roberto is all of us, railing at the way people impose on his time, complaining about the drudgery of repetitive tasks, and bitching about the weather.
          Roberto (Raimundo Hidalgo-Gato) and his wife, Aurelia (Zully Montero), live with their 17-year-old daughter in a basement apartment at the building he maintains. He’s had the job for 10 years, the same span of time he’s spent in the U.S., so his daughter is thoroughly Americanized, even though he and Aurelia still consider themselves Cubans. Life at the building is a drag, with residents banging on pipes early in the morning because they don’t have hot water, garbage perpetually accumulating in snow banks out front, and city officials showing up unannounced to see certifications that Roberto does not possess. Roberto hates the winter in New York, so he dreams of joining the Cuban expat community in Miami, and he constantly vilifies Castro for making life in the old country intolerable. Exacerbating Roberto’s angst is his best friend, Pancho (Reynaldo Medina), a self-proclaimed hero who participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion and pontificates endlessly about his hatred of Communists.
          Roberto can’t get away from his problems, no matter how hard he tries, and one of the subtler aspects of El Super is the observation that Roberto has limited himself by not learning English. To a certain degree, he’s trapped in a prison of his own making. Yet the filmmakers never judge the character, instead putting his moments of happiness and hardship onscreen in an unvarnished fashion.
          El Super is a simple film, so the narrative is well served by documentary-style camerawork and the presence of actors who will seem unfamiliar to most viewers. Directors Leon Ichaso and Orlando Jiménez Leal create an immersive sense of reality from the first frames, with the tonal variety of the source material and the lived-in quality of the performances adding to the verisimilitude. We feel as if we’re experiencing a symbolic period of Roberto’s life, so we share in his gloom, his hope, and his thoroughly understandable flashes of pent-up rage. El Super isn’t just a story about a Cuban adrift in America—it’s a story about anyone who feels like a better life is out there somewhere, just beyond reach.

El Super: GROOVY

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