When it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, Santa & Andrés received warm appraisals from the few audiences that saw it, but wound up getting swept under the rug in favour of the awards season contenders premiering elsewhere in the lineup. The thing about the bigger film festivals is that the films that have received rapturous hype are the ones that go on to have less longevity than the films that initially fall through the cracks in favour of the bigger offerings.
This means a quiet character study like director Carlos Lechuga’s sophomore feature slots more easily in to the Outfest selection, where it can be appreciated more for its delicate handling of complicated social and political themes than whether it stands out as prestige Oscar bait. It feels like a fresh discovery, that was inexplicably ignored close to a year ago- a fact that I imagine was largely due to its slow burning and understated nature, at a time festival goers were looking for something to immediately grab them as the best of the year.
Set in 1983, the film depicts the growing friendship between gay writer Andrés (Eduardo Martinez), who has been banned from writing due to writing a subversive anti-government book, and the revolutionary woman (Lola Amores) tasked with keeping an eye on him for three days while a major event takes place down in their village. Andrés is ostracised by the community for what they expect him to be – a disruptive presence spreading supposed lies against a government who appear to have overwhelming public support.
Santa initially shares that belief and becomes obsessed with the notion that another subversive book is being written in secret. But over the course of three days, they develop a friendship as they realise that on a human level, neither is the villainous “worm” they’ve become accustomed to expect.
With authoritarian South American governments back in the headlines at the time of writing due to the ongoing situation in Venezuela, the masterstroke of Carlos Lechuga’s film is how it sidesteps any political reading in order to be solely a character study – with the film mostly sidestepping politics in order to find the innate humanity in both characters. This is helped by two quietly effective lead performances, especially from Lola Amores as Santa, who deserves extra credit due to this being her debut screen performance.
She underplays the performance, even in the most turbulent moments towards the end of the film, in a manner that would prove tricky for many established actors, let alone a first timer. Eduardo Martinez equally has limited prior screen experience, yet manages to turn what is a harrowing role on paper (an openly gay dissident under house arrest by village authorities) into something naturalistic and mostly devoid of overwrought displays of emotion, despite his less than ideal living situation. It makes the film’s inevitable ending land with a more effective gut punch- and even the harrowing scenes are portrayed with a blunt realism that doesn’t try to milk its emotional effect.
Because the film is a slow burning character study, it isn’t going to immediately jump out at many audiences. The fact it contains multiple nods to Cuban mythology, including an odd sequence where a tribal beast walks past the sea where our two protagonists are swimming, only makes it more of a difficult proposition for those wanting a drama about a friendship that overcomes stifling adversity in Cuban society. But even the strange moments that don’t fully work suggest that the film will likely prove more rewarding on every subsequent viewing from here on in. No matter your political affiliation, its hard not to like these two very complicated characters, and admire looking through the window in to their conflicted society.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures