HAVANA — The characters eat black beans and rice in silence, bathe with buckets and cycle miles to work against a backdrop of the crumbling beauty of their city.
A 79-year-old woman sells peanuts to make ends meet. A hospital employee becomes a transvestite cabaret dancer by night, a doctor doubles as a clown after work and a railway repairman plays the sax in an Adventist chapel.
“Suite Habana” documents a day in the life of a dozen Cubans who struggle with the harsher side of life in revolutionary Cuba. The adults don’t smile or utter a single word throughout the 80-minute film.
The melancholy documentary directed by Cuban filmmaker Fernando Perez — a rapid sequence of images, sounds and music — is the talk of the town this summer in Havana.
The film has packed the city’s Charles Chaplin theater for five weeks, drawing tears and standing ovations from audiences stunned by the frank portrayal of their day-to-day lives.
“It shows the reality of my country that is never seen on television. It’s a very raw look at difficulties that exist,” said university lecturer Oscar Gomez as he left the theater.
Some Cubans were surprised President Fidel Castro’s government allowed exhibition of a film that focuses on the daily grind of life under tropical socialism.
While criticism of the island’s one-party political system is not permitted, Cuba has tolerated films that satirize bureaucracy such as “Guantanamera,” “Alice in Wonder Village” and “Death of a Bureaucrat.” “Strawberry and Chocolate,” which criticizes discrimination against gays, was in 1995 the first Cuban film to receive an Oscar nomination for best foreign film.
The public debate over “Suite Habana” was no less surprising given the country’s media are controlled by the state.
Ruling Communist Party newspaper Granma praised it as “one of the most important films in the history of Cuban cinema.”
The workers weekly Trabajadores said Perez’ images “speak of the daily feat of existence, of how one can live in poverty without losing dignity or renouncing one’s dreams.”
The official view is that the film accurately portrays the stoicism with which “habaneros” put up with social hardships that the government blames on four decades of “economic blockade” by its archenemy the United States.
In his sermon on a recent Sunday, a Catholic priest urged his parishioners to go and see “Suite Habana” for its “eloquent and revealing images of daily life in Cuba today.”
The only character who smiles in the film and appears to live a carefree normal life is Francisquito, a 10-year-old boy with Down Syndrome.
The only appetizing food shown in “Suite Habana” is in meals made with hygienic care by an airline catering firm for passengers on planes that few Cubans get to travel on.
Jorge Luis, 42, cries with his family in a searing airport scene as he departs his homeland and boards a charter flight for a new life in Miami, where most Cuban exiles live.
“This film touches us so deeply because it represents Cuban reality, the love between Cubans and the constant drama of separation,” said Carlos, a museum employee. “It is difficult to dream in Cuba, but nobody can take dreaming away. The message of the film is that one should never give up one’s dream.”
The director stressed he had total freedom to make “Suite Habana” and has not had a single complaint from the government.
“Eighty percent of Havana lives like this. Many bathe with a bucket, with no running water. I did it for eight years,” said Perez, son of a postman who dreamed of being an astrologer.
The filmmaker earns 400 pesos a month, equal to US$15, from the state cinema agency and got a bonus in dollars during filming with Spanish producing company Wanda that funded the production and holds the international rights.
“Suite Habana” will be shown abroad first in Spain, at the San Sebastian film festival in September, and then in France, Austria and Switzerland.
“It is not a film of smiles. The characters are real people who act out their lives that are full of difficulties, but they are characters that dream,” Perez said.
The documentary returns again and again to a statue of John Lennon sitting on a Havana park bench honoring the Beatle who wrote “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
During a tropical downpour, the camera focuses on Lennon’s soaking glasses. “He seemed to be crying,” one film-goer said.
The film ends listing each character’s dream. The peanut lady, Amanda, says she has no dreams left.