Fidel's Kind of Flick

A pair of Miami filmmakers head to Sundance with a new motion picture about a congressman turned Castro spy

Miami-Dade County lays claim not only to an endless stream of Fidel Castro-related paranoia, but also to a rich history of actual espionage. Havana's agents have infiltrated a half-dozen exile groups. Some highlights:

Bay of Pigs veteran Carlos Rivero-Collado formed a paramilitary group called the Pragmatistas in the early Seventies, then returned to Havana in 1975 to spill the beans.

A Cuban spy thwarted a plot by the paramilitary group Alpha 66 to kill Castro in New York City in 1979.

Alpha 66 military chief Francisco Avila astonished his cohorts in 1992 by announcing he was a double agent.

Brothers to the Rescue protege Juan Pablo Roque defected to the island in February 1996, just before Cuban pilots shot down two of the group's Cessnas.

Then this past September FBI agents arrested ten Cubans on a variety of espionage charges.

And now this: A Cuban-American member of Congress is a spy for the Castro regime. He has decided to run for president of the United States.

No, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart has not announced plans to challenge Al Gore in 2000, nor has New Times uncovered evidence that the Republican from Florida's 21st District is a turncoat (other than of the Democrat-turned-GOP kind; he defected to the elephants in 1985).

The statesman in question is U.S. Sen. Carlos Rodriguez, who exists only in the paranoid parallel universe of Deco, an unreleased feature film by Miami Lakes natives George and Charles Cotayo. Charles, a politics reporter for El Nuevo Herald, wrote the screenplay. George did just about everything else except act -- the film's press kit lists him as producer, director, camera operator, sound man, and editor. The brothers hope to screen their psycho-thriller at the Sundance Film Festival, which runs the last two weeks of January in Park City, Utah, and then at festivals in Florida.

Things get very messy in the film for Senator Rodriguez, his wife Elizabeth, and his mistress Diana, who is a Miami fashion photographer. "Why won't you divorce her?" Diana asks breathlessly as she and the senator make love. "Because I need her politically," Rodriguez responds. "I'm running for president," he informs her, now doing it from behind. "I have always wanted to be the first Cuban-American president."

Diana doesn't much like the whole idea. The romp is over. She seethes: "They're going to let a Hispanic run this country? You may be a hotshot senator, darling, but you're still a spic as far as they're concerned." She fails to persuade Rodriguez to drop his campaign. (The performances in this scene were also not persuasive, though the cinematography and editing are solid.)

Enter Dr. Swann, the head of a powerful secret-operations group within the U.S. government who has concocted a scheme to assassinate Rodriguez. He injects Diana with a top-secret narcotic called Decophanalin, Deco for short. The drug allows Swann to brainwash Diana into thinking she must murder Rodriguez to prevent the death of their mentally retarded love child. Rodriguez does not know the kid exists.

A Castro plot to gain control of the Oval Office? Who could be that paranoid about El Tirano, as a local AM talk show host is fond of calling him?

The Cotayos insist they are not engaging in artful exaggeration to make a point about the Castro-inspired myopia prevalent in some circles of Cuban exile culture. The dictator-versus-exiles tension simply lends itself to compelling cinema. "I'm an artist," explains George, seated on a black leather couch at Studio Center, a two-story warehouse-style building just off the Palmetto Expressway in Miami Lakes. "We did this film to appeal to an international audience. We're not political, regional, pro-Castro, pro-this or that." He plays a half-hour of the 112-minute movie on a video for New Times, then turns it off as one of Dr. Swanns's henchmen, Tex Mallory, drives a car through the Everglades with Diana in the trunk. "That's it," he announces. "I don't want to give the ending away."

George, who is 35 years old, has spent much of the past four years in a cramped room on the second floor of Studio Center, filming, editing, and re-editing the movie while local hip-hop artists record CDs downstairs.

During the time he worked on Deco, George directed music videos for local record companies such as Big Ballers, a hip-hop label in Fort Lauderdale. A graduate of the United States Naval School of Photography in Pensacola, he is the son of Cuban exile Ramon Cotayo, a Hialeah developer who helped finance the movie. George, who along with Charles put up funds, shrouds the cost in mystery. "No more than one million dollars and no less than one hundred thousand," he says. The small budget is one reason this is not a star-studded production. The best-known of the 40-member cast is Thomas Schueler, an obscure (but convincing) German actor.

George and Charles aspire to make thrillers with political themes in the tradition of Oliver Stone and Constantin Costa-Gavras. "I've just always felt there has never been a good movie, low budget or Hollywood budget, that has dealt with Castro in an absorbing, cinematic fashion," Charles adds. "But we didn't want to make that the focus of it. That's just one of the themes in the film, though it is a prevalent one."

The most subversive aspect of Deco, the Cotayos submit, is not its reflection of anti-Castro obsessions but rather its challenge of a repressive Hollywood dictum: the one-actor-per-character rule. For example, in Stone's JFK, Kevin Costner is the only cast member who plays District Attorney Jim Garrison. But in Deco, the lead role of Diana is played by two actresses, Simone Griffin and Iris Delgado. As the Deco press kit explains: "The actresses have no physical resemblance, but their natural, methodical performances blend into each other with precision and intensity. Each actress brings to the role a unique dimension of the character they are playing, creating one complete and complex multifaceted woman."

The Cotayos are quick to point out that they are not the first filmmakers to do this. Spanish director Luis Bunuel did it back in 1977 in That Obscure Object of Desire. But the Cotayos lay claim to a cinematic first: They use this device with two characters in their movie. Actors John Sandifer and James Baldwin trade off playing Tex Mallory, an agent Dr. Swann assigns to ensure his assassination scheme is executed on schedule.

A synopsis of the film in the press kit sent to New Times explains that this "illusion of facial duality...departs from all genre conventions and becomes a first in the history of motion pictures."

"It was missing something, and we didn't know what it was," recalls Charles. "So we finally said, 'Why don't we try this?' We said, 'Why not take that to an extreme?'"

The Cotayos are confident that the duality will not simply cause confusion and make people get up and leave the theater. "Movies have been made to require little or no thinking," declares Charles. "This movie requires thinking. The form of the movie requires thinking. I mean, when was the last time you went to a movie and said, 'This mise en scene meant this or did this to me'?"

Still, George notes he wanted his film to have some moral substance. "Good conquers evil," he assures. "Love conquers all, in a sense. The evil of the film is [Dr. Swann's] manipulation and deception, and we see that today in society sometimes, especially in certain political areas." He cites Saddam Hussein as an example. "We just wanted to do something that was very intriguing, something that was very Alfred Hitchcock, because we're very influenced by him and by Orson Welles, as well as a lot of the European directors."

Also intriguing is some recent publicity Deco has received. El Nuevo Herald staff writer Erwin Perez's October 30 story about Deco identified Charles as George's brother but did not reveal that he works for the paper as a reporter. Charles says he did not advocate for the article. He says he merely dropped off a press kit to "Galeria" page editor Gloria Leal. "George said, 'Would you do me the favor of delivering this?'" Charles recalls. "I said, 'I will do it, but that's it.' I told him I wasn't going to pitch this to the paper. I'm not my brother's publicist. Under no circumstances do I pitch this movie."

Though getting an article on Deco into the paper may have been a coup, the Cotayos will need far more than El Nuevo-style boosterism of local Cuban artists to succeed in their planned assault on the Sundance festival. About 100 of 2000 submissions are accepted each year. Nevertheless, high on Deco, the Cotayos' press release announces the movie's "world premiere" at Sundance.

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