This past Friday night, the Miami International Film Festival premiered Dark Glasses, a film by a Cuban artist who's redefining the island's cinema through esoteric visuals and an engrossing narrative. The future feels potent, accomplishing what contemporary cinema seems to have such a difficult time achieving: cultivating authenticity.
Jessica Rodriguez's Pinar del Rio in Dark Glasses is intriguing. It's a rare treat to experience a film that slowly envelopes the viewer through the strength of a nuanced script, transformative performances, and inspired visuals. Here, Rodriguez accomplishes all three. Instead of modern-day rapid-fire editing and trite special effects, the director develops from the ground up — creating dialogue layered in historical allusions and metaphor. As with Humberto Solas' 1968 Lucia, Rodriguez knows the best way to tell a story is through past lives.
Her story has a simple conceit: Esperanza, played by Laura de la Uz, is a seemingly blind woman held hostage in her countryside home by Mario, played by Luis Alberto García, an ex-con running away from his immoral past. In an attempt to pacify Mario's horrific sexual yearnings, Esperanza distracts him with what she does best: storytelling.
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Inspired by Lucia, she recounts three stories, each one focusing on a woman and her lover during a significant political moment in Cuban history. They are the exact same historical moments referred to in the 1968 film, but Rodriguez reverses them here, beginning with the revolution and ending with the Spanish Civil War. All three Lucias escape the oppressive chains of her male counterpart. But Dark Glasses takes female empowerment to another level. Cuban women have endured more than 50 years of strife, and revenge is nigh.
Esperanza begins with the Cuban Revolution, a telling portrait of government oppression and groupthink mentality, which undeniably struck a chord with the Cuban expat audience at Calle Ocho's Tower Theater. Marlene is a compañera whose lover is publicly shamed for maintaining communication with his exiled brother. She will not stand for this and seeks a quiet revenge on the leader of the workforce. In one of the most beautifully painful, shocking, and hilarious scenes, Marlene seduces the leader. She begins touching herself seductively during a private meeting. Just as she straddles his head for cunnilingus, she grabs the marble sculpture on his desk and smashes it against his skull. Like a moment out of a Coen Brothers movie, blood splatters. But for Miami's audience, there was only laughter and applause.
Back at Esperanza's house, Mario is flustered, unsatisfied by the ambiguous ending, because Esperanza never mentions if Marlene went to jail for the crime. It doesn't matter, Esperanza says — the story must end when the conflict ends. This holds true for Rodriguez's own meta-narrative, whose story is truly like a bottle episode, beginning and ending where it started, focusing on the nuanced relations between the two characters.
Between each story, Mario becomes more impatient, goading Esperanza into sex. The rape vibes are strong here, sometimes becoming grotesque. But when Esperanza finally poisons his fried rice, it's an earned victory. Just like Esperanza's dramatic, climactic storytelling, Rodriguez closes on a telling shot of ambiguous truth. Esperanza isn't blind — she sees through the people who pass through her home, using their stories as eyeglasses to enter another world.