The Companion (El Acompañante) is a handsomely directed film that strives to be several movies at once. It largely succeeds thanks to solid performances and a story with heart. Directed by Pavel Giroud (The Silly Age), The Companion — which will make its exclusive U.S. premiere at Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater tonight — is both a stark drama about the AIDS epidemic of the '80s and how the protagonist's Cuban homeland handles it, as well as a story of reluctant friends, solidarity, diversity, redemption, amateur boxing (complete with a workout montage), and love.
Horacio Romero (played by Latin Grammy-winning Yotuel Romero) is a former world-class Cuban boxer who failed a doping test and is now condemned to a job being a “companion,” a sort of 24-hour parole officer assigned to AIDS patients confined to a sanatorium by the government. Horacio is appointed to be a companion for Daniel (Armando Miguel Gomez), a feisty war veteran who's HIV-positive. The two don’t exactly hit it off at first. Daniel is smart-assed and insubordinate, more concerned about escaping the facility than getting to know his stone-faced keeper. Horacio is the strong and silent type, uncomfortable with the horrors of being around humans wasting away from an incurable affliction, and broken by unfulfilled dreams.
The two eventually warm up to each other when Horacio takes Daniel to the movies as part of a day trip out of the sanatorium. The men bond over a boxing film, where Horacio reveals his life story as a once-rising star in the sport. Through his playful charisma, Daniel encourages Horacio to step back into the ring.
Though the backbone of the story is Horacio and Daniel’s budding friendship, it’s the film’s historical context that leaves the biggest impression. The Companion gives us a glimpse into not only how the Cuban government dealt with its AIDS epidemic but also how society as a whole regarded those who tested positive. In one scene, we see a bleeding and dazed Daniel wandering the road after being assaulted. A couple of men in a truck stop and get out to help after he collapses, but when Daniel tells them he’s a patient at an AIDS sanatorium, the men abandon him and quickly drive off. In another scene, when Daniel tells Horacio how he became infected by having sex with a woman he met while he was in the military fighting for Castro in Africa, we see how the government chose to reward its war veterans who came back alive, but ill.
These sanatoriums cropped up in Cuba in the mid-'80s after soldiers returning from fighting in the Congo began testing positive for HIV. As more Cuban civilians began to test positive, more of these institutions were built by the government. While patients were given round-the-clock medical care, lodging, and food, they became de facto prison inmates, rejected by a callous government and shunned by a society ignorant about HIV and AIDS.
Even Horacio’s quest for a comeback in the ring reveals some historical context to life in Cuba, particularly in the '80s. When Horacio asks his trainer if he could eventually be good enough again to represent Cuba in the 1988 Summer Olympics, he’s told he has no chance. North and South Korea were at war at the time, and because Cuba was allies with the North, they were boycotting the Olympics, which were being held in Seoul — another example of Castro's government robbing more men of their lives and dreams. In the end, Horacio and Daniel are both victims of an apathetic regime.
The Companion’s story line might sound clichéd and trite on the surface, and the movie does at times veer in different directions. But overall, Giroud’s film succeeds because it has heart. It’s a film that deals with life’s tragedies the way humans are programmed to: by moving forward one uneasy step at a time.
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The performances in The Companion are what keep the story moving. Romero’s take on Horacio — a man who always seems to be on the brink of collapsing under the weight of unfulfilled promise — is understated and commanding. He has a screen presence that enhances Horacio’s struggle with strength and grace. Gomez, meanwhile, brings levity to the film with his charm and roguish attitude toward Daniel’s fate. Under a lesser actor, Daniel could have easily come across as glib and unlikable. These are two characters you can’t help but root for despite their impossible circumstances, thanks largely to the actors playing them.
If there’s one issue in the film, it’s the handling of a subplot involving Daniel and a woman whose husband is a political prisoner. The woman offers to pay Daniel for a vial of his blood so she can infect her husband in order to have him transferred from prison to the sanatorium. This arch in the overall story seems a bit forced and, once the transaction is complete, disappears from the film without much effect on Daniel’s character development or information about what happened to the woman and her husband.
Still, The Companion touches on all the hallmarks of a film with such heavy subject matter. And like most films that dabble in this arena, the hope of the triumph of the human spirit is what carries the viewer through to the end. It’s an entertaining, albeit serious, film that deals with tragic issues with some levity and melodrama sprinkled in. The best parts of The Companion lie within the two leads’ personal journeys and how love and friendship trump even the blackest of darkness.
The Companion (El Acompañante)
Spanish with English subtitles. Premieres at 9:30 p.m. Friday, August 19, at MDC's Tower Theater. For tickets and information, visit towertheatermiami.com.