Since his first film, Los dioses rotos (The broken gods), Ernesto Daranas demonstrated that he preferred playing “tough” when the question was dealing with certain aspects of contemporary Cuban reality. But with his second feature length, Conducta (Behaviour), the young filmmaker confirms his particular interest in “hitting a raw nerve,” and with barely any anaesthesia.
This time the story is about a boy, Chala, with a dysfunctional family and behavioural disorders, whose closest paradigm is Carmela, his beloved primary school teacher. A story is built around them that not only takes an in-depth look of the diverse individual dramas like the boy’s lack of affection and care by the parents, which the old teacher tries to make up for with love, discipline and understanding but also extending her glance at a difficult and dark reality that does not frequently come to light in the media.
This film, produced by Cuban institutions like the Culture Ministry, the Cuban Institute of Cinema Arts (ICAIC) and RTV COMERCIAL, among others, makes several good points. In the first place, a well-structured script, authentic characters outlined with precision and mastering of cinematographic resources that bear witness to the creative maturity of the scriptwriter and director.
These aspects are reinforced by an adequate selection and direction of the actors, with special mention for the always professional Alina Rodríguez and the children chosen among more than 7,000 candidates. The applause went to the young protagonist, Armando Valdés Freire, always convincing for his expressiveness and wealth of nuances that organically move between the innocence proper of children of his age to the violence demanded of him in the difficult environment in which he lives.
Another element to highlight are the chosen exterior as well as interior locations, which illustrate with their visual force the harsh environment in which the characters move: crowded dwellings, streets flooded with people, rooftops turned into makeshift homes with the only view or the aggressive presence of the train, distilling smoke and noises to the nearby barrios. And though this is not the first time that the physical and spiritual degradation of that impoverished and marginal Havana is shown on the screen, where large segments of the population lead their lives, on this occasion the crude reality is an element that is marking to a great extent the fate of its inhabitants.
The photography, by renowned Alejandro Pérez, contributes to underlining that quality. What’s interesting is that very far from unnecessary formal balancing acts, with expressive shots conceived for the dramaturgy and effective lighting, it was possible to equip Conducta with an interesting plasticity and a realistic atmosphere (something difficult to define, but even more of finding in Cuban cinema), which makes us forget the fact that we are sitting in front of a production screened without perspective or depth.
But there is no doubt that the highest notes of Conducta are due to the treatment of certain conflicts of universal resonance that are manifested in Cuban society with their own particularities. And this is done from a perspective that challenges schemes, worn-out slogans, common places, pamphleteering harangues and everything that, in a narrow sense, is considered politically correct.
The school and family atmosphere, a binomial of crucial importance to carry out the education and formation of children, are the focal point of the story. But in this case, the mother is incapable of assuming that responsibility and neither does the school, burdened by bureaucratic norms and solutions, in its role of executioner of the educational policy in our society, seem to be in the best conditions to carry out that role. And here is when things start getting complicated, because the two sides cannot be separated in good and bad, and the former educational concepts that they are attempting to displace for being classified as obsolete in the long run can be more effective in the formation of the students than the new criteria that are being imposed.
In that sense, it is the dramatic situations themselves that lead to questioning what is established and that has to be complied with automatically, even though practice demonstrates that it no longer works. From the damaging intransigence of an official whose greatest concern is fulfilling her work content, to the tenacious resistance of the pleasant Carmela, an educator from the old school, capable of hitting a child for whom she is ready to lose, if necessary, her own job.
More than proposing, Conducta urges us then to make a necessary reflection about the role of the family and the school in the education and formation of values in children and young people, a highly topical subject in a society that conceives education as a universal right, but which today has started to distance itself from its egalitarian aspirations, headed toward necessary and at times traumatic changes, overwhelmed by insufficient economic growth and the impossibility of guaranteeing wellbeing and social advance for all sectors of the population through work.
Based on this principal conflict the film enriches with subtle brush strokes that open questioning about diverse themes present in the complex social framework: precarious living conditions, police corruption, violence, double standards, drugs and prostitution, internal and external migration policies of tragic consequences for families, lives that go by almost on the margin of the law where they are able to survive with very few hopes for a better future, and that conform the image of a society that every day seems to distance itself more from that luminous portrait of itself it imposed as a model of perfection.
And the thing is that Conducta refuses to give magical, easy or lifesaving recipes. There are no happy endings for that teacher with more than 40 years of working as a teacher, and who at the end of her forces can still resist giving up in the face of what is badly done or to continue the easiest path that would be to accept the orientations from higher up, even when she doesn’t agree with them. Neither do we know what will happen with that small boy who uses swear words, who takes care of his mother and fighting dogs, who has a fight with another boy because he makes fun of his friend’s father or falls in love with the “Palestinian”* in his classroom. That is why, in the end the only thing that remains to be done is wait for Chala to have the luck of meeting other Carmelas throughout his life. (2014)
* Immigrants from other provinces in the capital.
Conducta: Feature length (100’).
Producers: Culture Ministry; ICAIC; RTV Comercial; FAMCA; with the collaboration of ACAV
Script and direction: Ernesto Daranas Serrano:
General Production: Esther Masero
Direction of Photography: Alejandro Pérez
Edition: Pedro Suárez
Original Music: Juan Antonio Leyva and Magda Rosa Galbán
Art Director: Erick Grass
Sound Track: Osmany Olivare
Casting Director: Mariela López.
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