REVIEW: This 19th-Century Drama Is the Gender-Bending Story of Cuba’s First Female Doctor

Courtesy of Havana Film Festival New York

The real life story of Enrique Faber, a Swiss doctor who practiced medicine in rural Cuba in the 19th century, is the stuff of fiction. Dr. Faber was a respected member of the Baracoa community who grew up in Europe where he gained his medical license; he then traveled to the then-Spanish territory of Cuba where he married Ms Juana de León. Dr. Faber was eventually revealed to have been a woman in man’s clothing whose real name was Enriqueta.

Enriqueta was tried in the early 1820s, becoming in turn a proto-feminist figure who got chastised and punished for wanting to accomplish that which men around her so freely could. The story of the first woman to practice medicine in the island is rife for adaptation. It’s no surprise to find Fernando Pérez and Laura Cazador’s Insumisas (Defiant Souls) mining this gender-breaking history for all it’s worth in a period piece that speaks to the way patriarchal systems enslave women to a life of servitude and submission. Moreover, while Pérez and Cazador craft a fictionalized tale that asks uncomfortable truths about gender equality, they use Faber (played by French actress Sylvie Testud) as a way to unmask the brutal history of the Cuban slave trade. Much like Lucrecia Martel’s Zama did years ago, Insumisas takes its period piece trappings and dizzying rural setting less to adhere to actual facts, but instead to offer a revisionist take on an oft-ignored history.

We first meet Faber as she stands near a roaring sea in a nun’s habit. She’s reminiscing about the life she led and what brought her to that point. Such flashback structure allows the directing duo to catch us up on the reason why “Enrique Faber” first landed in a remote area of Western Cuba. In fact, as images of Enriqueta getting married, giving birth, and losing her baby flash before us, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were getting a “Previously On” recap of a film preceding this one. It’s a somewhat shoddy introduction to what’s otherwise a gripping film that takes full advantage of the murky rain-soaked landscapes and darkened claustrophobic houses where its story is set and tells a sweeping tale of one person’s transgressions against an unjust system.

If it takes Insumisas a while to set up its plot it’s because it’s somewhat needlessly confusing: having lost her husband and having had her baby taken away (it’s unclear why), Enriqueta opts to don men’s clothing, become a doctor, and set outward to Cuba where she believes her son now resides. It’s there she stumbles across a family who helps her adjust to life in Baracoa and where she meets Juana, a young woman who immediately catches her eye. Only, neither of these connections make her recent discovery any easier to manage: her son, along with the family who’d been caring for him, were burned alive in a fire set by runaway slaves who are in revolt in the area. This last bit is the first hint that Cazador and Pérez are using their artistic license to tie Faber’s story to Cuba’s bloody slave history.

Courtesy of Havana Film Festival New York
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What follows is a twinned story about a woman trying to make it in a man’s world hoping to keep her secret safe and one about a righteous doctor trying to stand up for those ostracized and enslaved. Faber is outspoken about encouraging men around her to value their wives’ sexual pleasure. He encourages young girls who want to become doctors. He stands up against known rapists and abusers. All the while, he also feels the need to be an anti-slavery advocate, granting freedom to two slaves who’d been gifted to him. He offers to medically treat anyone no matter their skin color. He even helps runaway slaves head to safety up the mountains, away from cruel slave trader Benitez (Mario Guerra, in full villain mode). Faber’s forward-thinking philosophies regarding gender and race make the doctor a pariah within the white Spanish community, and eventually — once she’s found out — leads to a gruesome and violent unveiling that brings the full brunt of the white-male-dominated justice system upon her.

The ease with which Insumisas tackles gender and race as irrevocably intertwined constructs, all the while offering us a healthy if doomed same-sex relationship, makes this Cuban project feel utterly contemporary despite its period setting. Its washed out color palette, which never romanticizes nor glamorizes the rustic, rural world it depicts, matches the story’s increasingly dreary direction. Knowing Faber’s history is to know there isn’t a happy ending in sight. Yet Cazador and Pérez make the journey feel not only urgent but necessary, especially for a 2019 audience in dire need of such thoughtful historical exploration.

Insumisas screened as part of the Havana Film Festival New York.