The Cuban film Eres tu papá? (Is That You?) is billed as “the first psychological horror film” made on the island. It is directed by Rudy Riverón Sánchez, who grew up in rural Cuba and now lives in the United Kingdom. His take on a terrifyingly dysfunctional family living in the barren outskirts of Havana bears that mix of rural Caribbean life and a stoic European sensibility. Talking about his film after a Q&A during the Miami Film Festival, Sánchez credited Roman Polanski (Repulsion, especially), Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier as obvious inspirations for his filmmaking language.
We first meet Alina (Lynn Cruz) as her husband Eduardo (Osvaldo Doimeadiós) sniffs and licks her bound feet. She is a prisoner in her own home and her daughter Lili (Gabriela Ramos) is much too devoted to her macho father to do more than mock protest the house rules. When a failed escape attempt leads to Eduardo’s death (at the hands of his employee Carlos, played by Jorge Enrique Caballero) the film becomes an eerie ghost story. Lili, with some help from a local woman nearby, seemingly conjures up her father, who guides her in inflicting revenge upon the household he no longer rules over.
The indifferent cruelty that runs through this quiet family psychodrama makes, as Riverón Sánchez told the crowd at the fest, for a welcome change of pace in Cuban cinema. “There are no horror films in Cuba,” he said. “But there are also no films portraying Cuba this way. We’ve seen Cuba in the same way for the past sixty years: with the same sense of humor, with the same color.” There’s no comedy in Is That You? Just bleak tension stretched out over its close to two hour runtime. “I want to break the rules. I want people to experience Cuba in a different way. How many times have we seen Cuban characters complaining about Cuba inside the story?”
While the movie may function like a timeless parable of the post-revolutionary island, the director worked hard to make it as universal as possible. The dysfunction he sees as endemic to his native homeland feels of a pace with themes of revenge, betrayal, and sexual assault. His first attempts at writing the script were full of specificities that eluded his non-Cuban friends. He labored to pare it down. The dialogue is sparse. The location could be anywhere. The relationships are the things nighttime horrors are made of (including the use of women as props for violence). “I wanted to make something that went beyond the Cuban understanding,” he noted.
What we’re left with is a kind of timeless (if hard to watch) fable about the insidious role machismo and misogyny play in family units, and of the power dictatorial figures can still garner even long after they’re gone. Namely, a horror film not just set in but about Cuba.
Is That You? screened as part of the Miami Film Festival