74: Boleto al Paraiso (Ticket to Paradise) (LAFF 2011)

wri-dir. Gerardo Chijona, wri. Francisco García, Maykel Rodrîguez, Cuba/Spain/Venezuela, 2010, 88 mins

(This review is crossposted as part of The House Next Door’s coverage of the 2011 LA Film Fest.)

Boleto al Paraiso, directed by Gerardo Chijona, is somewhat more explicit in its political examination. It’s set during the Cuban “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting economic downturn, taking us on a journey through the fractured underbelly of Cuban culture and counterculture. It’s a story of love in the time of AIDS with the way Chijona weaves together a tragic romance with a glimpse of the methods used by the Cuban government to try to curb the spread of HIV.

The film follows Eunice (Miriel Cejas), a country girl who escapes the clutches of an abusive father by falling in with a group of “freakies,” young vagabonds who party hard, deal drugs, and listen to Metallica and the metal band’s Cuban equivalents. As the group journeys to Havana, Eunice forms a bond with idealistic punk Alejandro (Héctor Medina), who has grand plans for a new life in the city. But their romance takes a dark turn as the hardships of Cuban society press down upon them. It’s a harsh tour through the ills of social decay as we’re buffeted by street crime, homelessness, and prostitution—with the specter of AIDS as yet another affliction upon the body politic.

Chijona takes a dour, jaundiced lens to the society on display, and Eunice’s struggle for survival is evoked through moments that come to us by turns melodramatic and operatic. As with Habana Eva (#73)Boleto al Paraiso is quite self-conscious about the signifying qualities of its narrative; it’s especially clear in the film’s sexually charged moments, where the themes of family, community, disease and decay all converge and reach a boiling point. They’re staged and shot and scored in a way that infuses them with a symbolic weight they struggle to bear.

Yet amid the heightened energy of the fiction there are intriguing glimpses into the realities of this historical moment, especially when it takes us into the AIDS hospices. Part of Cuba’s top-down command approach to preventing an epidemic, we see the patients are well cared for, but they’re also unable to leave. The weight of that paternalistic restraint is emblematic of the narrative as a whole. And even as the film veers straight towards the histrionic in its final act (a trait it shares with Habana Eva), it still provides a window on the youth of Cuba struggling to make the best out of a set of bad options. They try to forge personal identities in a society ill-equipped to support them, and cling to idealistic hopes in a place where there seems little to hope for.