A portrait of a poet and revolutionary as a young man

Martí, el ojo del canario ( Martí, the Eye of the Canary), the newest film by esteemed filmmaker Fernando Pérez ( Life is to Whistle, Havana Suite), has already racked up a truckload of awards in Cuba, Latin America and Spain, for good reason: This handsomely shot movie, which recounts the childhood of the iconic Cuban hero José Julián Martí Pérez, celebrates the young man’s growing disdain toward the oppressive Spanish rule of the island in the 1860s and 70s without drawing any parallels to the oppressive Castro regime currently in power there. The film’s politics are nestled in a far-flung – and therefore safe – past. Any similarities to the present-day are left for the viewer to mull over.

Still, Pérez’s film, which covers Martí’s life from the ages of 9 to 16, proves engrossing anyway, even if you already happen to be familiar with the details of his youth. The movie occasionally suffers from the stiffness that afflicts pictures weighed down by a sense of self-importance, but Pérez’s obvious passion for the material overcomes its flaws. Martí is played as a quiet, keenly observant child by Damián Antonio Rodríguez, who puts up with the routine bullying by schoolmates who demand that he help them cheat on tests; coddles his seven sisters, who idolize their older brother; and patiently tolerates his Spanish father’s rantings that schooling is a waste of time and that every man should put down the books and start working at an early age (“Study is vocation; work is obligation!”).

When Martí accompanies his father, a demoted police officer, to a new assignment in rural Havana, he witnesses the gross injustices by Spanish authorities against the Afro-Cuban locals, whose most basic human rights are violated with impugnity. Pérez shoots many of these sequences with no musical score, using the natural sounds of the island’s wildlife and the wails of its most impoverished to form the soundtrack to the boy’s formative years. By the time he becomes a teenager (played by Daniel Romero), Martí is still a taciturn, low-key wallflower, although he begins to act on his growing education of history and current events (when Lincoln is assassinated, he takes to wearing a black arm band for a week to demonstrate his mourning). Eventually, when the Spanish rulers’ abusive treatment of Cubans strikes a personal note with the young man, the writer can no longer remain silent.

Martí, the Eye of the Canary ends with the hero imprisoned in a Cuban jail, sentenced to six years of hard time. Before he had finished serving his time, though, he was shipped off to Spain by authorities who hoped to be able to repatriate him. Instead, they inadvertently helped create a fighter who would die in battle trying to free Cuba. Martí’s image has been appropriated by the Cuban Revolution and Cuban exiles alike as a symbol of freedom – a testament to how malleable larger-than-life icons can be (for more on this, see Che Guevara). The movie, though, avoids taking political sides by focusing on a childhood far more interesting – and fruitful – than most.

Movie Info

Cast: Damián Antonio Rodríguez, Daniel Romero, Aramis Delgado, Broselianda Hernández, Julio César Ramírez, Manuel Porto.

Writer-director: Fernando Pérez.

Producers: Carlos Vives, Jose Maria Morales, Sancho Gracia.

Running time: 122 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, brief violence, nudity, adult themes. Plays at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Gusman.


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