'Patria O Muerte' depicts pain and longing in present-day Cuba (unrated)

Pictures speak so loudly that they practically howl in the new documentary “Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death.” The frayed web of rotten wood on a crumbling building. A battered metal coffee cup. Shirtless boys fishing from the seawall on the Malecón. The desolate faces of a male prostitute, an old man hunched against a wall, an exhausted, struggling mother. “I do whatever has to be done, and that’s it,” she says. “Nothing interests me.”

Much of the news on Cuba since the 2014 opening of relations between the island and the United States has focused on the positive possibilities that change could bring, and the emotion of estranged people reuniting. By contrast, the hourlong “Patria o Muerte” shows Havana and Cuba as a relentlessly oppressive place. It is not balanced in the journalistic sense, and it can feel heavy-handed. But its vivid depiction of so many Cubans’ desperate reality, their fight to survive, their hopelessness, their blunt descriptions of their lives and feelings, is not only powerful but also undeniably real. Whatever may happen in Cuba, this film offers a profound, unnerving sense of its suffering and the obstacles faced by its people.

The film has an unlikely team behind it. Director Olatz López Garmendia is the Spanish-born longtime former wife of famed artist and director Julian Schnabel, who is the movie’s executive producer. Garmendia became interested in Cuba after acting in Schnabel’s film “Before Night Falls,” about the persecuted exiled poet Reinaldo Arenas. The co-producer is Cuban-born Miguel Sirgado, an arts producer who has worked as a journalist and editor since leaving the island in 1988 (including stints at El Nuevo Herald). 

The title is, of course, a well-known revolutionary slogan meaning “Homeland or Death.” An early montage of the most devastated parts of Havana is juxtaposed with a recording of a Fidel Castro speech trumpeting that “we would prefer to perish rather than surrender our sovereignty,” showing a city where that choice seems to have meant a slow death. Other moments — Benny Moré singing “Mi Amor Sin Fe” (My Faithless Love), shots of hands shuffling dominoes marked with the Cuban flag, have a similarly unsubtle irony.

The film is split between interviews with artists, writers, activists and thinkers and those with ordinary Cubans, whose bleak experiences and statements are often the most powerful. There’s Mercedes, whose condemned building is so decrepit that the balcony collapses under her 8-year-old son’s feet; Luis, an elderly man who has lost faith in slogans; Sandor, an aspiring reggae singer who sells vegetables and calls survival “slow, endless torture”; a young woman who longs for ships and information to stream into Cuba. In one chilling sequence, we hear a recording of a woman being arrested and beaten over a black screen.

A number of famous dissidents, including blogger Yoani Sanchez and punk singer Gorki, appear, and the street artist El Sexto makes one of the most telling comments in the film. “People have lost the notion that they have rights,” he says. “That they are protagonists of their own reality.”

“Patria o Muerte” ends with stock footage of Obama’s speech announcing the rapprochement and his visit to the island last March, juxtaposed with photo-snapping tourists crowded into 1950s cars cruising Havana and film of violent arrests of protestors, including Madan and Gorki. The ending offers little hope — and yet it shows a compelling passion and anger, a Cuba of endless, still unfulfilled longing.

Director: Olatz López Garmendia.

Screenwriters: Olatz López Garmendia, Ismael de Diego, Miguel A. Sirgado, Claudio Fuentes Madan

An HBO Films release. Running time: 57 minutes. Plays with 1961’s “pM,” a 15-minute black-and-white portrait of nightlife in Regla as Cuba was preparing for the Bay of Pigs invasion. In Spanish with English subtitles. 

In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema. Director Olatz López Garmendía and co-producer Miguel A. Sirgado will introduce the 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday screenings and attend an opening night reception at 8:30 p.m. co-hosted by FIU’s Cuban Research Institute.

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