As his country slowly moves past its communist decades, a Cuban veteran is stuck in the past.
Andres is a Cuban veteran who never stopped being a soldier. He fought in Angola and Nicaragua, but even though his last mission ended more than 30 years ago, he kept the mindset of a soldier and never stopped believing in the communist cause. And while enchantment with the Revolution faded in Cuba in the long decades of scarcity and totalitarian rule, and his country is now slowly changing, Andres trains for a war he is certain will come. Inhabiting a past that was never truly that glorious, he lives in a world that only exists in his mind and in the modest apartment where he lives. Francisco Marise’s first feature film is a touching portrait of this devoted aging man, left behind by time and history to be an illustration of how the scars of war and the damages of doctrine have unexpected faces and can mark a soldier’s heart and mind for life.
Living in a time long past
The film borrows the uneventful pace of Andres’ life. Time hardly moves in his surroundings. He spends his life training and doing simple chores in his apartment. He demonstrates his combat abilities in front of the camera, becoming a live illustration of a soldier’s training manual with original training instructions appearing on the screen before each of his set of combat moves. And while these shots at first seem odd, almost surreal, the sadness of this man’s loneliness and the seriousness of his devotion soon take over the atmosphere in the film.
From time to time, Andres takes the telephone book and tries to find old comrades from his missions in Nicaragua. He calls landline numbers from the book only to find out the person he’s looking for has passed, or someone else with the same name is at the end of the line. The film combines archive footage and sound to illustrate the world as he sees it – a time long gone but which he still inhabits in his mind.
«The film combines archive footage and sound to illustrate the world as Andres sees it – a time long gone but which he still inhabits in his mind.»
Andres is part of a generation and a past that Cuba is slowly leaving behind. And while the country is still a totalitarian state, the younger generations look with hope towards the future. Like anywhere, there are also some who look towards the past. But nostalgia is usually a response to people feeling unfit, left behind or simply unable to navigate the present times, and that is not Andres’ case. Changes in Cuba are slow and less visible than the changes other communist countries went through in the past, and he doesn’t question change or his quality of life. In fact, he doesn’t see change, and he seems quite happy with what he’s got, so what he goes through is more delusion than the kind of nostalgia seen in Russia or other countries from the ex-communist bloc.
The scars of war
Most likely marked by the war, Andres only learned to live and cheer for the ideas the regime implanted in his mind, and never found other meaning in his life. In a way, he reminds one of Good Bye Lenin!, the 2003 feature film telling the story of a son whose mother was in a coma in the hospital while the Berlin wall fell. Worried that the mother will have a fatal shock if she finds out her beloved East Germany no longer exists, the son puts all his effort into keeping up the appearance of the old regime still being there.
The changes in Cuba are more subtle, but Andres lives the same kind of illusion, except that what keeps the illusion going is himself. In his mind, the world is just as divided as it was decades ago, and he talks about toughening up to stand against the harmfulness of humanity represented by the non-communist world. It is unclear whether he lives this way because he cannot face the truth, or simply because someone neglected to tell him how things really are. And it’s hard to witness this deceit and to realise that his routines and convictions are what give meaning to his life, sheltering his fragility from a world he cannot make sense of otherwise.
Adding to the gap between reality and Andres’ life, Fidel Castro dies. The announcement of his death is on TV and Andres goes to Havana to commemorate el comandante. The end of Castro’s life officially marks the ending of the era Andres idealises, but he only returns home with fresh inspiration to take charge. We see him speaking to a group of veterans who still believe in the Revolution just like him, their stiff aging bodies standing up for a minute’s silence honouring Castro. The only ones left to keep the good fight going are in this room of pensioners.
Out of time and place
To War has no spectacular turns, nor peak points to reach. It lets this man be what he is and highlights his combat training by alternating between close and distant shots while the camera stands still. This framing, the observational footage of Andres’ domestic life, and archive images all combine together into what could just as well be a fiction film. Andres’ reality is in the past and this past can only be a construct on the screen.
«It is unclear whether he lives this way because he cannot face the truth, or because someone neglected to tell him how things really are»
This bitter-sweet portrait has observational scenes but in its whole is not observational at all. Through sound and the montage of the different types of footage, the director controls the feeling of the film and builds the sense of displaced time in which Andres lives. Time stands still, yet time is passing by. The clock is ticking, Cuba is changing. Andres’ story leaves you with the feeling that, in a way, he is already gone, trapped in his bubble. He has actually never really been in the «now» at all.