By Colleen Claes
Many films based on plays have a foundation that stands firm, and that foundation is comprised most notably of exquisite, lengthy dialogue and actor-to-actor interaction. (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Closer, for example.) The Cuban film Old House (Casa Vieja) by Lester Hamlet is also based on a play of the same name (written by Abelardo Estorino), and it holds true to its original form. This story of family tragedy, misunderstandings and conflict all play out in a format that vividly appreciates dialogue and the communication between characters.
Esteban, the film’s protagonist, comes back home to Cuba after being away working as an architect for 14 long years. Very soon into the film, we learn of the dreaded but expected death of his father, which forces the divided family together, whether they’re ready for it or not. In such heartbreaking and uncomfortable circumstances, each character reveals the darkest parts of themselves: his sister Laura is unhappy in love after being someone’s mistress, and she also struggles with being the main caretaker of the house. Esteban’s brother Diego is protective of his family, yet hot-tempered and aggressive, which proves to be the opposite of Esteban. Esteban’s mother is perhaps the most captivating in that she hardly speaks but does not need to for you can feel her breakdown and despair right through the screen. As the story progresses, the family members fight, cry, bond and reflect on their best memories together.
The audience can tell that there is some big thing left unsaid, something deeper than just the family’s disapproval of Esteban’s moving away. Then finally, his sexuality is brought to the surface at the very end. This is powerful and climactic, but I found myself wanting to know more about Esteban as a gay man, and really, more about Esteban in general, as he was the quietest and most mysterious character. However, the filmmaker chose to explore this plot line in a very subtle way. Looking back, the discomfort and confusion Esteban’s family feels towards him is hinted at throughout.
Old House has some really beautiful cinematography, including great use of the country’s natural landscape. Though at times the film seemed to veer off track from the main plot, there are many memorable, soul-bearing scenes. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to depict family and life’s tragedies honestly, and the end result is poignant and true.
The film’s weak spots occurred when the scenes seemed to do too much all at once. While the editing was experimental at times, it felt as if the film didn’t need these edgy techniques. While the movie version was a clear cinematic appreciation of the original play, these were just a few of these moments that may have distracted from the foundation of a play’s “bare bones” approach. Old House played out much more beautifully and honestly when it was practically left alone, with nothing to watch but the characters and their stories.
These particular elements of character and story are executed in such a true way that the film will prove to be accessible to all audiences. Old House is about the triumphs and challenges of family – a theme that transcends language and culture.
Old House/ Casa Vieja
Cuba, 2010, 95 min.
Director: Léster Hamlet
Spanish with subtitles