Cuban horror film ¿Eres tú, papá? (a.k.a. Is That You?), reveals itself with a slow, dirge-like crawl. While its simple story – of an impoverished family tormented by their abusive patriarch – seems stoked from the beginning with the aspiration towards an inevitable release via bloody revenge, director Rudy Riverón Sánchez teases out the slow burn, only ever fulfilling the audience’s bloodlust on tragic terms. The narrative beats of the film are wholly predictable, but the careful and patient storytelling elevates the material. Throughout Sánchez creates a vision of a dark world left thoroughly unredeemed, cloaking his audience in a hopelessness thoroughly undisturbed by retribution.
Anchoring the film are the performances, all of which are impressive. The young Gabriela Ramos manages to keep her character’s intentions hidden through crucial passages of the film, curtailing to the terrorizing force of Osvaldo Doimeadiós’s cruel father in sometimes subtly unexpected ways. Sánchez makes the most of highlighting a limited cast in a set number of claustrophobic sets.
But as Is That You? remains forever scaled-back, tight, cramped and small in scope, it can compromise its potential. The film’s stylistically conservative approach – including the muted and reserved colour palette – can leave the film feeling like a senselessly dark vision of a humanity that must surely in actuality be far more rounded and robust. Sánchez’s long delay of supernatural emergence winds up working against his audience’s acceptance of this narrative turn, as viewers seek to find answer and solace within the gritty, quiet, reserved reality of the film. And by turning his central character’s pain from a multi-faceted human experience into something resultant from spiritual and fantastical interference, it ultimately muddles its vision of human grief and suffering. Is That You? doesn’t so much betray itself by becoming something of a supernatural horror film in its final act, but rather misses the opportunity to use these supernatural elements to deepen its scope. Instead, regardless of the presence of ghosts or not, these characters remain trapped, still ever returning to the same pains.
The pull of indulging within genre cinema is a strong one – international distribution for Is That You? likely rests on its potentiality to be marketed as a horror film. Ironically, all of its strongest elements, and most admirable creation, remains outside of that sphere. Doubly doused in irony, most horror fans will likely find the film sluggish, boring, and unappealing. Before they even see it, they will be dissuaded by a nondescript and bland U.S. release title – and one that mis-translates its original title to boot. Sánchez is clearly a very talented filmmaker – I was struck by some of these hauntingly beautiful nocturnal sequences of the father driving his motorcycle through a shadowy, unseen world – and his cast is talented as well. But I regret to have to pose the rhetorical: Do this filmmaker’s chances of international recognition depend wholly on his willingness and success at catering to a bloated, precarious and ever-shifting market? Or can international audiences ever accept a vision of Cuba beyond either that of a kooky pseudo-tropical time capsule, or as a bleak cesspool of poverty-stricken misfortune? Marketing rarely makes friends with complexity. Is That You? is now available on DVD and VOD.
Wicked Rating: 6/10
Director: Rudy Riverón Sánchez
Written by: Rudy Riverón Sánchez
Stars: Gabriela Ramos, Jorge Enrique Caballero, Lynn Cruz, Osvaldo Doimeadiós, Eslinda Núñez
Release Date: August 13 (DVD & VOD)
Studio/Production Company: Breaking Glass Pictures
Length: 107 minutes