In Reina y Rey, Julio García Espinosa pays homage to Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. Consuelo Vidal plays Reina, an old woman who lives alone with her dog, Rey, in Havana during the 1990s.
García Espinosa employs a neorealist aesthetic during the first half of the film, as Reina and Rey wander the streets of Havana.
The mise-en-scène of Cuba during the Special Period: black-market salesmen, prostitution, bicycles and material shortages.
Reina struggles to feed her dog.
She eventually decides to leave Rey at the pound, but the dog escapes.
After an electricity blackout, Reina falls asleep and then awakes to a loud knocking on the door. The film changes from black-and-white to color photography.
Reina’s former employers, who now live in Miami, have returned to visit: Carmen…
… and Emilio.
Reina watches from below as Carmen runs upstairs to look at “her things.”
The returning exiles reclaim the space of their previous home and act as if Reina is still their beloved employee. Here Carmen smiles as she asks to sleep in Reina’s bed.
In revolutionary Cuba, the “returning exile,” has long been a figure associated with political and emotional regression. Governmental discourse imagined the exile’s backward-looking gaze, debilitating politics and chauvinistic sense of entitlement as impediments to the progress of the nation-state. But this depiction mainly dominated before the fall of Cuba’s socialist trading partners. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Cuban economy began a period of rapid economic collapse, which Fidel Castro in 1990 named “the Special Period in Times of Peace.” From 1989 to 1992, the country’s gross national product declined by thirty percent, and the Cuban government passed a series of measures mandating sacrifice and bracing for further shortages.
Among the many changes that occurred as a result of that economic freefall was an official retooling of discourse on the exile-national relationship. Transnational remittances made émigrés a more important part of the economy than ever before, and in 1993 Castro legalized the use of U.S. dollars. As one contemporary Cuban saying goes, “You have to have fe,” which, playing on the expression “you have to have faith,” jokes that you also need familiares en el exterior, or family living abroad. Gusanos (worms), the derogatory term once applied to Cubans who left the country, became gusanos verdes (green worms), and their enhanced importance in sustaining the island influenced the processes of their (limited) reincorporation and reconciliation. In the context of Cuban film, these changes affected the representational space that exiles had been afforded on screen.
The official acceptance of those who, at the Mariel exodus in 1980, were called “escoria” (scum) and betrayers of their nation is one of the many paradoxes of Cuba during the nineties (Castro). So how has a culture—and specifically, the state-sponsored Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográfica (ICAIC)—come to terms with this paradox? During the Special Period, several filmmakers have reconfigured and re-presented the returning exile, which has since contributed to the representation of the Cuban American tourist as a new social figure. Perhaps the most significant film in this respect is Julio García Espinosa’s Reina y Rey (Queen and King, 1994), in part because through its narrative one can actually follow the shift in perception by which the figure of the returning exile is replaced with that of the Cuban American tourist.
García Espinosa made Reina y Rey at a time when home-grown film production was at a near standstill. The economic crisis produced a scenario in which almost no funds existed to support filmmaking, so the government began to require self-financing in the culture industries. This meant that it was nearly impossible to make movies without external financing. Filmmakers had to reformulate the meanings of revolutionary cinema as they negotiated economic restructuring and the forces of globalization simultaneously. Critics inside the island and out were lamenting that ICAIC had become a mere “shadow of its former self.” Cuban film scholar Juan Antonio García Borrero wrote that filmmaking had been transformed from “collective poetry” into an “invertebrate set of isolated poetries of filmmakers, stubborn in making their cinema but not the cinema” (his emphasis). To talk about Cuban cinema in the nineties carries the risk of “talking about something that hardly exists” (173).
It is perhaps due to this perception that Reina y Rey has received only scant attention in film scholarship. “The” cinema for García Borrero, as for many others, is one dedicated to the rigorous exploration of revolutionary ideals and aesthetics, with the aim of shaping socially engaged publics; it is “collective poetry.” Reina y Rey does not appear to have much in common with the avant-gardist, Third Worldist films that made Cuban cinema internationally renowned. Nor it is a critique of the Cuban government (the other means by which Cuban films can sometimes gain international recognition). Reina y Rey is a film that deals with very specific, domestic issues—namely, economic restructuring and the return of exiles—while presenting a fairly conventional tale of an old woman’s loyalty, the kind of story that might appeal to a foreign audience. But this kind of strategic “double voice” is not an anomaly in Cuban cinema. And while it may be tempting to mourn the loss of “the” cinema, I am here concerned with Cuban cinema as it is practiced, and has been for some time—namely in dialogue with the market and economic globalization.
Reina y Rey involves the story of an old woman, Reina (Consuelo Vidal), who lives alone with her little dog, Rey. Unable to feed him, Reina tries to leave him at the pound, but at the last minute changes her mind. Meanwhile the dog escapes, and Reina is left searching. During these early sequences, García Espinosa presents a mise en scene of life in the Special Period, focusing on the scraps, vacant industrial spaces, and meandering bodies that float in and out of public spaces.
The first half of the film is shot in black-and-white, uses on-location shooting, and follows the quiet microactions of Reina as she searches for food in an economically depressed Havana. García Espinosa, like his esteemed colleague Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, studied at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome early in his career during the 1950s, and with Reina y Rey he clearly pays homage to Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952), transposing the story of an old pensioner and his dog in postwar Italy onto that of an old widow and her dog in Cuba during the Special Period. The film is dedicated to Cesare Zavattini, the neorealist proponent who wrote Umberto D.
There is a special tension to the nonrealistic look and storyline, however, because García Espinosa does situate the film so firmly in the contemporary context. The first outdoor scene, for instance, shows Reina buying food from a young, bandana-clad black market salesman, who wears an earring and backback as he rides his bicycle through the neighborhood, making his rounds. Reina y Rey depicts so many indices of life in the Special Period—dollars, prostitution, unemployment, tourism, an urban landscape marked by transnational travelers of all kinds — that its nostalgic aesthetic seems tongue-in-cheek. The image of the wizened Reina walking through congested leisure spaces where gaudy tourists are buying food at umbrella stands seems especially incongruous with the black-and-white cinematography and sentimental score, not to mention the performance of Consuelo Vidal, who hardly speaks a word of dialogue throughout the entire film. So, while there may be a degree of nostalgia to the neorealist influence in Reina y Rey, there is also a reflexive bent, which becomes more clearly pronounced forty minutes into the film, when the Miami exiles come knocking on Reina’s door and the film switches from black-and-white to color photography.
Reina lives in a house formerly owned by her employers, who left for the United States twenty years prior. As their housekeeper and childcare provider, she maintained her residence in the house and is now its rightful owner, although she has done little to change it since; she even keeps her young charge’s room exactly as it was when she cared for him. One morning after days spent searching for Rey, who has run away in search of food, Reina wakes to find that her former employers, Carmen and Emilio (Coralia Veloz and Rogelio Blaín), have come back without warning. At first it appears that they are simply paying a visit, but it quickly becomes clear that they intend to stay in the house and resume their patronizing relationship with Reina, friendliness shot through with a power-laden social dynamic that has them leading Reina around by the hand and speaking for her. Garcia Espinosa emphasizes the issue of exilic presumptuousness, with Carmen — in a somewhat stylized, hyperbolic performance — excitedly talking about being back in their home, their neighborhood, their city. She runs through the house looking at all of herold belongings. Carmen and Emilio thus enter the film fully, if somewhat stereotypically, coded as returning Miami exiles, who perform their ownership of material things and social interactions, ignoring the twenty years of history that have passed since they left.
Theories about exilic identity and culture recognize such denials of coevality as common in exiles’ imaginative engagements with their homelands, which are often psychologically invested in maintaining an image of the homeland as frozen in time. In the case of Cuba’s exiles, generally speaking, this idealized image of the homeland as unchanged must also compete with an opposing strain of thinking and representation that simultaneously imagines the homeland as a dystopic place, one marked by accelerated decay, a kind of anti-Cuba ruled by a dictator who has created a country so unlike the too-perfect Cuba of the past as to be a perversion and corruption of the authentic nation and culture. Exiles’ refusal of temporality and contemporary Cuban history is thus influenced both by a psychological investment in holding onto the Cuba they remember (even if this remembered place is pure fiction) as well as an active rejection of Cuba as it exists in time, i.e., the revolutionary state.
Despite the seemingly stereotypical surface treatment with which the exiles are introduced, Reina y Rey recognizes the powerful hold imaginings of home have on Cubans who live outside the nation-state and explores (rather than merely ridiculing) the competing sentiments that have Carmen and Emilio reflecting on Cuba as both utopia and dystopia. Throughout, in fact, the film displays some understanding of exilic consciousness and the community in Miami, with Garcia Espinosa engaging issues of exile nostalgia and denial throughout. The exiles’ simultaneous longing for and disavowal of the island are represented matter-of-factly—a sign, perhaps, that Cubans have a much more intimate knowledge of their exilic others than the historical discourses of non-cooperation between the two “nations” would have us believe.
García Espinosa is also cognizant of the ways in which Miami Cubans, unable to return to a homeland that no longer exists, have tried to reconstruct the nation in exile. This understanding is evinced most directly through the disclosure of Carmen and Emilio’s true reason for returning — to convince Reina to return with them to Miami to be a live-in maid for their son and care for their first grandchild. That Carmen and Emilio have returned to reclaim their old servant indicates their investment in reconstituting the past in the present, of making their contemporary life in Miami resemble, as much as possible, their life in Cuba in days past. So although the exiles are not there to lay literal, legal claim to their house, they are nonetheless making a symbolic claim on what they see as their property, with Reina synecdochically serving as a piece of their home that can be transported and repatriated to the nation in exile. The film thus engages and critiques the idea of Cuba as annex to the Miami nation.
Reina y Rey is critical of such proprietary overtures, and Espinosa’s narrative eventually denies the moral legitimacy of the exiles’ claim, undermining their chauvinistic sense of entitlement, but not before transforming the figure of the returning exile into that of the tourist. Indeed, what is most significant about the representation of exile return and encounter in Reina y Rey is the way in which Carmen and Emilio’s assumptions are exposed as completely unfounded. Their so-called love for country is shown to be a complicated illusion that is served just as well by the brief, contained exposure to national culture that tourism affords, than by any actual claim to belonging.
Specifically, in one of the film’s longest sequences, Carmen, Emilio and Reina spend an evening at Havana’s famous Tropicana nightclub, an icon of pre-Revolutionary nightlife and long one of Cuba’s most popular tourist destinations. Reina, dressed in clothes the Miamians have brought for her, is clearly uneasy, and Emilio appears most interested in ogling mulattas; in fact these constitute his only point-of-view shots in the film. (We later learn that in the past he had an affair with his neighbor, an Afro-Cuban woman, to whom in the film he eventually reveals his enduring love and desire for reunion; again, the exile assumes some sort of continuation of things past, makes his claim to the body of the Cuban woman, and is definitively rejected.) At Tropicana, Carmen is ecstatic and sentimental. The place provokes in her a series of musings about the benefits of tourism, her feelings of nostalgia, and the lack of authentic Cuban music in Miami.
An element emphasized in this scene is the extent to which Carmen, now that she does not live in Cuba, can enjoy all the “amazing things” the country has to offer. She confesses to Reina that this is the first time she has ever been to Tropicana, and in a manner that makes the club plainly analogous to the island as a whole, she excitedly talks about the diverse riches of this utopic “paradise under the stars.” Only now as a tourist does she have the opportunity to look at the country with “fresh eyes” and appreciate its beauty, one with which the camera is complicit. She goes on about nostalgic longing — how in Miami, “all we think about are our people in Cuba, and in Cuba, [all you think about are] your people in Miami.” Finally, she complains about Cuban music in Miami not matching the real thing, which can only be found on the island itself. In one of only two lines uttered by Reina in the lengthy sequence, she then asks “and Celia?” referring to Celia Cruz, the lengendary Afro-Cuban singer and émigré uniquely beloved on both sides of the Florida Straits, to which both women raise their glasses in a toast. This moment instigates a change in body language, with Reina finally feeling more comfortable, even smiling, and Carmen becoming less caricaturist with her performance, which grows more naturalistic—Veloz’s acting has, in fact, been the most critically applauded aspect of Reina y Rey.