Portrait of Teresa
Double day, double standards

by B. Ruby Rich

from Jump Cut, no. 22, May 1980, pp. 29-30
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

A brief pre-credit sequence establishes, with an exemplary economy of detail, the major themes of the film to follow. There's a shot of a noisy plaza overrun with playing children, in the midst of whom a woman poses by a seawall for her picture-snapping husband. She tosses her hair, he takes his photo, and for an instant director Pastor Vega trades his fluid long shot for a freeze-frame view through the husband's lens. Then he pulls back again to reveal the skyline of Havana filling the background. Music surges, and the credits appear.

The image of Teresa (played by Daisy Granados), which is shaped so casually by this prologue, is that of a woman poised in the moment of contradiction between revolutionary and traditional values. The dozens of children playing in the foreground represent her obligations in the home, where she has three sons to care for. The skyline of Havana represents the responsibilities and opportunities of life in the new Cuba, where she works days in a textile factory and evenings with an amateur dance group. Separating these two symbolic spheres, however, is the husband's perspective. His is a portrait of the eternal feminine, privatized, a glamor-magazine cliché of woman stripped of her social context to enhance her desirability for him. This snapshot at the film's beginning sets out the contradictions Teresa must confront in the process that the film chronicles. As a woman, Teresa is daily caught in the differing values of the domestic and public spheres, vainly trying to satisfy both.

Teresa is shown at work, operating her textile machinery and later chatting wearily in the locker room with co-workers, supervising a dance rehearsal for an upcoming balet folklorico competition, and finally arriving home at 9:20 to her indignant husband, Ramón (actor Adolfo Llaurado). Two neighbor women, in a typical scene of the communality engendered by the need to share resources, are watching a TV melodrama in the front room, thus providing strains of "all the forces of my heart" to accompany the marital confrontation in the bedroom. She is tired; he is jealous. She is explanatory; he is mistrustful.

The argument concludes without resolution, but its terms echo clearly in Teresa's complaints the next day in a union meeting about the men "who aren't lifting a finger at home" and about the daycare center left so long unrepaired, overburdening the women. To the surprise of U.S. viewers, she is taken seriously. Even the meeting's chairman reinforces her charge about the day-care center, with statistics demonstrating that absenteeism among women workers had dropped from 23% to 1% when nurseries and day-care centers were constructed.

The charge about men's obligations in the home is more complex, however. PORTRAIT OF TERESA is the first film dealing with the situation of women in Cuba to be made since the passage of the Family Code in 1974. The Family Code legislated the politics of domestic life to free women from the double standard and the double shift in the private sphere, The series of public meetings held concerning passage of the Family Code between the summer of 1974, when it was proposed, until Woman's Day of 1975, when it became law, have been legendary. [1] While it is unclear to what extent its terms have been fully implemented and enforced, it is quite clear that the passage of such a piece of legislation has had a profound impact on women's consciousness and on domestic politics. Men are required by the Code to do 50% of household chores and childcare when their wives are in the workforce, for example. [2] Judging from the film, the five years since the Code's passage have been characterized by an enormous rethinking of women's work and the full implications for family life (as traditionally structured) in a truly socialist society. "Women are women and men are men … and even Fidel can't change that," is Teresa's mother's pessimistic advice.

One of the film's most important "portraits" of Teresa is its sequence of her morning rituals, presenting to the audience the daily labor that will always be invisible to her husband because he is always asleep during its performance. Indeed, an incisive shot witnesses Teresa swinging out of bed, away from her husband's sleeping body, to shut the alarm ringing in the still-dark room. What follows is the most direct view we've yet seen of the circumstances of everyday life in contemporary Cuba. Teresa prepares that evening's meal in the characteristic pressure cooker, does the wash in a pot of water heating on a hot plate, prepares breakfast, wakes up the three boys and gets them dressed, wakes up the husband, gives everyone breakfast, sees them all out the door, then cleans the house, hangs the wash, and leaves herself. It's a sobering, exhausting portrait of women's famous "double day" of private and public labor. Despite such progress as the Family Code, the mere twenty years elapsed since the start of the Revolution have left many behavior patterns still intransigent. The persistent contradiction between how things are and how things will be leads Teresa to explode later in the film when her factory union head urges her to work even more with the dance troupe: "A day only has 24 hours, and even the revolution hasn't changed that."

PORTRAIT OF TERESA looks unusually simple to those accustomed to the complex, analytic, mixed-mode films characteristic of Cuban cinema in past years. It's a straightforward dramatic movie, shot in a light improvisational style shaped by its environment of working people and by their problems. Daisy Granados worked in a textile mill, collecting material on which to base her character; Adolfo Llaurado did the same, working in a television repair workshop, to comprehend the character he would play. Pastor Vega, the director, had previously shot only documentaries. That influence appears, not in the application of a documentary approach to acting or editing but rather in a documentary adherence to the functional camerawork, more attentive to the exigencies of the moment than the niceties of formal elaboration. Even its humor is grounded more often in the contradictions of daily life than in the counterpoint of cinematic strategies. While most Cuban films have played in this country within film festivals or university film societies, PORTRAIT OF TERESA could easily hold its own in a neighborhood movie theater as well. In part, this is due to the exceptional performance of Daisy Granados as Teresa and to the power of her screen presence, relying on a certain natural beauty bluntly photographed rather than on a glamorized aura.

Several scenes in PORTRAIT OF TERESA carry a particular significance. One pictures Teresa dancing with her little boy (after dad has exited the family) and says more in two minutes about mother-son relations than all of Bertolucci's LUNA put together. Another is an out-and-out physical battle between Teresa and Ramón that galvanizes the audience into cheering, until Vega coyly cuts to an ambulance siren in a red-herring shot that merely teases the audience for its expectations. Yet another is a tense eye-to-eye confrontation between Teresa and the inevitable Other Woman. This woman, Miriam, is portrayed consistently as a "backward" woman who has not involved herself in any sense with the Revolution. She goes to the beauty parlor, reads women's magazines, and pursues her affair with Ramón. Because Miriam is portrayed mostly within her home environment (a fancy home, clearly preserved since the family's pre-Revolutionary days), the film suggests an equation between her political identity. As if to confirm that equation, in another scene Teresa rebukes her mother for an old grudge: that the mother had not allowed her to join the literacy campaign as a teenager even though her younger brother was allowed to go. The mother defends her past care with Teresa's honor (i.e., keeping her from the dangers of living among unknown people) by reminding her of her then-fiancé's family's objections. "But they were gusanos," says Teresa, again making the connection between counterrevolutionary attitudes and the corresponding attitudes that seek to keep women in old, oppressive roles isolated from revolutionary values and possibilities.

Television, as portrayed in the film, is not of much help in the process of re-education. The melodramas still influence codes of behavior. As the film progresses, and the fights between Ramón and Teresa become less reconcilable, he moves out of the house, in with his mother, and takes up with Miriam. Teresa is still working and doing household chores, but she no longer need contend with his demands or abuse. Furthermore, she's helped out by Charo, another woman (who, seen earlier with the mother, seems to be a "poor relation" and perhaps even family domestic turned helpmate).

Shot in the summer of 1978, the film is filled with scenes showing preparations underway for the Youth Festival held in Cuba that year, with the streets full of decorations and block parties. During one of these moments of festivity, Ramón comes to seek a reconciliation. He has seen a novela (melodrama) during his TV-repair rounds in which a woman, decked out in period courtly garb, raved to her mother of a suitor's great sensitivity as evidenced in his present to her of a single rose. Ramón fatuously carries a single long-stemmed rose to Teresa, as though its courtly-love significance would not merely reinforce her rejection of his macho values. Once he's gone, she tosses it fretfully out the window, complaining bitterly about the persistent double standard so clearly still operative.

Television plays an even more important role in one of the film's climactic scenes, staged at a guard station where Ramón, on night duty, is pressed into repair service on the television set, only to discover the face of Teresa on the focused screen. Her dance group has won the amateur contest, so she and co-worker Tomás are being interviewed by Pinelli, the Cuban variety-show host whose program predates even the Revolution. Pinelli is chivalry incarnate, albeit humorously, as he handles Tomás and Teresa with an astonishing difference. All questions about the dance, choreography, logistics, etc., are directed to Tomás, while Teresa is extolled to the television audience for her Cuban beauty and questioned about her husband's possible jealousy. Pinelli requests her husband's name, then politely faces his audience (in this case, the incredulous husband) and murmurs, "With your permission, Ramón," before kissing her hand. The husband's outrage is matched by our own amazement that this courtly-sexist treatment of women should be continuing on television despite being rigorously fought elsewhere in the society that the film depicts.

Television, then, functions as an indication of the forces of resistance still prevalent in the society of Cuba today. If cinema, as an "art," has been a progressive force for analysis and re-education, then television, as an "entertainment," has retained in its less mediated state all the contradictions rampant in popular culture. By interjecting the television portrait of Teresa into the narrative of the film, Vega is able to literalize the conflict between the Cuban woman's privatized burdens and the out-dated public image of her worth. Vega ironically employs television, then, to deconstruct its traditional face of femininity.

Toward the film's end, its climactic scene shifts the focus of concern from the terms of the Teresa-Ramón relationship and her double labor to the general issue of Cuba's double standard in sexual mores. Teresa confronts Ramón over his extramarital affair during their separation and questions, "What if I'd done the same?" She has to ask the question more than four times before it even registers as anything more than a rhetorical ploy. "It isn't the same," he insists. This final indication of his intransigence and continuing insensitivity is all Teresa needs to confirm her commitment to her new unmarried life.

She walks away as a band plays in humorous counterpart a song with the chorus "Teresa" to accompany Ramón's futile dash after her through the thick crowds on the street. The last image on the screen is a freeze-frame "portrait" echoing the one which opened the film in its pre-credit moments. Again, Teresa is outdoors and in motion. This time, however, Havana is not a skyline in the background but a palpable presence in which she is immersed, one individual in a crowd. It is not through her husband's lens that she is viewed, for she is already in this moment moving outside the limits of his vision. Finally, most pointedly, she is not seen as desirably tossing her hair. Rather, her hair is held back, unseen, by a white scarf that lends her demeanor an extra measure of determination and self-sufficiency.

PORTRAIT OF TERESA opened in the summer of 1979 in Havana, and it's proved to be one of the most popular films in the history of Cuban cinema. In its first two weeks, it was seen by 250,000 viewers. Already its audience has proven to be the largest since Gutierrez Alea's MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT, with its run sparking similar widespread debate on a central issue in contemporary Cuban society. In an interview with the film's screenwriter, Ambrosia Fornet, in Bohemia magazine, [3] an important point is made: the success of TERESA has debunked, finally, the cherished notion that people go to the movies to "disconnect." Citing a remark made by ICAIC's Jorge Fraga, Fornet holds up TERESA as a fundamental film "of connection" that offers its Cuban audiences no escape or distancing from their own lives. "Pastor Vega did not invent Teresa," points out Fornet in defining the film as "an exploration of a collective problem." The unprecedented popularity of TERESA with the Cuban public is persuasive evidence that a "cinema of connection" can be more satisfying than one of fantasy. Furthermore, the film's success has apparently prompted a reconsideration of direction within ICAIC, suggesting that more films dealing with contemporary life (so far rather rare in Cuba feature production) may be in order.

PORTRAIT OF TERESA does call to mind two other Cuban films that dealt with the situation of women in a contemporary context. At points, it seems almost an update of LUCIA 196, right down to actor Adolfo Llaurado's recreation of his earlier role as Tomás in that film. [4] As the jealous husband there, he resisted his wife's attempts first to become literate and then to enter the workforce. If that film ended on an upbeat and cajoling note of optimism regarding the woman's new-won freedoms, then TERESA points to how limited the freedom of workplace equality can be when it must coexist with domestic oppression. Indeed, in one pointed interchange, a co-worker, played by Alma Sanchez, reminds Teresa that their work brigade can never beat rival Martha's because Martha's quota-busting group of single and childless women always surpasses their group's worn-down married women with children.

The other important Cuban film with which TERESA summons comparison is ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, in which Sara Gomez analyzes the codes of machismo which shaped and still influence Cuban male behavior. [5] Like Gomez, Vega shows the process of the Revolution as an ongoing debate and struggle away from backward patterns of behavior and ever closer to an ideal of socialist organization, work, and interpersonal relations. Where the Gomez film took pains constantly to identify the characters in terms of their historical constructs, Vega opts for a much more transparent presentation of Teresa and Ramon as simply two "typical" individuals. It is a more personal, less societal, characterization; consequently, the film has a more dramatic, less analytical, denouement. ONE WAY OR ANOTHER has an "open" ending in which relations between the two central characters remain unresolved, still in flux, still working out the contradictions of their historical shaping. Although interviews have claimed a similar "open" ending for TERESA, I would argue that that is not exactly true and that it is in its ending that the film fails to confirm its very powerful feminist implications.

The entire concluding section of TERESA switches focus (once Ramón has left) from questions of the double shift to the morality of woman's sexual freedom. In conversation first with the helpful Charm (herself a symbol of the divorced woman as victim in an older society) and then with the quasi-repentant Ramón, Teresa gives all her attention to this issue. Thus, the closing confrontation with Ramón that could have been a substantive rehash of the conflicts that led them to part becomes instead an ambiguous summary of their affairs since then. The last dialogue, always a pivot for a film's meaning, is thus given over to the unanswered (and surely irrelevant) question of whether or not Teresa had become involved with the troupes director, Tomás. Did she or didn't she? A traditional riddle but hardly an appropriate one with which to end a film investigating so much more important issues.

The ending of TERESA, then, falls into the trap of posing extremely private and individual solutions to what has been earlier established as a social problem. The introduction of Tomás as a sympathetic figure suggests that Teresa's problem could be solved by replacing Ramón with a "nicer" man. Of course, that's a false solution. Teresa's problems stem from the persistent placing of the domestic burden wholly upon the women, from the still-backward sensibility of the men (to which, incidentally, Teresa contributes by raising her three sons to replicate Ramon's tyranny: feeding them bottles of milk in bed and tending their every need sacrificially), and from the ever-present constriction of a U.S.-sponsored economic blockade that continues to limit Cuba's abilities to develop needed resources. By diverting attention onto the "type" of man with whom Teresa is struggling, Vega dodges the basic issue of sexual relations which he has been examining and shifts the terms of debate onto personality.

If PORTRAIT OF TERESA could have gone further to raise consciousness and provoke meaningful debate with a different ending, it has nevertheless served an extremely important function in fostering debate and in claiming a place for a new contemporary Cuban cinema. In a report from Cuba, Margaret Randall has emphasized that the film is already being used by women (as is the Family Code) "to bolster their own very real needs and rights." [6] If the need is strong enough to summon up more films on the subject, perhaps we will get to see what a woman director might contribute to the analysis of woman's situation in Cuba and possible strategies for further transformation. Those of us who visited ICAIC in 1978 still remember the meeting with the women workers of ICAIC in which just such a question was posed. What issues might a woman director treat that hadn't been treated in film yet? I remember one answer clearly: the need for a film on the abuelas, the grandmothers who had borne the burden of revolutionary childcare. The speaker? None other than Daisy Granados, who plays Teresa.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., where the image of woman in Hollywood has changed all the way from ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE to AN UNMARRIED WOMAN back to KRAMER VERSUS KRAMER … well, PORTRAIT OF TERESA looks awfully good.


A much shorter and very different version of this review appeared in The Chicago Reader (November 9, 1979).  — The Editors

1. See Margaret Randall, "Introducing the Family Code, in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), pp. 296-98.

2. For a fuller study of women, work, and the Family Code in Cuba, see Carollee Bengelsdorf and Alice Hageman, "Emerging from Underdevelopment: Women and Work in Cuba" in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), pp. 271-95.

3. Bohemia 71, no. 37 (September 14, 1979): 27-28.

4. See John Mraz, Visual Style and Historical Portrayal" in Jump Cut No. 19 (December 1978) for a comprehensive shot analysis of LUCIA. See also Julianne Burton's introduction to the Cuba Special Section, in the same issue, for her placing of the development of Cuban cinema within the context of the progress of the Revolution itself.

5. See Julia Lesage, "Dialectical, Revolutionary, Feminist" in Jump Cut No. 20 (May 1979) for her analysis of ONE WAY OR ANOTHER.

6. Margaret Randall, "A Letter from Havana," Cineaste 10, no. 1: 26.