I’m here in fabulous, balmy Miami for the 2019 Miami Film Festival and while it’s always hard to leave home, where I live (Greater Boston) got 14 inches of snow the other day, and I’m glad for the escape.
One of the first few films I saw, however, is anything but a respite from cold, harsh reality. Directed by Rudy Riveron Sanchez, Is That You? (Spanish title: ¿Eres tú, papá?) is the first psychological horror film to come out of Cuba. (Or you might call it a thriller, for those that think “horror” can only be used to describe gore, torture, etc.) Sanchez is a Cuban filmmaker living in the U.K., but came home to use the country as the backdrop of his first feature.
Is That You? follows Lili (Gabriela Ramos), a 13-year-old girl living with her parents in a countryside shack. Her father Eduardo is a living patriarchial nightmare who keeps Lili’s mother Alina locked in their meager farm’s pig shed for unknown reasons. This kind of treatment is abuse, and that in itself does not need reasons, just perpetrators and unhealthy human beings. He also keeps Alina’s feet tied together so that she can’t go very far. In fact, he doesn’t let her leave the house at all, that we see.
Eduardo is a horrible person who deserves to meet a horrible end, and while he does end, his death is too good for him. Lili, who I imagine has absolutely inherited her father’s more psychotic qualities, has something similar to a Stockholm syndrome. Even after he disappears, she slips into his shoes and becomes very suspicious of her long-suffering mother.
Without spoiling too much, Lili comes across a woman who promises to help her bring her father back by way of black magic, and that can’t really be good for anybody. The rest of the film is about that journey, and its eventual conclusion.
Even though Is That You? is set in sunny Cuba, the film itself is mostly drab, due to the intentional production design. Let me rephrase. It’s drab on purpose but beautiful in its filth and sparseness, and reminded me of those old, dark paintings in which the absence of light is masterfully rendered. Kudos to the production designer and cinematographer.
Likewise, the sound design here also takes center stage. I’m one of those people who’s quite sensitive to sound and music. In the cinema, some of the recorded action —- chains, doors slamming, etc — were so loud they were painful. I’m not sure if that was intentional, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t, particularly because the use of music was quite atmospheric and wonderfully used in certain moments. At times, the music was more like the texture of an aural painting than a composed piece — a tsunami of soundscapes, and this is one of the aspects of Is That You? that I love.
As I mentioned earlier, however, this film is a hard one to experience — due to its content. During the q & a, Sanchez said that he’d rather the audience draw their own conclusions about what is happening and why. I agree with that on the whole; it’s a much more satisfying experience to be immersed in and have your own thoughts about art, than to simply be told what is going on.
That said, anyone who’s an abuse survivor of any kind may find themselves triggered, and that’s not a word I use lightly — or hardly at all. There are scenes of violence and implied situations that are likely excurciating for most of us. Animal lovers may lose their minds over one scene in particular, which is quite horrifying. Sanchez is a talent to watch, even though on occasion, we may need to close our eyes to what he shows us.