Reina y Rey: A Simple Story in the Special Period

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Reina y Rey (1994) follows a lonely old woman in Cuba whose only companion is her small black dog, Rey. When the dog disappears, she spirals into a depression and questions her place in the country. However, when her former bosses visit from Miami, she realizes she belongs on the island.

I previously discussed director Julio García Espinosa in my blog about El Mégano, the 1955 blueprint to Cuban revolutionary filmmaking which he co-directed with legendary filmmaker, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. His debut caused shockwaves across the nation and would be seen as one of the early precursors of Latin America’s imperfect cinema. Today, we revisit the director on his last film nearly forty years later. During this time, Espinosa saw Cuba revolutionize and had to contend with where he fit within this new country, making a new kind of filmmaker with the same revolutionary roots. It’s apparent when we see the different ways Italian Neorealism has influenced his work. El Mégano’s focus on the despondent state of the rural workers in the country recalls some of Roberto Rossellini’s harshest work. Again, in Reina y Rey, the Italian Neorealist influence is obvious but much different. 

Umberto D.

Much of Reina y Rey’s plot comes from the Vittorio de Sica classic, Umberto D. whichtells the story of a poor elderly man in Rome who is facing eviction with his only companion being his trusted dog Flike. Though it is universally praised today by Italian and international critics alike, it was not given such a warm reception upon its initial release in Italy. Like the other neorealist films of the 1940s, de Sica depicted a society that left behind its weaker members and forced ordinary citizens to make tragic ultimatums. But by 1952 when this film was released, Italians were tired of seeing their country depicted as a tragic, rubble-filled nation. Conservative president Giulio Andreotti even declared that De Sica rendered a very bad service to the country and so 1952 became the year that the neorealist movement died.

Reina y Rey was made at an unprecedented time in Cuban history. The 1990s also known as the Special Period saw the fall of the Soviet Union and therefore many of the nation’s allies. They faced the worst economic crash since the revolution and those loyal to the cause felt it would be treasonous to spotlight its troubles for fear that Western audiences might feel vindicated in what they felt was a flawed state. But as De Sica did before him, Espinosa chose to stick to his convictions and make a movie that didn’t decry his home country as a hellscape but portrayed the real dilemmas faced by regular Cubans every day during this tough time. It’s not propaganda on any side and Espinosa remains ambivalent on who to blame and equally mixes a sense of pain and hope.

This contradictory mix is present in the first scene when we hear a radio announcer cheerfully declare that there will most likely be a few blackouts due to weather and then plays the song “Yolanda” by Pablo Milanés allowing our protagonist, Reina to wake up with a smile. All the horrible ills of the country are revealed with Espinosa’s dark humor. When Reina worries that the pound may have taken her dog, she is reassured when the canine gas chamber has in fact run out of gas to use. When any societal problem is addressed in the first half of the film, it is always through Reina’s dog. Her problems arise when she has to decide whether to rent a room in her house in order to buy food for her dog.

Reina y Rey

Reina speaks to her Rey as though he were her husband, and like many others around her, she laments the passage of time. She is extremely nostalgic and talks of her love for old films and definitely not new ones and even takes Rey on an abandoned train and imagines that this rusty old machine takes off as she smiles and waves goodbye. She is really nostalgic for her prosperous revolutionary country. However, the instability of her nation and her dog leaves her crippled. Upon Rey’s first disappearance, her country becomes unbearable. She sees dogs fight amongst the garbage and the sight of a lonely old man and his dog brings her to tears. She has high highs being able to spend joyous, sunny mornings with Rey and low lows when all alone her only companion left, the TV, leaves with another blackout. 

The future is also a scary prospect. When Reina walks on the Malecón with Rey, a prostitute goes to feed it, representing that the only way to be able to earn enough to feed her beloved partner would be to debase herself in the illegal economy. Still, Espinosa complicates this image, making the prostitute a genuinely helpful and caring presence rather than an unmannered and vulgar woman. All of this leads Reina to finally consider the unthinkable. She will have to enter the informal economy and rent a room. Even at her lowest, Reina is conflicted about who to blame. In two back-to-back scenes, friends offer her the same advice: either rent a room or leave abroad. One, however, blames the state and the other blames the US and its embargo.

The issue of who to blame comes to the fore when Reina’s old bosses, Carmen and Emilio, unexpectedly return from Miami and the stark contrasts between their lives and hers are revealed. They lure Reina to their side with the promise of material things like dresses and nights out on the town as well as stability and an end to loneliness in their Miami home. With Rey missing and showing no signs of returning, the offer is tantalizing. But soon their proposition starts to appear hollow. Their unannounced visit is justified on their part by calling it “our house”, but soon after Carmen changes “our” to “my”. Less of a guest and more of an invader, they even take her bed. And when friends ask desperately if they can help them immigrate, they offer very little encouragement and say that Cubans exaggerate a lot and it can’t be that bad. It becomes clear later that the only reason they want to help Reina immigrate is so they can exploit her good habits and turn her into their full-time maid.

Reina y Rey

Their life in Miami is fraught, to say the least. As Espinosa puts it, “All people in Miami do is think about people over here, while all people here do is think about people in Miami. Nobody’s happy.” Carmen’s trip to the Tropicana reveals her to have an unquenchable thirst for the days of Cuba’s capitalist past but also for her own past life on the island. When others complain about the now ruinous Havana, she retorts that Havana is still Havana. Though her husband Emilio is less enamored with the island than she is, he still longs to restart an affair he had with a friend of Reina’s. This cycle of unhappiness only comes to an end when Reina has a reason to hope for a reunion with her Rey. Just as it seems her old bosses have won her over, she catches a glimpse of her dog at the Capitolio. Though he scurries off before she can get a good look, it has changed her attitude.

The following night while Carmen recites all the good things she can find in Miami, Reina reveals, to the outrage of Carmen, that her name is not Reina but like the Pablo Milanés song, her name is Yolanda. Her name reveal seems to also reveal her revolutionary identity or a kind of guerilla name. She has hope that the Cuba of yesterday will return, as will Rey. She will not be going to Miami much to the dismay of Carmen who calls her ungrateful. The film ends just as it began. Reina is standing outside as a young vendor asks if she is waiting for her Rey and she replies that she is. This time, however, tears start to steam down her face. Just because she decided Miami was no place for her does not mean she isn’t still lonely. But her loneliness has more depth than the glamour and empty gestures of Miami.

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