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The Oceans Are the Real Continents (Los Océanos son Los Verdaderos Continentes)

Italian director captures five Cubans of three different generations as they patiently dwell in a town where "time doesn't exist" - bewitching piece of slow cinema opens Venice Days


Tommaso Santambrogio’s first feature film (presumably a continuation of his eponymous 2019 short) is as close as it gets to a documentary, without being promoted as such. The five lead actors play fictionalised versions of themselves, carrying out their duties as they normally would. The action takes place in the Cuban town of San Antonio de los Banos, home to the prestigious International School of Cinema and Television, where the director once studied. There are no allusions to the filmmaker’s history and the municipality’s strong connection with the film world, Santambrogio opting to focus entirely on the five locals instead.

Edith (Edith Ibarra) and Alexander (Alexander Diego), who were also featured in the 2019 short, are a young couple in the creative world. She is a marionette performer at the small (and yet very vibrant) local theatre. He is a former baseball player and a theatre performer, his African connections visible on both the colour of his skin and his swagger. Milagros (Milagros Llanes Martinez) is an elderly widow, her routine consisting of endlessly sweeping the floors or her large and precarious house, and reading letters from her late husband (he served in the military in Angola in the late ’70s, when Cuba sent troops supporting the Communist-aligned party in the country’s protracted Civil War). Frank (Frank Ernesto Lam) and Alain (Alain Alfonso González) are aged around 10, and they spend their time on the streets of San Antonio playing in abandoned sites and vehicles, or drinking guarapo (sugarcane juice). It’s only at the end of the film that we meet their mother, giving viewers the impression that they are street kids (in a country where street children do not exist).

The stories takes place in the present, yet they feel so timeless that you’d be forgiven for thinking this is the past. Alexander notes: “It seems time doesn’t exist in San Antonio”. The aesthetic choices also seem to suggest a time in the past: the entire movie is filmed in black and white, with the collapsing buildings, furniture and relics reeking of yesterday. Even the music is old: the film opens with Bola de Nieve’s Ay Amor, a Cuban classic from the 1940s. Milagros complaining that her husband departed 45 years earlier (the Cuban intervention in Angola started in 1975) is one of the few clues as to the film’s correct era. The only possible incoherence I noted was the sheer absence of mobile phones (it’s rare to see a Cuban without one such device attached to their hands nowadays, I noted it myself a couple of years ago on my first trip to the island).

This is a movie dotted with small and poignant poetic devices. Milagros washes and hangs her letter on a line, in an attempt to weave past and present together. Water is conspicuous, be that rain, a leak, an overflowing street drain, or the enigmatic ocean in the film title. Water is the fastest moving film character. The sound of the waves at the sea (San Antonio is not a coastal city) turn out to be something a lot more destructive. The images of the marionettes add a touch of metalanguage: the puppets provide some of the most emotional and visually arresting moments of the movie, demonstrating that Edith is very skilled at her trade.

The Oceans Are the Real Continents is a visually enrapturing piece of slow cinema with a very loose narrative arc. The sequences are very long, often captured in wide shot. The camera barely moves. The action is often laconic and protracted. At times, the images look like stills, until a subtle movement reveals otherwise. The film opens and closes with a slide show of pictures, blurring the relation between the moving image and photograph. Ultimately, this is a movie about memory, and the indefatigable desire to immortalise real and fictional characters. At one point Alexander begs Edith: “don’t forget me”. This plea seems to extend to audiences. A film to be contemplated, and stored safely in your heart.

The Oceans Are the Real Continents just premiered in Venice. It was the opening film of the Venice Days, an independent film festival section held in parallel to and in association with the 80th Venice Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 30-08-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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