An adaptation of an anti-slavery novel by Anselmo Suárez y Romero, the Cuban film El Otro Francisco (The Other Francisco) treats its loaded subject in two, very different ways. The first is a more or less straight adaptation of the novel, a host of Romantic clichés about a tragic love affair between two house slaves. The second approach broadens the story’s scope in a Marxist critique to include uglier matters ignored by the author. This double method enables director and co-writer Sergio Giral to highlight economic and political structures supporting slavery, thereby exposing the ideological limitations and self-deceptions of liberal humanism.
I saw the film for the first time a couple of years after its release (1974), and it has stuck with me. At the risk of sounding hopelessly “bourgeois” and callous, however, I’ve remembered it less for its powerful subject than because of the formal possibilities Giral’s approach suggests. The film spares us very little. The slaves’ conditions are horrendous, and their masters are insensitive brutes. It is one of the cleverer aspects of Giral’s method, however, that he uses the novel’s melodramatic overheating to engage viewers, even as he brings the temperature down to demonstrate the socioeconomic realities underpinning the horror. By exploiting easy outrage (and no doubt prurience), Giral can keep viewers interested when dealing with the tougher task of examining the rationale around slavery.
He provides this perspective with occasional observations from a deadpan narrator and through interrogations by an English agent character, “Richard Madden,” who is investigating whether the Spaniards are honoring an agreement to control slavery in their colonies. Madden’s questions help to situate the liberal attitude historically. He does not ask out of humanist concern, but in sheer economic calculation. Are Cuban plantations an investment-worthy endeavor? Is slavery necessary to their function? If so, Madden expresses only the mildest criticism about how the slaves are treated. If not, then slavery should be eliminated for no better reason than its inefficiency.
Madden’s objectifying logic is the flip side of the emancipators’ good intentions, no matter how sincerely held. Suarez Romero is fêted for creating a novel that argues against slavery, but the terms of it are emotional and fail to confront political reality. He even admits (in a faux interview) that a real slave would never behave as his character does. Rather than examining the causes of the situation, he offers a good cry. Since that sympathy cannot substitute for a comprehensive understanding, it turns slavery into an exercise in voluptuous self-pity.
For all the brutalities and economic determinism, the film tries to end on an “up” note by depicting a slave rebellion which we are told was one of countless others that led eventually to Cuban freedom. It is the film’s weakest moment because the forced note of teleological liberation betrays its own calculation. If Suárez y Romero was blinded by his ideology, Giral and company clearly have their own blinkers.