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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2002
You want happiness? Well, get in line
By KAORI SHOJI
When in Cuba, do as the Cubans do: Get in line. So "Lista de espera (The Waiting List)," a small but joyous gem with utopian overtones, informs us. Juan Carlos Tabio, codirector of 1993's internationally acclaimed "Fresa y chocolate," was finally able to make this feature after seven long years. As can be imagined, the Cuban film industry is not exactly thriving, and the amount of red tape he had to cut through was enough to entangle anyone. And of course, he had to wait in lines. But the film is definitely worth the wait.
Which brings us to the subject of lines and this question: What is your threshold of endurance? In Tokyo, for instance, lines are everywhere, but they usually move quickly and cause minimal pain, except in front of ramen shops in Ogikubo. If you live in New York, the lines at pizza parlors and cash machines can deplete your white blood cell count but still aren't long enough to kill. In London, a friend maintains one can grow old while queuing for cappuccino.
After "Lista de espera," however, you realize that your previous experiences of waiting were not waiting at all, but something infinitely easier and more pleasant. Like dozing in a wicker chair on a sunny afternoon, under the shade of a mulberry tree or some such.
Emilio (Vladimir Cruz) quits his job as an engineer so he can go back to work on his father's farm in Santiago. He packs his bags, says goodbye to his boss and hurries off to the bus terminal. So far, nothing is amiss. Emilio is in good spirits. But one look at the terminal and his expression immediately changes into one of tragic resignation. There are over 100 tired people there with huge amounts of luggage, and they've been waiting for the past two days.
Sighing, Emilio says the most oft-repeated phrase in Cuba: "Who's the last person in line?" Cubans always ask this question to acquaint themselves with the four or five people waiting before them, to ensure against cut-ins and other disruptions. Only then can they relax, go buy the paper (where there's another line) or head to the bathroom (more lines).
Even when a bus manages to arrive, it's always packed. The number of seats available is announced over the loudspeaker: "Uno." Naturally everyone is disgusted, most of all at the sausage rolls, which are the only food available at the kiosk -- and even those run out. Mothers with babies, fathers with small children, old ladies with arthritis -- they must all wait on hard wooden benches without a hope. A blind man called Rolando (Jorge Perugorria) comes in with a big black bag. His blindness means he gets priority seating when the next bus comes. If it ever does.
Emilio finds distraction in the form of the lovely Jacqueline (Thaimi Alvariño), who is on her way to Havana where a fiance is waiting. Emilio is crushed, but nevertheless makes timid advances and she meets him halfway. By this time, it's pitch-dark and those who have not gone home fall asleep on benches. Emilio then suggests that everyone cooperate in fixing a wrecked bus abandoned in the yard. But first, they must convince the terminal master and other officials on the premises who oppose this as "not being approved by the authorities." Public opinion wins the day and everyone sets to repairing the bus, but their efforts are in vain.
Despite this setback, the project develops solidarity and friendship. People start sharing out what food they have. Even the tight-fisted Rolando parts with the black-market lobsters he had stashed in his bag. After the meal, people start dancing. Jacqueline gets the bright idea to paint the terminal to make it more beautiful. Several others start growing a vegetable garden nearby. When the next bus finally rolls around several days later, no one is willing to leave.
As he did with "Fresa y chocolate" (a story of gay love in Cuba, where homosexuality is still frowned upon), Tabio here highlights the indomitable optimism of the Cuban national character. What starts as a film about waiting for the bus becomes one about the act of utopian-society building.
Party-slogan optimism pushed to extremes? Maybe. And, of course, Emilio and Jacqueline finally hit it off and become the life-force of this new community that, over time, becomes totally self-sufficient and artistically inclined. If only Thomas More and Karl Marx were around to see this. All the ills of communism are eliminated (apathy, rigid bureaucracy, backwardness) and the ideals realized (equality of labor, fraternity, the fostering of art and individuality).
To cap it all, no one has to wait in line for anything: wonderful. With this single film, the red of the communist flag goes all rosy.