The documentary film Letters to Eloisa, about a revered, obscured Cuban writer and his fraught relationship with the Cuban government, tells the story of one man on an island. But director Adriana Bosch’s tale of José Lezama Lima, whose gorgeous, complex writing was hailed internationally even as the author, who allied and then broke with the Revolution, was crushed by the State, is an essential Cuban tragedy. In Cuba the phrase cortando flores (cutting flowers) ) is shorthand for the government’s destruction of someone or something wonderful because its beauty is seen as dangerous. What happened to Lezama is a prime example.
Lezama and his artistic and intellectual peers turned to Cuban culture, literature, art and family as the essence of Cubanidad – in part because the corrupt politics and government of pre-Revolutionary Cuba failed them. But as Bosch shows in this poignant, revealing documentary, part of the Miami Film Festival, the Revolutionary system that initially gave hope to Lezama and many others turned out to be still more destructive. He was made into a political pariah, prohibited from publishing, his books banned. He ended his life in isolation, as the country that he loved and was essential to his identity and his art rejected and tried to erase him. When the lights came up after the Festival’s sold out screening of Letters to Eloisa at Little Havana’s Tower Theater last Sunday, many people around me were weeping.
The title refers to the letters that Lezama wrote regularly to his sister Eloisa, who left the island in 1961 to live in exile in the United States. He seems to have poured out his heart, his trials and his doubts to her. “If there is no freedom there is no poetry,” he writes to her in one. “If there is no freedom, there is no truth.”
Bosch skillfully mixes the personal and the intellectual, weaving together the story of Lezama’s family, literary life, and closeted gay sexuality, with events in Cuba and the impact of his work. She had unprecedented access to Lezama’s letters, family photos and archives; interviews Cuban writers who knew Lezama, scholars of Cuban history and culture, and adds the literary star power of Mario Vargas Llosa. Actor Alfredo Molina narrates. Bosch mixes in lush, sepia-toned re-enactments (directed by Maria Bures) of Lezama’s family life and the homoeroticism of Paradiso, his most famous novel. The movie is poignant and passionate, redolent of the seductive romanticism that surrounds Cubanidad; and also a nuanced political history.
Born in 1910, Lezama was raised in an upper-class family that scraped by in genteel poverty after his father, a military officer, died. Asthmatic and sickly, he retreated from the island’s chaotic, corrupt public life to literature and poetry, and with other artists and writers founded and headed an idealistic, influential cultural journal, Origines, which lasted from 1944-1956. Though his sister and family fled, Lezama was initially an enthusiastic participant in the Revolution, believing it would support culture, and was part of the official state cultural apparatus. (Oddly, though the film centers on Lezama’s letters to his sister, we don’t see her till the end of the film, nor get to know her or why their relationship was so important to him.)
But the 1966 publication of Paradiso, Lezama’s most famous work, which contained an intensely homoerotic chapter – even as the Cuban government made being gay a crime – put his position in jeopardy. For a time in the 60’s the Cuban literati thought they could remain independent. That ended when the poet Jose Padilla, whose work criticized the government, was imprisoned, reappearing in an infamous 1971 televised Stalinist show trial in which he denounced his work and named counter-revolutionary collaborators, including Lezama. Even as Paradiso was translated and hailed as a masterpiece internationally (the New York Times Sunday Book Review gave it a rave review), and Lezama was welcomed to the pantheon of important Latin American writers, he was turned into an outcast in Havana. His books were removed from circulation, he could no longer publish, friends stopped visiting. When he died in 1976, at 66, it was front-page news in Europe – but a tiny item on the inside of Granma.
The film moves on to Lezama’s resurrection. In the groundbreaking movie Fresa y Chocolate, which marked the beginning of the end of official repression of gays in Cuba, the gay character, pointing to a picture of Lezama next to one of Jose Marti, calls him a great Cuban artist. Lezama’s house, we learn, has been turned into a museum – even if his books are still hard to find. (In Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica online, there’s no mention of his shameful treatment by the state.)
Letters to Eloisa ends ambivalently. Lezama’s work lives on, acknowledged by writers and scholars, an enduring expression of something essential in Cuban culture. But we’ll never know what he might have done if he hadn’t been cut off at the height of his powers and recognition. Cutting flowers, indeed.