Puerto Rican flick ‘Simone’ leaves locals speechless
By Peggy Ann Bliss
There is a difference between a film and a novel. The latter can -- is almost expected to -- reveal the writer’s vagaries, phobias and philosophy in order to bolster the storyline and characters, or at least give substance to a “piece of literature,” which most authors hope will outlive them.
A film, on the other hand, is meant primarily to entertain, to inspire debate. Of course, many great directors have achieved immortality. Think Bergman, Fellini, Buñuel, Lee, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Bigelow, Godard, Truffaut, Wertmuller, Varda. … The list goes on.
These artists of the screen do more than entertain, but novelists -- especially those who write it with a capital N-must provide substance. A film, by its very essence, must be succinct. After all, you can’t turn back the page to see if you understood. A bedside companion celluloid is not.
That was one thing that struck this reviewer after having been exposed to two magnificent versions of “Simone”: the first, a 2013 prize-winning novel by Eduardo Lalo, the second a high-brow thriller cum romance film by local director Betty Kaplan, who is on her way to joining that upper-echelon trio of women just alluded to.
The film had its world premiere recently in San Juan and is now playing in island theaters.
Cuban-born Lalo, who calls himself Puerto Rican, has many esoteric beefs with his beloved island, including its over-cemented landscape, its racism, and xenophobia, its limited cultural impact and lack of identity. The most prevalent theme is the narrator’s ennui and restlessness in a place where “nothing seems to happen,” and which has trapped him in a meaningless relationship.
Some of this baggage comes through in Kaplan’s version, but no one really cares. Because the mystery and the love affair in “Simone,” the movie, make for a supremely erotic film (R rated).
It’s all there in the book: the characters, the lovemaking, the dialogue, but in the film it is, well, visual.
During the almost two hours this absorbing film lasts, viewers can observe some of the author’s opinions about immigration, island politics and academic mediocrity, but at this point, their social relevance scale is no longer functioning. The eroticism is unlike anything this writer has ever seen in a career of over 50 years.
The movie, starring Puerto Rican actor Esai Morales and Chinese actress Kunjue Li in the lead roles, also presents the fascinating layers of oppression, loneliness, sexual violence, mystery and loss. Even lesbianism, the main -- but not only -- barrier to true bliss in this film.
There is no lesbian sex in the film, but female homosexuality is a definite “leitmotiv.” Some purists might dismiss this movie for its oversimplified sociological premise about sexual orientation.
Puerto Rican musician Geronimo Mercado’s score is but one element giving the film a first-rate quality. Sonnel Velázquez’s cinematography, including breathtaking views of Puerto Rico, is top notch. The unique animation scenes, interspersed throughout the film, are an important contribution from Sagrado Corazon University’s 30 Studio.
Kaplan, who moved to Puerto Rico seven years ago, has created several Latin-themed movies in her long career, including the Venezuelan blockbuster epic “Doña Bárbara” and a television film based on Puerto Rican writer Esmeralda Santiago’s “Almost a Woman.”
Kaplan, who also wrote the script for “Simone,” overcame years of delays due to hurricanes, financing and a worldwide pandemic. She was ably assisted by iconic design director Bonita Huffman and costume designer Suzanne Krim.
The erotic film is a rare genre in mainstream theaters. Two excellent ones come to mind: “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and “Monster’s Ball,” neither of which this writer has seen.
One has to go back to 1972 for Marlon Brando’s groundbreaking film “Last Tango in Paris,” which has some plot elements in common with “Simone.”
With a judicious fidelity to characters, dialogue and setting, New York-born, Venezuelan-raised Kaplan has written and directed this groundbreaking film, which has everything for a bestseller: sex, love, illusion, physical beauty and ambient splendor, with just enough social comment to make it relevant.
Puerto Rican actress Zoribel Fonalledas has the role of the antagonist, which she plays to a “T.” Veteran international actresses Caterina Murino, from Italy, and Joanna Cassidy, from the United States, have cameo roles. Two comic touches are provided by Puerto Rican actresses: the agile Melanie Ramos as a virtuoso skateboarder, and Nereida de la Torre as an aging, but elegant, secretary to a cranky boss. This novice character actress brings down the house with an uncharacteristic Puerto Rican touch.
Excellent support is provided by Puerto Rican actors Aris Mejías, Braulio Castillo Jr. and Bruno Irizarry.
The film ends, as it must, leaving a clear moral that the hardest part of love is letting go; and putting the beloved’s needs above everything.