Thursday, October 12, 2017

Film Review                                    Sergio and Sergei

By Gloria Geller

Director: Ernesto Daranas 
Sergio – Tomas Caos
Sergei- Hector Noas
Peter  – Ron Perlman

A fictional account based on a factual situation.

Story line - In 1991 when the USSR collapsed, a cosmonaut, Sergei, was alone on the Mir space station for a three month period.  Except the mission kept being extended because the country that sent him into space no longer existed and the Russian Federation that inherited the program didn’t have the money to bring him down.

The story of what happened is narrated some 25 years later by Mariana, the daughter of Sergio, a Cuban professor of Marxism who is also a ham radio operator.  The fall of the Soviet Union greatly affected Cuba which lost the support of the Soviet Union that had kept it afloat.  Sergio is struggling to keep himself, his 5 year old precocious daughter and his mother on his salary. Sergio rides his bike through the streets of a Havana whose buildings and streets are frozen in time looking more like the 1940s and 1950s than 1990s.  Sergio who had studied Marxist theory in Russia teaches it at the university, a subject which, even in Cuba is quickly losing its appeal.  We get the feeling that the job is somewhat tenuous and that the family’s situation is precarious.

Ham radio operators in Cuba had to have official recognition of the state to operate on certain radio waves only.  They were under the supervision of a security official and could be monitored and lose their licenses to operate should they break the rules.  At first we see Sergio operating a primitive set using Morse code only.  He is in touch with an American journalist, Peter, who is rabidly anti-communist and who is himself on the radar of the CIA for following and writing about problems related to NASA.  Needless to say, Sergio is operating outside of the parameters allowed to him and we soon realize that he is being spied upon by one of the other ham radio operators especially after Sergio receives a gift from Peter of a new radio, some money and a cosmonaut doll for Mariana, all of which with the exception of the doll are confiscated by the state.

Sergio doesn’t tell this to Peter but he finds an old set that had belonged to his father, who had also been a ham radio operator, repairs it and is now able to speak directly to Peter.  He also starts to receive signals from other sources, in particular, from a Russian cosmonaut, Sergei, who is stuck in space circling the globe with no idea when he will be brought back to earth, not realizing that the USSR has fallen until a colleague informs him that when he returns it will be to the Russian Federation.  Sergei is anxious to return in time for his wife’s birthday.  He also encounters problems which he must fix on the space station when a meteor hits the station and knocks out some of the equipment.

Sergio and Sergei begin communicating with one another.  Sergio provides support to Sergei becoming more and more concerned about Sergei’s situation and offers to help him.  Sergei realizes he will have to go outside the station to make repairs without ground support and asks Sergio to stay with him as he leaves the station to fix the problem.  Meanwhile the ham operator who is spying/monitoring Sergio is trying to get him expelled from the ham operators’ organization, closing down his connections to the outside world.

Sergio and Peter have a falling out once Peter realizes that Sergio is not a miserable Cuban unhappy under Marxist rule but is a proponent of Marxism.  Peter drops out of their conversations just as Sergio realizes that he has to get Peter’s help to bring Sergei back to earth.

This is an enjoyable film that presents us with dilemmas we may never have thought of such as what happens to someone such as a cosmonaut floating in space when the country in this case, the USSR, ceases to exist.  I was also pleasantly surprised that the Cuban writers and director of this film presented not only the problems that Cubans experienced economically with the fall of the Soviet Union but also raises questions about the politics of the country.  Sergio’s mother, in particular, sees her son, as his father before him, as idealists, while she is skeptical about the politics and very practical about the need to work outside the system in order to survive.  Even Sergio finds himself engaged in clandestine activities in order to keep the household going.

I saw the film at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival just after a hurricane hit Cuba. The director was not able to attend the showing of the film as he could not get out of Cuba because Hurricane Irma had devastated the country.

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