Puerto Rico: new presence in film. `La Gran Fiesta': smartly written, smoothly acted

THE movie world is suddenly a richer place. For the first time, Puerto Rico has entered the international film circuit. Its vehicle is a stylish picture called ``La Gran Fiesta,'' which has been attracting notice at film festivals in places as different as Miami, Utah, Washington, and Havana. Movies have been made in Puerto Rico before, but most have been cheap exploitation pictures. ``La Gran Fiesta'' is different - a smartly written, smoothly acted film that moves elegantly between comedy and drama. It's also the first to reach out for a non-Puerto Rican audience.

The story of ``La Gran Fiesta'' takes place in 1942, when the nearby United States has just entered World War II. It's a time of change for Puerto Rico, in its way of life and its relationship to the US.

The film's main setting is the grand casino in San Juan, which the Americans are about to take over as a military base. During its last evening of social glamour, leading citizens of San Juan come together there for a great ball. They're a mixed bunch of characters: fussy conservatives, hopeful liberals, young romantics, and old schemers. But all of them have axes to grind regarding their nation's future and their own places in that future.

As the fiesta proceeds, they interact in all kinds of ways - comically, sadly, ironically. In the background, meanwhile, a dance orchestra plays the best music score this side of the big-band era. The clarinet solos alone are worth the movie's admission price.

``La Gran Fiesta'' was made by Zaga Films, a Puerto Rican company. Its director, Marcos Zurinaga, and its writer, Ana Lydia Vega, are both Puerto Rican, and so is most of the cast, except for American actor E.G. Marshall and a couple of others. One small part is played by Puerto Rico's leading international star, Raul Julia, whose credits range from the tragic ``Kiss of the Spider Woman'' to the comic ``One From the Heart.''

In a recent interview here, Mr. Julia told me he lent his time and talent to ``La Gran Fiesta'' because he's convinced it could be the start of a major Puerto Rican film industry. Not only will it pave the way for additional serious-minded Puerto Rican productions, in his view, but it may also call attention to the island as a location for foreign filmmakers to use.

``Other filmmakers - even Hollywood filmmakers - can come to Puerto Rico,'' he says, ``and take advantage of certain breaks we have there.'' These include beneficial tax arrangements, a good climate for outdoor shooting, and varied terrain. ``We have to bring this to the consciousness of moviemakers all over the world,'' Julia says.

As for Puerto Rico's own aspiring filmmakers, gone are the days when ``making it'' meant heading straight for the US, as Julia acknowledges he himself did. ``We don't feel we have to dream of going to Hollywood,'' he says. ``Now we have a feature-film industry in Puerto Rico.''

If his country does become a substantial presence on the cinematic map, Julia feels ``La Gran Fiesta'' will have done important pioneering work. It's the first Puerto Rican film in which ``commercial attraction has [intermingled] with artistic sensitivity,'' he asserts. ``And this is the first time we've gone into a breakthrough situation in other countries.''

Julia sees a key cultural benefit in Puerto Rican filmmaking: the opportunity to correct false impressions the world may have about his country. ``La Gran Fiesta'' makes a strong contribution, he says.

``It shows the variety of people that we have in Puerto Rico,'' he explains. ``Many people think Puerto Ricans are a race. Even sometimes in the news you hear, `whites, blacks, and Puerto Ricans.' But that's not so. We are a nationality. We have immigrants from all over the world, like the United States. We have a mixture of people from Europe, from Africa, from India, the Orient. ... You see this very clearly in the film, and that's important for people to see.''

The decision to set ``La Gran Fiesta'' in the past, during the early 1940s, was made for similar reasons - to convey a sense of Puerto Rico's rich heritage and show how it's still relevant today.

Too often, Julia says, films about Puerto Rico have been ``all related to drugs and very poor New York neighborhoods.'' The makers of ``La Gran Fiesta'' wanted to depict a kind of traditional Puerto Rican culture, an ambiance ``that still exists in Puerto Rico today'' and makes a strong contrast with cheaper, more common depictions of Puerto Rico.

``It's changing the kind of image that's always portrayed in television and films,'' continues Julia, ``of the drug addict and the pusher and the criminal.'' What comes across in ``La Gran Fiesta,'' he says, is not only the dignity of Puerto Rico's heritage but a sense of ``the quality and tastes'' of the people who made ``La Gran Fiesta'' itself. ``We know about other things than a switchblade and selling you a gram of coke.''

Marcos Zurinaga, who directed ``La Gran Fiesta,'' is a prizewinning filmmaker whose previous work has been mostly documentaries, commercials, and promotional movies. He says ``La Gran Fiesta'' is his attempt to make a specifically Puerto Rican kind of film. ``It portrays the Puerto Rican society in a period of transition,'' he says. ``It portrays different sectors. But most important, it gives a Puerto Rican perspective on our own history.''

This perspective has been lacking in the past, Mr. Zurinaga feels, because of the dearth of meaningful Puerto Rican movies. His ambition as a filmmaker is to share it with people in other countries.

``To create a film industry in Puerto Rico,'' he says, ``we have to search for a film language - a form that will allow us to tell our own stories to other markets, other countries, other cultures. When this film is shown in Puerto Rico, it perhaps satisfies our national, local objective. But we definitely hope ... other countries will find it relevant. If they accept our films, [the films] will rise to a universal, international level. ... That's our main objective.

``We understand,'' he adds, ``that all cultural products - all cultural manifestations - have the possibility to keep going [across national boundaries]. There's never a frontier that limits a culture. In the past, we [Puerto Ricans] have received a lot of influences from other cultures. Now we feel we have to go out and influence other cultures.''

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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