A Successful Man
1985Director: Humberto Solas
Cast: Cesar Evora, Daisy Granados, Raquel Revuelta
raternal conflicts are so emotional, so indigenous, and so naturally dramatic that movies about them can very easily seem like cheap tricks. Moral struggles between characters are magnified by the incestuous family context. This isn't to say the conflicts between two brothers are stronger than they are between, say, any father and son, husband and wife—only different. Everything about their stories is deeply masculine, whether or not the characters want them to be. Every attempt they make to best one another alludes to a more primal battle, an urge to dominate their male equal of the family.
A Successful Man paints an ambitious family portrait in this regard, framing a turbulent period of Cuba's history (the decade preceding the communist revolution) around two brothers both trying to shape their society and family in different ways. Javier Arguelles is the more cunning of the two; he finds a way to secure himself a decent job on a family-run newspaper, while also quietly setting off bombs in movie theaters and dating a woman from a rival family. The whole family has an almost operatic sense of self-importance reminiscent of The Godfather. His brother Dario, meanwhile, is not nearly as socially graceful or politically street-smart. He argues with his family constantly and makes awkward attempts to slander to Batista government any way he can. His girlfriend even confesses to him that she can't live with someone juggling his life so poorly.
As time passes, Dario is exiled from the family and slowly wastes away as a failed revolutionary. The movie creates its most interesting character in allowing Dario to fail so spectacularly; it raises a similar point about convictions as Molina from Kiss of the Spider Woman, who stubbornly clings to his beliefs as his torturers slowly sap the life out of him. The movie, however, overlooks Dario as it follows his brother's ascension power, and leaves him as little more than a tragic archetype.
Javier, meanwhile, realizes that he can consolidate more of his power by becoming a politician. Slowly he takes over most of the family's property and businesses from him parents and, when his brother goes off to Spain in a gallant attempt to ward off fascism, he promptly seizes Dario's girlfriend as well. He grows to appreciate his work not as a form of political expression, as it began, but as a continuous means with which to secure his position in his family and government. Every few years he gets up to change the portrait behind his desk of whoever is president, but other than that he remains rooted behind his desk, comfortable in his bureaucracy.
“Governments stay and governments go, but the agencies, they always remain,” his friend comments shrewdly towards the beginning of the film. The movie asks, through their two stories, how one's convictions, radical or not, survive when nobody listens to them. Dario resorts to more desperate causes, fleeing the country and suffering poverty. Javier is more successful simply because he learns to blend in with the oligarchic culture. Both eventually suffer a tragic loss of their ideals.
The title of the movie is meant (somewhat bluntly) to ask the viewer who, exactly, is more successful. It's an interesting and unique effort, and often surprisingly eloquent for the movie's regrettably low budget. But A Successful Man could have addressed the historical climate and the family drama better if it had not resorted to simply setting the brothers up as two opposing clichés. By the end of the movie, there's barely any dialogue left because both brothers' struggles have become so formulaic. Really, after they stop speaking, it’s just a matter of time before each character exhausts their dramatic potential, and the movie grinds to a disappointing halt.
A Successful Man is now available on DVD from First Run Features.
By: Yannick LeJacq
Published on: 2007-08-09