“The Condemned” is Roberto Buso-Garcia’s sophomore feature. His first was 1999’s “Paging Emma.” Buso-Garcia learned his trade reviewing hundreds of films as a film programmer for HBO.
“The Condemned” is unusual in several ways. It’s a Puerto Rican horror film. It made it into US release. It’s a modern thriller that relies more on emotional suspense than on special effects to make you shiver, and it’s a thriller with roots in Spanish-language literature.
Ana, the beautiful daughter of a once-famous doctor, travels to the remote town of Rosales, Puerto Rico – her late mother’s hometown. It was there that her father met and married her mother and opened his first free clinic for cancer research more than forty years ago.
She plans to commemorate her dying father’s legacy by converting their family’s abandoned mansion into a museum honoring his achievements. With the help of the mansion’s devoted caretaker, Ana begins the transformation only to be confronted by the secrets of the past. Her presence is unwelcome by the townspeople and the house itself, awakening dark forces that should have remained forever buried.
A Puerto Rican Movie
In the last decade we have started to see one or two films a year from Puerto Rico, but they are still rare. “The Condemned” goes against stereotype by setting the horror genre on the island. People go to Puerto Rico to enjoy the good life on the sun and the sand. They don’t go there to be scared, but this movie scares you.
Scary movies today have become over reliant on computer effects and visual jolts to make you jump out of your seat. Atypically, “the Condemned” operates on the emotional level to generate its chills.
The genre’s bumps in the night tell you that something is wrong in the house and in the town, but you can’t quite tell what it is until the end. Some kind of unresolved issue is manifesting itself in the old mansion. Nobody in the town says much. Like the audience, they participate as silent observers. The lead character’s denial of who she is creates a chain of events that destroys the people she loves the most. Only when she accepts herself is the house and the town freed from the horrors of the past.
Part of the film’s tone is set by the classic Puerto Rican song, “Alma Adentro” (The Soul Inside) by Sylvia Rexach. It’s a melancholy and nostalgic song about lost love that finds its way into many elements of the soundtrack.
Literary and Film References
The story’s primary references include Carlos Fuentes’ story “Aura,” Julio Cortazar’s story “Casa tomada” and Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker.”
“Aura” from 1962 is the story of a young writer who takes a job preparing the memoirs of a widow’s husband, a general. The writer is attracted to her young niece. As he gets deeper into his research and falls in love with the niece, he finds himself transformed into the general and the niece transformed into the old woman.
“Casa Tomada” (House Taken Over) from 1944 is the story of an elderly brother and sister who move into their ancestral home. Unnamed entities begin taking over parts of the house and finally force the siblings to leave it.
“Stalker” is a 1979 Russian science fiction film about a mysterious room that grants people their wishes. The twist is that the wishes that are granted are not necessarily the ones that are spoken, but rather true unconscious wishes.
All of these elements play into the story and knowing the background helps you understand it.
Why Go See the Condemned?
Go see “The Condemned” if you are Puerto Rican, from the Caribbean or like Puerto Rican culture. The bigger the box office, the more these films will get made.
If you are a fan of the horror genre, go see “The Condemned” to see how Buso-Garcia subtly builds emotional tension that draws you into the story.
If you study cinematography, go see “The Condemned,” to watch the impressive use of light and shadow to set the emotional tone, like Chiaroscuro in painting. Chiaroscuro is a style of shading that dominates tone more than color. It was first used in the arts by Leonardo da Vinci. Buso-Garcia uses Chiaroscuro to give you that creepy feeling. He told the opening night audience, “Usually you start light and get progressively darker. We started dark and got progressively darker.”
“The Condemned’s” subtext is that centuries of colonial domination can destroy a people’s identity and their very will to live. But in making this film Buso-Garcia proves that the chains of colonialism are now breaking. We look forward to seeing more of his work.
Q&A with director Roberto Buso-Garcia
Can you explain how you originally encountered your references – Carlos Fuentes “Aura,” Julio Cortazar’s “Casa Tomada” and tarkovsky’s “Stalker.” Was it in school or during research or how?
I first read “Aura” and “Casa tomada” in school. I’ve always been intrigued by Cortázar’s spellbinding use of language and how he mixes and pushes genre to create meaning. In “Aura” Fuentes creates an hypnotic effect through his use of the point of view while he creates a claustrophobic sense of doom inside a haunted house. The pacing of “Aura” and the sense of despair in “Casa tomada” have always fascinated me. Though I studied Tarkovsky in school, I didn’t see “Stalker” until recently. Our editor, David Franklin, suggested I see it after he read the script for the first time and heard me reference “Sacrifice” a few times. The creation of a different world, the pacing, the visual language are all so brilliantly unique in that film that we used it as a reference of how to depart from established forms.
Why did you so purposefully make a Puerto Rican film that was so different from the stereotypes of Puerto Rico?
I was striving to weave a tale about the effects of decades of denial and collective guilt, tied to a historical past. Thus, we created characters that had to work at the allegorical and dramatic level at the same time. I don’t like how Puerto Ricans are usually depicted in broad comedic strokes, as loud, colorful, over the top caricatures. Though the characters in our film are fictitious they are also representations of some types of Puerto Ricans in reality. Everyone kept their accents and mannerisms and the actors found ways of hitting the dramatic register required for the film without recurring to telenovela-like clichés.
How is audience reaction different between Puerto Rican Americans and Stateside Americans?
From an anecdotal standpoint, the difference has been in how they react to different aspects of the film. Perhaps it’s the difference in references, but we had audience in Puerto Rico react to the love story component of the film – maybe because some of them recognized the Sylvia Rexach song and it meant something more. In the US we’ve had more reactions to the socio-political aspects of the film. Interestingly, audiences in Puerto Rico didn’t reference the aspects of the movie that dealt with denial and coerced cooperation as much.
How did the chandelier represent the mother/ wife? It was only when the chandelier was broken that her illusions began to dissolve.
In a way, the chandelier was built as an exaggerated, distorted vision of a Christmas tree. The same way that Magdalena was in denial regarding her situation, she also thought she was helping her own town. It dominates a large empty space, very much like the emotional lives of some of these characters. And of course, it is a beacon of false light that hides the deeper truths of the house and of the characters themselves.
Why should people come see your film?
“The Condemned” is an exercise in sustained tension, where the story turns and reveals slowly build momentum and meaning and will reward audiences that like to pay attention to their films. It’s an entertaining slow burn, that dispenses with what other genre films deem as secrets early on in search of a deeper truth. It’s also a window into a different kind of filmmaking from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean: it proposes a different visual language, tone and meaning than other films from that region.