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Ursula and Cornelio - SCENT OF OAK by Rigoberto Lopez at UNESCO

SCENT OF OAK by Rigoberto Lopez at UNESCO

Jorge Perrugoria and Lia Chapman: ROBLE DE OLOR, by Rigoberto Lopez.

This new travelling film showcase from the Caribbean region, chaired by Cuban filmmaker, Rigoberto LOPEZ, at UNESCO, recently showed a selection of  features  and shorts chosen among 21 participating Caribbean countries.

Under the umbrella of UNESCO to promote creativity, language and cultural diversity, supported by the Cuban Institute of Art and  Cinematographic Industry and Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the  
event first launched from St. Kitts and Nevis.

Object is to promote Caribbean filmmaking and explore that region's 
population, culture and issues.
Spearheading the UNESCO showcase was the Cuban historical romantic saga SCENT OF OAK / ROBLE DE OLOR
directed by the Itinerant Festival President, Cuban cineaste Rigoberto López.
The flm is inspired by real persons, a mixed couple who in the 1800's in Cuba, set up one of the most important café plantations on the Island -  Cornelio Souchay, an idealistic German businessman, portrayed by popular actor Jorge Perugorria, and Ursula Lambert (Lia Chapman), a Creole  from the Island of Hispanola, later divided up into Haiti and Dominican Republic, as an independent textile shop merchant.

Their fates cross paths when Souchay spots her around town, finding out where she works and then purchases some cloth in her store. It is clear from first glance, that he is strongly besotted with the pround and elegant Lambert, pursuing her around the colonial city until she succumbs to his genteel courtship and 'old world'charm.

The street-wise Ursula coaches him into staking their (promising) luck on the lucrative coffee trade and establishing a plantation named Angerona, after a pantheistic divinity she believes in (although she frequents the Catholic institutions at hand, as well).
Their premise is to create a sort of utopia farm where black workers and slaves are treated with respect and encouraged to cultivate themselves by forming an classical orchestra proficient in Hayden, Mozart and the great European composers. In the way it is run, the observance of humane principles by Cornelio Souchay and Ursula who physically pitch in with the work at all stages too, the endeavour blossoms into a successful and happy venture for all, where the blacks are given hope for the future.
But envy and greed arouses in power figures of the local council and neighbours due to the unconvential nature of the project and soon runs afoul with local farmers, Spanish bureaucrats and even members of Souchay's own family - an unsufferably snobbish blonde female cousin visiting from Germany, who turns out to be the worst imaginable pest, all betraying his friendship, hospitality and all out for his and Ursula's hide.

"The film is a metaphor", explains the director. It is not to be taken
realistically and those who only perceive it as a film against racism, 
miss out on other important messages it vehicules such as pettiness, 
persecution of non-conformity with what society deems the norm or 'model role' and stereotyped way of behaving : intolerance.
Both the camera takes and music (by the super-talented Cuban Vitier brothers) produce a refined and polished ambiance of an old Colonial country setting,  with breathtaking photography of the slaves mainly dressed in white, playing Hayden in an orchestra in a cave with onlooker workers and the corrupt 'rich guys' perched on ledges on the rocks, contemplating them with awe.

Some details, however, border on pure camp such as when Bertha Hesse, Cornelio's cousin, lures a young black gardener into her bedroom.The bare-torsoed, broad-shouldered slave gleams in the dark, his muscles oozing with packed-on oil as he steathily creeps up the stairs.

Near the end, as belligerent bailiffs sent by the court to witness if the black orchestra is real, progressively massacre with a single gunshot, the musicians playing Hayden, seeing them fall one after the other, with no reaction nor resistance, is a tad difficult to stomach.
After a career of documentary filmmaking, "Scent of an Oak" is  Lopez Pego's  first feature film - on the line of the historical Cuban blockbuster with a strong political message : intolerance of cultural differences and racism.

This theme of Cuba's national identity is a subject frequently dealt 
with in that country and has been previously explored by greats such as Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Humberto Solas.
The film comes full cycle again at the closing sequence when we once more see the two modest tombstones standing next to the solid oak tree, which is bleeding now, as the light casts down on the demise of the Angerona plantation and vanquishing of its occupants.
With this first feature, Rigoberto Lopez, here signs a meaningful and universal look at the past, inviting us to review our own individual intolerances and perhaps do something about them.

Helen Dobrensky at UNESCO, April 2008, Festival Itinerante del Caribe.

Ursula and Cornelio - SCENT OF OAK by Rigoberto Lopez at UNESCO
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