Last year, the Puerto Rican film Maldeamores (translated as Lovesickness) premiered at Tribeca Film Festival to a great reception, and after making the rounds of film festivals around the world, is finally being released in New York, Chicago and Miami. This comedy, directed by husband/wife Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz and Mariem Perez and produced by Benicio del Toro, explores love from its most tender moments, like a child’s first kiss, to the madness it can stir in our lives, such as infidelity, without the typical novela rosa we’ve come to expect from Latin American films. Or at least with a twist: in Maldeamores, clichés are consciously romanticized for the sake of humor and successfully so.
Set and shot entirely in Puerto Rico (in the towns of Isabela and Aguadilla), Maldeamores relies on three separate love stories like Amores Perros, but with a high dose of colloquial humor to portray the ups and downs of love. Luis Guzmán (Traffic) makes his Spanish (and Puerto Rican film) debut playing Ismael, a cheating husband driving his wife, Lourdes (the excellent Teresa Hernandez) to her mother’s funeral. Her hysterical wailing and incessant phone chatter with fellow grievers “no puedo creer que se nos fue la vieja,” she cries, pushes her son Ismaelito (Fernando Tarrazo) to ponder about the terrible timing of his grandmother’s death at the same time he’s developing his first crush on a cousin. Plus, Ismael is also dealing with some uncomfortable news of his own from his mistress, also part of the family.
On a different part of the island, Miguel (Luis Gonzaga, known for the popular theatre troupe Teatro Breve) proposes marriage to Marta (Dolores Pedro) a woman he knows very well….but only from riding on the bus every day. Marta, a bus driver, gives him a cold rejection, to which Miguel decides to hold the entire bus hostage, leaving amateur cops, priests and everyone’s typical “ay bendito” attitude to handle the situation. But the winner tale, and the most developed one, is the love triangle between los viejitos Flora, Pellín and Cirilo. Flora, played flawlessly by New York-based actress Silvia Brito, is still living with her ex-husband of 28 years, Cirilo (Chavito Marrero) when an unexpected visit from her daughter forces her to house yet another ex under the same roof. Pellín, (Miguel Angel Alvarez) wastes no time to put the moves on Flora, much to Cirilo’s dismay. And Flora puts both macho men in their place… until she’s ready to be re-awakened.
The film does a good job of capturing the idiosyncrasies of Puerto Rico, and Latin American humor in general, with plenty of “carajos” and over-the-tops dichos like “tan feo como tan franco” (Macho, Ismael’s inebriated brother,) and “Ay Cristo de los milagros, recibeme en tu santo pecho” (Lourdes) or “A los 70 andar en bata es como andar en panties” (Cirilo). Maldeamores’ cinematography and set design has a purposely retro- romantic feel, with obsessive attention to detail worthy of an Almodóvar film. The funeral scene shows an at-home velorio, with la muerta on a bed in her wooden house full of family members reciting the rosary. Flora’s house seems stuck in the 1940’s, and everything from the wallpaper, to the fridge and her jeans have flowers on them. The geriatric love nest also lacks a modern bathroom, as if this were normal in modern-day Puerto Rico (instead, there’s a much more pintoresque outhouse in the yard next to the roosters.) There are no shopping malls or highways in Maldeamores and all the cars are shiny, atemporal, brown and without AC. All these situations might be unlikely cliché, but they lend themselves for the hilarious image of a betrayed woman fighting a cousin as prayers are heard in the background. And so does the archaic shower outdoors where Pellín is the victim of Cirilo’s jealousy and a few arañazos from a rooster. The music varies, from reggaeton (but good one like Ñejo’s “No quiere novia”) to salsa and boleros, making the soundtrack (supervised by Cultura Profetica’s Omar Silva and Superaquello’s Eduardo Alegria, who also wrote original music) complimentary to each scene. But the true jewel is the question the films asks in the final scenes. Ismaelito’s innocent first peck and Flora’s re-awakening to life and her sexuality are as powerful as the sad image of Miguel still longing for Marta after the hostage debacle, or Ismael stealing Teresa’s television as he leaves her por la otra. This bittersweet (not sugarcoated) look at love at each one of its stages and how its power can easily jolt us with adrenaline or cause us much sorrow is what makes Maldeamores a triumph.
The movie itself is a little labor of love by first time feature film directors Ruíz and Perez, who studied in Chicago and Cuba respectively, and producer Luillo Ruíz, Carlitos’ brother. In fact, their production company is called “Pajaritos Preñaos” another Puerto Rican dicho which means “to dream of impossible things.” An impossible dream that became the first film to win a grant through Puerto Rico’s nascent Film Industry Corporation and a first for Maya Releasing, a new distribution company from legendary producer Moctezuma Esparza (Selena, HBO’s Walkout) who is distributing it in the US. During one poignantly hilarious scene, Flora tells her daughter “Mira mi amor, esta chocha es mia” with mischievous pride. Maldeamores is using that same defiant, playful attitude to put good Puerto Rican cinema on the map.