With a plot exploring themes surrounding unlikely friendship, AIDS and boxing, Pavel Giroud’s “The Companion” would appear to be an unusually ambitious film. But looks can be deceiving, as the storytelling in this low-key drama takes a rather tentative approach. Despite a fascinating premise, Giroud keeps the emotions reserved and the conflicts minimal with his underwhelmingly light touch.
The setting is 1988 Cuba, during the height of the AIDS crisis. As a measure to contain the spread of the disease, the government has enforced a mandatory quarantine of AIDS patients in Los Cocos sanatorium. The place thus becomes the new home for persons like Daniel (Armando Miguel Gómez), a young soldier always on the lookout for a way to escape his prison-like situation. His outlook is shared by recently disgraced boxer Horacio Romero, who becomes Daniel’s designated companion as part of his punishment for a doping offense. Horacio’s task is to ensure Daniel abides by the rules, especially when he escorts him on his weekly pass to visit the outside world. Their initial relationship is fraught however, as neither of the two men take a liking to each other. But gradually, the pair find a common understanding in their pursuit of redemption.
What follows is a surprisingly sedate story set against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous eras in recent history. While other films captured the tense, fearful mood of the early days of the AIDS outbreak, “The Companion” approaches the issue with an almost trivial ambivalence. Though the film acknowledges the severity of the disease with brief scenes of suffering, it mostly skims the surface of a prominent issue that affected society in volatile ways. Despite the panic that would have led to the drastic public health intervention depicted (under military rule no less), the characters seem nonchalantly resigned to a situation that would certainly have deep ethical and psychological implications.
The lone agitator among the patients is Daniel, a troublemaker reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, with the standout performance to match. Indeed, Armando Miguel Gómez enlivens the film with his free-spirited charisma, nimbly carrying much of the film’s emotional weight on his slender shoulders. As his main screen partner, Yotuel Romero is less impactful, though he fully embodies the physicality of the role and shows surprising moments of vulnerability.
Their budding chemistry steadily provides an empathetic spark to the proceedings, as formulaic as they may be. In particular, the film resorts to some familiar beats in relation to Horacio. As he attempts a comeback and strikes up a relationship with a female patient, his arc results in run-of-the-mill training sequences and a disposable romance. And though the cinematography brings its fair share of interesting flourishes, it is unable to fully compensate for the largely uninspired screenplay choices.
Of course, it may be unfair to judge the script based on an underlying story Giroud never intended to tell. But unfortunately, the half-baked sociocultural context limits the narrative and the character development. Despite the engagingly heartwarming friendship at the heart of the story, there’s a nagging feeling that the film is withholding valuable information about its social milieu. Whether it be the public opinion of the sanatorium, or the largely ignored gay factor (homosexual patients are further separated from the others), it constantly leaves your mind to wander. “The Companion” is by no means a bad film, but the better version of its story seems to be hidden in its subtext.
“The Companion” is the Cuban submission for the 2016 Oscar for Best Language Film.