Romeo and Juliet in the Caserío

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For centuries, Shakespeare’s oeuvre has been translated into diverse languages and cultures without losing its peculiar ability to resonate across contexts and cast light on the timelessness of seemingly contemporary problems. While Puerto Rico has rarely, if ever, been the stage for the great ambitions of kings and their would-be-successors, screenwriter and executive producer Antonio Morales’ Por Amor en el Caserío, shows us it can be fertile ground for the classic tale of tragic love that first saw poignant expression in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, Morales takes full advantage of this tale of naïve lovers who fall victim to their tragic context to show us the dialectic between individual desires, hopes and dreams, and the crushing reality of crime and violence in Puerto Rican public housing.

Born out of a series of workshops held in San Juan’s notorious Luis Lloréns Torres housing complex, Por Amor en el Caserío then transformed into a play interpreted by members of the very community it sought to represent. It soon became the centerpiece of an island-wide social movement that culminated in a film version directed by Luis Enrique Rodríguez. The plot follows Ángelo (Xavier Morales), a teenager from la isla who moves to the residencia to live with his aunt in the wake of his mother’s death. Once there, he courts aspiring actress Cristal (Anoushka Medina), who slowly warms to his advances before realizing that their families belong to rival gangs whose turf war is rapidly coming to a head. Despite warnings on the contrary, Ángelo and Cristal pursue their love in hopes of one day leaving the caserío, but the bitter war between the gangs will have tragic consequences before their nascent relationship can be fully realized.

Viewed purely as a work of cinematic craft, Por Amor en el Caserío falls into many of the pitfalls of post-MTV low-budget filmmaking – frenetic cutting, excessive camera movement, over-saturated and contrasted color correction, an incoherent mash-up of music laid heavily over each scene. Indeed, one would think that these empty stylistic flairs were a heavy-handed attempt to hide some fundamental lack of substance; yet, in the few moments when the film takes pause to study an actor’s face or take in a moody visual atmosphere, one realizes that the film’s excesses sabotage what are truly its greatest virtues: a keen eye for place and endearing performances by lead actors Anoushka Medina and Xavier Morales.

While Por Amor en el Caserío doesn’t traffic in subtlety, preferring instead to stick to tried-and-true stereotypes of virtue and moral weakness codified by centuries of melodrama, the actors – even down to the most insignificant bit-part – approach their characters with a sensitivity and commitment that can only come from close observation and intimate familiarity, elevating the performances above the trappings of the telenovela into a realm of more serious drama. Furthermore, Morales and Medina’s screen presence and chemistry draw the viewer in and foster a genuine concern for their character’s fate, evoking deep sympathy and concern for the star-crossed lovers as they careen toward their inevitable fate.

More in line with film’s stated social mission, Por Amor en el Caserío also offers up an incisive look into the daily comings-and-goings of the much maligned public housing projects that dot the island’s landscape. Countering decades of bad-publicity, during which the caseríos have been painted as the focal point of Puerto Rican social decline, Morales’ screenplay shows us an alternative vision: one in which the caserío continues to be an epicenter of community and puertorriqueñidad, where dignified people work, live, share and yes, commit crimes. Viewed in the context of a society where gated communities, cars and highways have frayed, if not destroyed traditional communal bonds, where plazas are empty and malls are filled to the brim with rabid consumers, we see the caserío as a nuanced place where many of these traditional communal dynamics have been preserved, despite the omnipresent specter of narcotráfico that can erupt in a gunshot and take an innocent life without a moment’s notice.

While it’s hard not to appreciate the team’s sincere effort to challenge biased external representations of life in Puerto Rican public housing, it’s unfortunate that the film is still profoundly timid in its own exploration, eschewing more difficult, complex questions that go to the heart of Puerto Rican social malaise. Here we see the caserío as a place isolated and divorced from greater insular society, where narcotráfico is simply an unquestioned fact, where politics don’t act upon daily life, where capitalism and colonialism don’t pervert consciousness, where history doesn’t reverberate in the present.

Of course, Shakespeare didn’t write for social change. His work, like all tragedy, was fatalist – choosing instead to explore how power, greed and love shape our fate and determine our destinies. Indeed, if the filmmakers wanted a model of social commitment, narrative economy and simple, unadorned filmmaking, perhaps they would have been better advised to watch De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves – a film that shows us how a simple man can be crushed and robbed of his dignity by an unjust society of which we are all inevitably a part.

Still, let us hope that the filmmaker’s bravery and genuine commitment can pave the way for other, more critical visions of a fragmented society flirting dangerously with collapse. It’s not a bad start.

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