"El Super" comes as a humane, level-headed relief amid the imbecilities of "Sextette," "Something Short of Paradise," "Rape of Love" and "Running." It's like encountering another same person in a room full of hyenas.
Not that "El Super" is a big deal. It's an affecting, revealing small-scale movie, an enonomical rendering of a Spanish-language, domestic comedy-drama by Ivan Acosta about a subject previously ignored in American films: the longings and frustrations of Cuban emigrees who have taken refuge in the United States since Castro came to power.
Raymundo Hidalgo-Gato is wonderful as the melancholy protagonist, a middleaged family man who works as the building superintendent of an upper West Side apartment house where he, his wife and Americanized teenage daughter live in a cramped basement suite.
Constantly importuned by the tenants and more depressed than ever by his menial status because of a chilling New York winter, El Super bears up bravely under the banal vicissitudes that threaten to grind him down. Ultimately, he reaches a decision that promises a fresh start in warmer climes, though not an end to hard work or nostalgia for his native land.
Gently humorous and observant, the material is basically miscellaneous. Many scenes could be rearranged without seriously affecting either the plot or the mood of intimacy and camaraderie. "El Super" resembles Saroyan with the exotic, melodious addition of a Spanish accent.
Nothing drastic happens. The play depends on the cumulative warmth and rapport generated by savory colloquial conversation and the interaction of distinctive characters embodied by lively, amusing performers. In this atmosphere, the absence of red-hot conflicts isn't much of a problem.
In a similar respect, the film can't conceal certain low-budget limitations.
The prinipal setting of the basement apartment is visually and d physically cramped. Moreover, the interior lighting leaves a bit of illumination to be desired, especially in a color feature presumably blown up from 16 to 35mm.
Nevertheless, a good deal of the shooting is remarkably resourceful and effective. Cinematographer Orlando Jimenez-Leal, who shares co-directing credit with Leon Ichaso Who collaborated on the adaptation with Manuel Arce), expands the material pictorially with excellent semi-documentary exteriors and locations sequences along the wintry streets of El Super's New York neighborhood. En rique Ubieta's perky, versatile score often helps to finesse awkward transitions.
Unerring technical support could only enhance the admirable performances. The ensemble feeling is so strong and satisfying that one naturally assumes the cast has an intimate understanding of the text and each other.
While Hidalgo-Gato distinguishes himself in the subtlest performance, the supporting presences are consistently impressive: Zully Montero as El Super's wife; Elizabeth Pena as his daughter; Reynaldo Medina as a bombastic Bay of Pigs veteran still hoping to depose Castro; Efrain Lopez-Neri as a sweet-tempered Puerto Rican friend who has found assimilation an easier process than has El Super.
Opening today at the Capitol Hill and K-B Cerberus, "El Super" is the pleasant surprise of a generally lack-luster season: an ethnic pick-me-up.