I was sitting in bed, writing an AlmaMia Cienfuegos chapter, when a song from my childhood made me smile towards the terrace. The tropical tune sashayed from across the street, climbed seven floors, and asked me to dance. I did. Most days, loud music while I’m working just pisses me off and distracts me from my writing, but today it made me miss home and think about a movie I watched a few weeks ago.
Perico Ripíao is a bright, loud and fast film that portrays the Dominican community in a light that is both tragic and comical. The two words of the title are the name of a style of traditional Dominican music, which usually includes guitars, tambora drums, metal scrapers called güiras, accordions, and other musical instruments.
The main characters of Perico Ripíao, Francisco, Manuel and Mauricio, play only the tambora, güira, and accordion. The three instruments are as significant to the overall theme of the motion picture as is the title. For coming from African, Taíno and European cultures, respectively, the trio speaks of the diversity of Dominican heritage. Perico ripíao, the music, sings a tradition of strong emotions and defiance, which tends to be camouflaged under humor, love and sometimes very sexual lyrics. The title serves to remind the watcher that things are not always what they seem. The same concept is reflected by the way in which the movie begins: with criminals and law enforcement officials dancing and singing together in a public bus that is moving but falling to pieces.
When the movie started, I was frustrated. I didn’t care for the changes in tone and perspective; for a while, the characters seemed ridiculous and their behavior exaggerated. Then I slowed down and listened… I watched… and you know what, my Wicked Luvs? The changes in speed, style, and lyrics, were forcing me to pay attention to things I might have not noticed otherwise. For instance, there is a scene where the main characters are deceiving a country family in order to get the food and shelter that would help them stay alive. They can be discovered at any moment, but this doesn’t stop one of the characters from flirting with the daughter of the house. The action felt so normal to me, that I nearly missed the message: Dominican people are a hot-blooded bunch that will do things that makes them feel alive, even during dire times.
The ending of the movie was not particularly satisfying, but it was no surprise considering the history of the Dominican nation. It ends with the main characters being ambushed by a group of corrupted leaders. Francisco, Manuel and Mauricio, wiggle their way out of the chaos, but not without ingenuity and some violence.
There is no happily ever after in Perico Ripíao. The heroes escape. The criminals obtain more power. Bittersweet, but loaded with hope, this movie, like the people it attempts to portray, packs a lot more punch than the tiny fist it shows to the eyes and ears that focus only on what is right in front of them.
In case you were wondering, here is “El Farolito,” the song that invited me to dance. And I said yes ;-)