Films

Dancing out of this world

Ramiro was a three-ring Renaissance man, a champion of Latin culture

Brian D. Johnson January 28 2002
Films

Dancing out of this world

Ramiro was a three-ring Renaissance man, a champion of Latin culture

Brian D. Johnson January 28 2002

Dancing out of this world

Films

Ramiro was a three-ring Renaissance man, a champion of Latin culture

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

This column is usually devoted to reviewing movies. The flow of movies, unlike cod or money for health care, never seems to dry up. Just last week I screened half a dozen new releases. Normally at this point I'd be trying to figure out which are worth writing about. Is The Count of Monte Cristo a passable adventure, or just deeply mediocre? Are Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer squandering their talents in I Am Sam—which suggests a man with the mind of a seven-year-old is smart enough to be a single father but not to make coffee at Starbucks? There’s always so much to say about movies, good or bad, but at the moment my heart’s not in it.

Instead I want to tell you about Ramiro Puerta, a friend who died of cancer earlier this month at the age of 48. Born in Bogotá, Ramiro was a three-ring Renaissance man: an actor who became a filmmaker, a singer who became a bandleader, and a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival who played a crucial role in the explosion of Spanish and Latin American cinema. If you’ve seen a movie from Latin America in recent years, such as Central Station, chances are Ramiro launched it at the Toronto festival. He also took great delight in smuggling some 30 Cuban films into the United States at a time when an embargo prevented Cubans from doing it directly.

Meanwhile, Ramiro made his own films, four shorts over the past decade. They range from Crucero/Crossroads, an award-winning adaptation of Guillermo Verdecchia’s witty one-man play about Latin-Canadian alienation, to Topic of Cancer, a medical comedy of errors with an unsentimental streak of satire. Topic of Cancer is an inspiring feat of personal cinema. Ramiro completed it last year while in the final stages of a three-and-ahalf-year batde with colon cancer. A thinly

fictionalized treatment of his own story, this 28-minute odyssey tracks a patient’s progress through a pinball maze of misdiagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy, alternative cures and mind-expanding convalescence. “How was I to know my doctors had their heads so far up their own asses they couldn’t see up mine?” asks Pedro, the Ramiro character played by Verdecchia, as his misdiagnosis dawns on him. “My tumour did everything but open a Web site to make itself known.”

Like Ramiro himself, Topic of Cancer nevers solicits pathos, but rings with a laugh of cosmic appreciation for life’s absurd twists—some depicted quite literally in the carnival-ride video footage of Ramiro’s own colonoscopy. And like all his films, Topic moves to the rhythms of a hot Latin soundtrack. When it was shown last month at the Havana Film Festival, the

audience of 1,300 was leery about sitting through a cancer film inserted before a keenly anticipated feature, but when mambo music kicked in for a surreal scene of hospital patients shuffling up and down a corridor with their IV bags, the crowd was won over.

My own memories of Puerta go back to the time I spent playing congas as a member of his 14-piece Ramiro’s Latin Orchestra in the late ’80s. Years before the Buena Vista Social Club sparked the Latin music revival, Ramiro was thawing Toronto winters with the tropical rhythms of son, salsa and cumbia. He had a voice that was pure warmth, the sound of optimism. And elegance was so second-nature to him that he insisted we all wear white dinner jackets on stage—even though he was the only one who looked truly at home in one. Ramiro 1 embodied grace. At a dinner party he I could strike up a guitar and sing a Cuban 1 ballad as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Even with his fine-tuned sense of irony and irrepressible laugh, he was a romantic. And he left his most touching self-portrait in his third film, Two Feet, One Angel, a 12-minute slice of magic realism. He plays a cook who’s killed in the street by a stray bullet while heading out to buy antibiotics for a sick child—and is transformed into a dapper, dancing angel. Made shortly before he learned of his cancer diagnosis, the film is eerily prescient. Ramiro’s wife, Leslie Lester (producer of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company) and the older of their two children (Milo, 10, and René, 6) play bystanders who watch him die. In a sublime dance sequence, Ramiro turns into a Colombian Gene Kelly, defying gravity with a horizontal spin around a lamppost as he pirouettes down the sidewalk—an artist who had the vision to see himself dancing out of this world. ED