A ‘portmanteau’ film typically offers two or more short films collected together and presented as a single feature. The concept was once quite popular in Europe during the 1960s and is sometimes now used as a vehicle for directors commissioned by film festivals. 7 Days in Havana offers films by six well-known auteur directors plus the Hollywood actor Benicio Del Toro with his second short. Each film is set in Old Havana, featuring the Hotel Nacional, the Malécon and the area around El Capitolio. A small group of characters appears in more than one film, but some of the films are completely separate in terms of characters and stories. Cuban writer Leonardo Padura wrote three linked stories with his partner Lucia López Coll; the directors themselves created the other stories. The production was supported by Havana Club, the Cuban rum producer involved in promoting Cuban arts and culture internationally. The film is stuffed with Cuban music, but strangely no ballet.
In Anglo-American film culture this type of film seems to be termed an ‘anthology’ film and it has a very poor reputation. It’s odd then that in the UK, the British Film Institute’s P&A fund should have supported the film’s release from Soda Pictures so that it has appeared for a week in the two multiplexes in Bradford rather than a limited number of showings in our specialised cinema. I feared the worst when the box office figures came out – and they showed a derisory screen average of £362 across 30 sites for the opening weekend. I don’t quite understand why Bradford’s two multiplexes were in that group. Perhaps Soda Pictures can explain why they did it?
A quick glance at some of the UK critics’ responses to the film reveals mainstream reviewers who don’t know much about French or Hispanic cinemas and are completely baffled by the best of the seven offerings from Elia Suleiman. In his segment the Palestinian director, always his own leading man, is a solitary visitor to Havana seemingly caught between Fidel Castro’s speeches on his hotel room TV set, the views out over the sea and the stately grandeur of the Hotel Nacional’s gardens. This segment has some glorious cinematography, catching the light perfectly. Lots of Europeans, including many Brits will have visited Old Havana and I’m tempted to say that, along with the music, the views of the city are themselves worth the price of a cinema ticket. And indeed some reviewers put the film down as simply ‘touristic’. But that’s misleading. Suleiman’s segment is an exquisite piece of art cinema and most of the other stories are more genuinely concerned with real social issues for the residents of the city than with tourist images.
Working out who had directed which segment was not too difficult. Del Toro’s features an American film student/novice actor looking for night-time ‘action’ and it was the least successful for me. With its film festival theme it set up Emir Kusturica the Serbian director playing a version of himself rather ungraciously receiving a festival tribute but bonding with his assigned driver, a trumpeter who takes his guest to a local jam session. This was a film by Pablo Trapero, the Argentinian director who is actually a big fan of the Havana Film Festival – one of the most important events for Latin American Cinema. Gaspar Noé played his usual ‘controversial’ card with a Santeria ritual carried out in an attempt to ‘cure’ a young teenage girl of her love for a girlfriend. I found this quite disturbing but compelling. Julio Medem offered star power in the shape of Daniel Brühl as a Madrid agent attempting to lure a night-club singer to Spain – effectively breaking up her relationship with her boyfriend, a baseball player who would rather take a raft to Miami. This led into the stories by the Cuban filmmaker Juan Carlos Tabio and French director Laurent Cantet, both of which offer narratives associated with particular aspects of Cuban society – doing more than one job, shortages of various foodstuffs and household goods, working together as a community etc. Stylistically these three stories become like a form of Cuban telenovela – and offer roles for well-known Cuban actors such as Mirtha Ibarra, Jorge Perugorria and Vladimir Cruz.
But what you want to know is “Is this as bad as the critics say?” No, it isn’t, these are all talented filmmakers, but the format is difficult to handle. It’s hard for me to judge perhaps because a) I know at least some of the work of all the directors, b) I support Cuban cinema, c) I like Cuban music and d) I’ve been a tourist staying in ‘Old Havana’. I couldn’t fail to find the film interesting and much of it enjoyable. If you are approaching the film cold, it may be more of an uphill struggle. Although artistically the two strongest segments, the contributions by Suleiman and Noé are separate from the other five stories which could be made to work together – but then why not have a single script and one director? Perhaps the other missing ingredient is a bit more fantasy that could be injected into the melodrama?
Is it possible to develop a sophisticated political discourse as part of a hugely funny and very gory zomcom? You bet! – and Juan of the Dead provides the evidence. I never expected to see a Cuban movie in a multiplex but now I have and with Metrodome handling UK distribution (it opens on 4th May) you’ll get the chance too (although only in ‘Key Cities’ as the current distribution jargon has it).
Inspired by both George Romero and Edgar Wright, director Alejandro Brugués offers us two middle-aged ‘jack the lads’, first spotted on their fishing raft a few hundred metres from the Malecón, Havana’s famous promenade. As Juan and Lazaro begin to despatch zombies in a matter of fact way, they see television announcements which refer to ‘dissidents’ who are causing trouble in the city. ‘Dissidents’ can only mean a yanqui plot as all Cubans know. The basic premise of the film is that in Cuba, there are three possible responses to any new problem for ordinary Cubans. First, consider opening a business, second, just ignore the problem and carry on stoically and third, steal a boat or build a raft and leave the country. Our heroes are going to consider all three and Juan is confident that he will make it since he has already survived the Mariel boatlift, war in Angola and the Special Period (after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cuban economy went into meltdown). Zombies offer just an opportunity to make some extra money but along the way Juan will have to consider what friendship and family mean to him.
This is a truly Cuban movie with a catalogue of jokes and sight gags with a distinctly Cuban flavour. When a car won’t start, it’s because it’s a Russian Lada. The characters who aid Juan include a very camp character and his hugely-muscled partner (with one fatal weakness) – sport and gay culture being concerns in various Cuban films. The only way to find the limited funds – a $1.6 million budget – to make the film was through a co-production with Spain which means that Juan’s daughter is played by a Spanish actress and the plot requires that her mother has not only left Juan but Cuba as well. There may be some audiences who recognise that the whole film is an allegory of the failings in Cuban society (the director jokes, rather like Simon Pegg, that the Cuban population often appear like zombies) and who wonder why the authorities allow this. But there is a long tradition of satire in Cuban Cinema, most famously in the work of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio. The Cuban state film agency ICAIC was involved in the production and I’m sure they will be pleased by the success I feel sure that the film will find in international markets. Having said that there is a rather po-faced put-down of the film on IMDb, arguing that the film fails to offer the correct political message and thus is not a worthy successor to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Of course you don’t need to know anything about Cuban cinema to enjoy the film as a romp through cleverly re-imagined tropes of the zombie movie. The cast is very good, especially Alexis Diaz de Villegas as Juan. The special effects are endearingly naff but work very well – and do stay through the credits which feature Sid Vicious and some very nice graphics. I hope the film does excellent business and raises the profile of Cuban cinema.
I quite like this ‘teaser’ trailer (mostly because it doesn’t show all the gags in the film)
If you are interested in Spanish language cinema, there is only one place in the UK to be during the first half of March and that is Manchester, where Cornerhouse Cinema hosts the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival. But don’t despair, if you can’t get to Manchester you can still see some of the films on tour around the UK (and in Dublin) at various specialised cinemas.
The festival includes screenings (with a mini Cuban festival during this year’s celebration of 50 years since the Revolution), guest appearances, Q&As and special events, education events for Spanish language students and much more (including a salsa demonstration in the bar and Spanish-themed food and drink). Cornerhouse is helped to produce the festival by staff from the two Manchester Universities and the University of Salford plus the Instituto Cervantes.
It’s always difficult for me to get to festivals during term time, but this year I managed a day at ¡Viva! and relished the opportunity to enjoy three films and to feel the buzz of being in such a lively atmosphere. First up was a new documentary about one of my favourite directors, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, the best known Cuban filmmaker outside Cuba and arguably one of the two or three most influential figures in the history of Cuban Cinema.
This 2008 documentary, a Cuban/Spanish co-production titled Titón, de la Habana a Guantanamera and directed by his wife Mirta Ibarra, is a memorial, a love letter and a celebration. It also offers a persuasive argument in favour of one of the great filmmakers of the last century who chose to work in revolutionary Cuba rather than move to North America or Europe – where it would have been easier to make films and to promote himself.
Through a combination of interviews, newsreel and film extracts, ‘home movies’ and photos, Ibarra has concocted an engaging and informative documentary record. I was particularly interested in the early material dealing with Alea’s time at the Cine Centro Experimentale in Rome and his subsequent career in primitive advertising films in Cuba prior to the 1959 Revolution. Most of his earlier films have not, to my knowledge, been available in the UK and it was fascinating to learn more about these. The documentary also provides more contextual material for any analysis of Alea’s better known work such as Memories of Underdevelopment (1968). Alea’s ‘middle period’ features in the 1970s and 1980s are also unfamiliar for most UK audiences and again I found that the documentary whetted my appetite for more.
Perhaps the most important achievement here is the presentation of Alea’s criticism of the Cuban Revolution as the positive supportive action of a man who believed in the true concept of ‘constant revolution’ – the only real way to support struggle is to keep arguing for more and better changes. Any of those puzzled American critics who still persist in seeing Alea’s best-known films like Memories and Strawberries and Chocolate (1993) as somehow subversive of the Revolution would do well to study Ibarra’s film.
The only slight downer in this screening was the poor quality of the archive material on show. It looks to me as if ICAIC, the Cuban film institute, must have transferred its archive of newsreel footage to video. The documentary itself, like many festival screenings these days was projected from Digi-Beta tape.
The Black Virgin(Venezuela 2008)
I don’t think that I’ve seen a Venezuelan film before and I found this one a bit of a struggle to pin down. Cornerhouse had a poster suggesting a romantic comedy. It certainly had its comedy as well as melodrama moments. It was also presented with what I must reluctantly assume was ‘magic realism’ (that term seems now to be so overused). The story is narrated (in an adult voice) by a young boy and he may of course be an ‘unreliable narrator’. He begins by describing his affection for his beautiful teacher and being mildly irritated by the attentions of his precocious classmate who expects to marry him. But the narrative’s main focus is the despair of a woman who thinks her husband is ‘playing away’. We then learn that this community lives in a unique ‘town of black people’ on the coast of Venezuela. In a sequence straight out of a ‘Columbus discovers America’ movie, we see a flashback to a Spanish woman arriving on the coast with her aged husband and the coffins of her three sons all killed in the Spanish Civil war. ‘Senora Isabel’ is played by Almodóvar’s 1980s heroine Carmen Maura on fine form (but in a rather limited role).
Senora Isabel has built the town and is responsible for its people. When the aggrieved woman seeks the help of a local woman with some form of magic power, she learns that the way to get a wish granted is to change the figure of the Virgin in the local church for a ‘Black Virgin’. Senora Isabel grants the woman’s wish. The Black Virgin appears and all kinds of wishes – good and bad – come true.
I’m assuming that many of the allusions and references in the film (e.g. the presence of a Brazilian in the village) have specific meanings in Venezuela. I found myself drawing on my limited knowledge of other Hispanic Caribbean/African communities such as Cuba and Nicaragua to make sense of the cultural mix and especially the use of religious imagery and music. The photography is very stylised with extensive use of filters or digital manipulation to create the magic realist tone. The film ended abruptly after the intrusion of a second narrative associated with an external threat to the town. I think it would be difficult to release this film in the UK, so I was grateful for the chance to see it. We get too few opportunities to see how other cultures attempt to use cinema to tell local stories.Sleep Dealer (Mexico/US 2008) This terrific ‘speculative fiction’ movie combines an impressive array of contemporary developments in both technological and political activity to produce a genre picture with real soul.
‘Memo’, the neatly named protagonist, is a youth in a village in Oaxaca in the far south of Mexico. His father has a small agricultural plot – a ‘milpa’ where beans are grown as a combination crop with corn. But life is hard. A US multinational company has damned the river and taken ownership of all the water – the campesinos must pay to irrigate their land and the dam is protected by robot guards with video cameras and machine guns.
Memo is bored and sets up an illegal satellite dish hacking into phone lines around the globe. One night he is listening in on a conversation when he realises hat he has been detected and he immediately shuts down. Shortly after, he and his brother set off on a short trip, but watching TV in a bar they suddenly realise that the reality TV show which shows American security forces blowing up the hideouts of suspected terrorists has detected Memo’s satellite dish and a ‘drone fighter’ piloted by a controller in San Diego is set to demolish their home. They are too late to save the shack and their father who is shot down as he tries to escape.
In despair, Memo heads for the North to become a sleep dealer in Tijuana. The border with the US is closed but Mexicans still do the work for Americans. They go to factories in Tijuana where they jack into a neural system and operate robots carrying out all kinds of tasks in US industry and services. This work eventually makes the worn-out workers blind. The final main narrative idea is that neural bloggers offer ‘memories’ for the nostalgia industry on the neural network and Memo has his own memories ‘uploaded’ without his knowledge. How will he react when he finds out?
All of these ideas leap off the news headlines. Water as a commodity, private security, US drone strikes in Pakistan etc. are ripe for exploitation. There are obvious reference points to Phil K. Dick (he would have loved the neural blogging of memories as an idea) and to films like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46. This a really clever script with its play on the Mexican-American cultural experience. I was also reminded of the first Robocop movie when seemingly outrageous ideas were delivered in TV broadcasts. It’s a cliche now perhaps, but as in Paul Verhoeven’s later Starship Troopers, there is still mileage in hearing a reality TV announcer warning you that there is extreme violence coming up and then exhorting you to make sure that your youngest kids don’t miss it! This and similar sick jokes got big laughs at the screening.
A Sundance-supported film, this Mexican-US release (largely in Spanish) looks like it has been picked up by Fortissimo and might well get a UK release. Director Alex Rivera is American with Latin-American parentage who decided on a Spanish language production with Hispanic characters (in America and Mexico). I’d urge you not to miss it if it does appear. With the earlier La Zona this is further proof of the strength of popular Mexican cinema and its ideas about speculative fiction.
The screenings of both La virgen negra and Sleep Dealer were close to full houses and this added to the fun of watching the films. ¡Viva! is a festival well worth supporting. See you there next year in March? And don’t forget the tour!
Made in 1966, it took this film until 1980 to be released in America (see below) – as with this post, see the other Cuban films below! Made by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who much later went on to make Fresa y chocolate (1994), the first Cuban film to receive an Oscar nomination for the best foreign film, the film is a fantastic blend of all kinds of influences that reflect Alea’s own career up to that point and post-revolutionary Cuba. As interesting, especially when you read other reviews, is the varied responses to the film that seem to say as much about the culture that people are writing from, as any intended effect or message devised by the filmmaker himself. Alea, himself a supporter of the revolution that brought Castro to power, did not look at his culture from within. Early in his career, he studied film in Italy (in the early 1950s – post the major works of Italian Neo-Realism).
La Muerte concerns the death of a dedicated working man, so dedicated that he has been buried with his working card as a symbolic acknowledgement of his lifetime of service (churning out busts of José Martí, ‘the Apostle of Cuban Independence’). When his wife, accompanied by her nephew, goes to collect her widow’s pension, nothing can be done without the missing card, and the rest of the film is the tale of our hapless hero’s attempts to retrieve it and to rectify the injustice that has been done.
Given the specificity of the film’s time and cultural place, the expectation is that you would need to explore all the references to even begin to fully understand it. Certainly, it’s filled with in-jokes about the regime in Cuba, which is apparently why its release in the US was so substantially delayed (for fear that its Latin-American self criticism would be grist to the US political mill). In fact, it works brilliantly now – perhaps for any of us who have experienced petty bureaucratic frustrations and the apparently wilful misinterpretation made by people with that authority (temporarily) over you. Hang on – something like a universal experience there then!
I won’t pretend to even begin to have understood all the references, but I was struck (as an outsider) by the nephew’s regular use of of the word “Compañero/ Compañera” when addressing (politely) the increasing stream of uncooperative, disinterested bureaucrats he encounters. It implied a shared vision and belief and therefore added to the humour through its increasing dissonance with their behaviour. The whole film begins with the collective version of the noun to address the mourners at the funeral. Reading a variety of reviews, there is a difference in the interpretation of the tone – from interpreting it as being a gentler kind of humour to a subversive critique of the Cuban social structure. The film certainly resonates with British examples, probably more in the former category, which lampoon British rituals and empathising with the common man (of which the nephew is a perfect example). Immediately, I found myself reminded of Joe Orton and Loot – with its ascerbic, farcical treatment of a funeral that’s being used as a cover for a robbery. The black comedy is less severe in Death, although at times no less dark – with the vultures circling over the uncle’s house where the unburied body awaits an exhumation order. Both indulge in that ‘comedy of manners’ where characters are increasingly going through the motions of the behaviour expected of them, while everything unravels underneath. (There is no surprise at the nephew’s final murderous chase through the cemetery).
Rather than ‘Ortonesque’, critics refer to it as ‘Kafkaesque’ – because of its links with the spiral of hopelessness of Joseph K in The Trial within the ‘corridors of power.’ However, this belies the effect of the humour (in both Loot and Death) that casts something like tolerance over the society it represents. It is humour shared by insiders, who have experienced those rituals and problems and continue to do so, without the threat to individual identity and the real hatred of the power of oppression that Kafka shows in his narrative.
Alea had adapted a Kafka short tale early in his filmmaking (Una Confusión cotidiana (1950)). His biography demonstrates the wealth of influences in his work and these are visible even within this one work. Luis Buñuel is referenced and there is a surreal, absurdist sensibility running throughout. However, there is the silent comedy style (Mack Sennett is referred to) – and there is a direct hit on Harold Lloyd as the nephew attempts to escape a building via its high ledge and a large clock. The comedy is played with such sympathy (my limited reference palette wants to suggest ‘Chaplin’) – because of the way we are completely on the side of the little man, whilst laughing at some of his disasters. There is a wonderful moment when he is sent to the back of the queue, only to reach the front as the clock ticks onto five. The current ‘compañero’ dons jacket and disappears, refusing to stamp even one more sheet. I laughed at and with – Salvador Wood’s unassuming underdog was perfect, with all kinds of small nuances of expression and gesture that communicated exactly his response or emotion.
I’ll end with a reference to B. Ruby Rich’s review of the film in Jump Cut (22 May 1980) for a most comprehensive analysis of the film and its cultural context.