Review by Robert Barry
From the grandiose swoop of its opening frames, backed with the clattering intensity of salsa percussion, its clear that the key reference for this latest anthology film co-produced by Spain’s Morena Films and French production company, Full House, is Soy Cuba. The dreamy, vertiginousness of this opening tracking shot seems to reach back across half a century to Kalatazov’s masterpiece of post-revolutionary propaganda. Regrettably, as Benicio Del Toro’s opening short gets going, we soon find ourselves in territory less agit-prop than Bacardi ad.
In the Puerto Rican actor’s first stint behind the camera since 1995′s seventeen-minute Submission, we follow teen movie star Josh Hutcherson as teen movie star Teddy Atkins. Atkins arrives fresh off the boat in anticipation of taking courses at the (Steven Soderbergh-approved) film school, an hour out of the city. Fortunately for Teddy, he happens upon the friendliest cab driver in Cuba, who takes him on a whistle stop tour of the city before inviting him out for a night on the town. Del Toro’s film is lively and engaging but ultimately shallow. Despite the apparent reference to Soy Cuba at the front end and a brief mention of the financial crisis at a bureau de change, politics is soon abandoned in favour of adland clichés (it came as little surprise to discover later that the film has been partly financed by Havana Club rum).
Further glimpses of the local film industry are afforded in the film’s second ‘day’, entitled ‘Jam Session’ and directed by Argentine, Pablo Trapero (White Elephant, Lion’s Den). Another foreigner takes centre stage, this time director and notorious Milosevic apologist, Emir Kusturica who drunkenly makes his way through the Havana film festival before escaping for a late night jam session by the beach. In broad outlines, the second day runs its course with remarkable similarities to the first, and if Kusturica proves himself a less bland protagonist than white bread Hutcherson, we remain mired in a vision of Havana no more penetrating or incisive than a tourist information brochure.
Matter start to improve, however, with the film’s third segment. Julio Medem wisely choses to forget about dubious attempts to capture the city itself and plumps for a straightforward melodrama about a girl, Cecilia (played by Cristela de la Caridad Herrera), who must choose between two possible lovers: the smarmy but wealthy Spanish businessman or the poor but honest local athlete. Finally, Cecilia’s choice may be Cuba’s as the gradual liberalisation of its economy sees its citizens forced to chose between the seductions of the foreign dollar and the needs of his working people.
The best of the seven films are, by clear distance, the two that follow Medem’s offering. The surreal humour of Elia Suleiman’s ‘Diary of a Beginner’ evokes Woody Allen doing Fellini via Jacques Tati. Every image is delightfully composed, with a deft sense of visual irony. In the midst of it all, Suleiman himself, poker-faced, laconic, and utterly guileless. Disarmed by Suleiman, we are immediately thrown into the nefarious world of Gaspar Noé, whose distinctive style and themes bring to a story of the ritual exorcism of a young girl a compelling visual aesthetic and marked sense of danger. If the whole seven film package is patchy and inconsistent – certainly no match for its esteemed Soviet forebear – it is by the grace of these two chapters that it remains worth a look.