Dir. Fernando Perez. Cuba/Spain, 2003. 80 min.
This well-intentioned, mostly melancholy but positive hymn of love to Havana, in the form of a pseudo-documentary, bears all the earmarks of an officially approved production that projects a more than affectionate portrait the city, notwithstanding all its shortcomings. But it is still a pretty slim offering for the opening night of a festival as important as San Sebastian, not nourishing enough to follow the one-hour television show that preceded it on the stage. Following a number of carefully selected prototypes for one day, this is supposed to present a supportive image of Cuba's once spectacular capital that may look now sad, run down and neglected, but it is full of hard-working, dedicated people who make a living by the sweat of their brow during the day and nurse their modest dreams and hobbies in their spare time, at night. A festival item that will be certainly welcome in any program of Latin American images, it would be hard put to find much exposure beyond it.
Organised around the hours of the day, from early morning to very late at night, Perez' picture selects its characters and their quotidian routines to represent various aspects of Havana's working class population. A slightly retarded boy, a bricklayer, a railwayman, a doctor, a cobbler, and so on, down to several retired characters, some of them truly ancient, whose wrinkles Perez is particularly fond of photographing with remarkable results, constitute the pieces of a puzzle even more fragmented than his award-winning previous La Vida Es Silbar, whose several episodes painted a similar image of life in Cuba today.
Here, Perez goes much further, for there is no pretence of a narrative, nor dialogues or continuity, in the accepted sense of the word, the montage using only sound and image patterns, and of course the time of the day, to move the film forward. There is nothing particularly joyous or exuberant about the existence of any of the characters featured, identified only by name and age, there are no terrible incidents either, everyone seems to be completely engrossed in their occupation, even if it is, for a 97 year-old woman, watching the same image on television - a political flag-waving manifestation - all day long.
Some of these brief sequences can be tender and uplifting, like the scenes of a father and young son together in the evening, others sad and moving, like the images taken at a funeral, suggestive, like juxtaposing the idea of departure from Cuba to that of death, humorous, like a spot nicknamed "The Corner of Patience', or ironic, like the visual link between modern poetry and comic books. And if the film ends with a neon-lighted sign saying 'revolucion', nothing in the picture indicates the people in the street are concerned with that concept. The last part of the film, in which the bricklayer turns out to be an aspiring ballet dancer, the railway man plays the sax, or an old woman paints, hints that in most cases there is more behind these faces then meets the eye at first glance.
Clearly inspired by silent classics that are staple stuff on any film school curriculum such as Walter Ruttman's Symphony Of The City or Dziga Vertov's Man With The Moving Camera, but not as brilliant as either of these masterpieces, Perez often resorts to pretty obvious combination of images, going from a ventilator to a cobbler blowing to dry the glue on a shoe, from an airplane to an aerial shot of the city, and so on. More interesting is the sound montage, particularly in the first part of the film, creating at times real pieces of concrete music. Quality of image blow-ups is not always ideal, but to Perez' credit, he has a very attentive cameraman working for him and catching just the right details, and he obtains from his non-professional cast a truly spontaneous, documentary feeling, as if he had just caught them by chance.
Carefully non-controversial, avoiding any of the thornier themes associated with the state of Cuba today, this is an easy picture to appreciate but difficult to be really passionate or enthusiastic about.
Prod co: Wanda Vision, ICAIC
Prod: Jose Maria Morales, Camilo Vives
Int'l sales: Wanda Vision.
Scr: Fernando Perez
Cinematography: Raul Perez Ureta
Ed: Julia Yip
Sound design: Edesio Alejandro, Fernando Perez
Sound: Jorge Luis Chijona