Earlier this week, the U.S. government announced that it would resume diplomatic relations with Cuba, ending over half a century of Cold War-inspired isolation. It’s a momentous occasion – and one that has been unfortunately drowned out, in entertainment circles at least, by the ongoing saga of Sony’s “The Interview.” That’s a topic that we can’t even begin to cover in an FYC, but something we can do is celebrate a movement towards peace and constructive engagement between Washington and Havana. All those years we were perhaps banned from seeing Cuba in the flesh, but it was never banished from our art – here are three films set on or about the island.
“I Am Cuba” (1964)
Cast: Sergio Corrieri, Salvador Wood, José Gallardo, Jean Bouise, Raúl García, Luz María Collazo, Alberto Morgan, Celia Rodriguez
Available on disc from Netflix
A major Soviet-Cuban co-production meant to solidify relations between the two communist nations in the wake of the U.S. decision to break trade and diplomatic relations with Castro in 1961, “I Am Cuba” was a wet dream of socialist art on paper. Directed by Mikhail Kalatazov (fresh off the formally daring one-two punch of “The Cranes Are Flying” and “Letter Never Sent”) and co-written by acclaimed poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the super-project was intended to be a relatively straightforward propaganda piece about the suffering, enlightenment and eventual political liberation of the Cuban people, told through four unique stories. But the highly experimental, idiosyncratic camerawork by Kalatazov and cinematographer Sergei Urasevsky (employing extreme wide-angles, acrobatic crane shots and a rudimentary Steadicam-type setup that was utterly ahead of its time) alienated viewers and left both governments disappointed, and the film was suppressed and forgotten for decades. Martin Scorsese, discovering the film in the 90s, became a tireless champion and enthusiastically supported a restoration and re-release that has properly situated “I Am Cuba” as a rightful masterpiece.
“Before Night Falls” (2000)
Cast: Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp, Olivier Martinez, Héctor Babenco, Andrea Di Stefano, Santiago Magill, John Ortiz, Sean Penn, Diego Luna
Available to rent or purchase from Vudu, iTunes or Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix
Based on the autobiography of the openly gay Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, “Before Night Falls” catapulted Javier Bardem to international stardom and solidified artist Julian Schnabel’s cult place in the independent film scene. Arenas’ struggles to find himself as a writer and a gay man are refracted and compounded through the repression of the Cuban state, in a film whose visual eruptions of energetic beauty and passion match the pent-up frustration and fear of Arenas’ tumultuous self-discovery. Small touches of Schnabel’s trademark surreality, like Johnny Depp’s double performance as both a brutal prison warden and a flamboyant transvestite, capture the paradoxical spirit of Cuba in the 60s-70s.
“Chico & Rita” (2010)
Cast: Lenny Mandel, Limara Veneses, Emar Xor Oña, Mario Guerra
Available streaming on Netflix and Hulu, available to rent or purchase from Vudu, iTunes, Amazon Instant
As hopelessly romantic and charming as a Disney fairy tale, but unafraid to treat its star-crossed young lovers like adults, this beautifully animated Spanish musical drew a fair amount of acclaim (and an unexpected Academy Award nomination) for its delightful and infectious Cuban jazz score. Fiercely evocative of 1940s Havana, “Chico & Rita” stands out even now for its willingness to be sensual, heartbreaking, affecting. It’s an unexpectedly mature love story that nonetheless has the good sense to give the people what they want, both musically and narratively.