Fernando Trueba’s Chico & Rita is a shallow romanticization of Batista-era Cuba—when the nation was a tropical paradise for the delectation of American jetsetters—and what the revolution left in its wake. This stock story of a piano-playing dreamer and the voluptuous singer he contentiously adores hopscotches from Cuba to the United States and back, from past to present, prosperity to decay, and feels ripped from the pages of Oscar Hijuelos’s The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, a more vivid but equally problematic totem to a lovesick horndog’s memories of what the Castro took away from him—a life too many Cubans sadly but naïvely feel they can reclaim if they simply dream hard enough.
It begins in the Havana of the present with an elderly Chico, after hobbling to his apartment following an ostensibly long day of scrubbing shoes, opening a window to a view of a city that doesn’t appear in its decrepitude too far in appearance from the vibrancy it once knew as the Times Square of the Caribbean. Blame renowned designer and illustrator Javier Mariscal’s crudely striking but expressionless and flat animation, which not only fails to distinguish between a façade whose integrity is maintained by capitalist money and one that’s been left to rot by an impoverished and antagonistic communist regime, but even between a human face consumed by passion and one addled by rage.
Amid a gentle din of jazz, cigar smoke hanging in the air, Chico meets Rita in a Havana club and their love affair is born out of their shared sexual attraction and love for music, both of which will be gladly exploited by the gringos in their midst. This scene recalls Maria/Betty’s seduction inside a nightclub by a group of Americans in I Am Cuba, but there’s no critique of capitalist consumption in Trueba’s vision, which banally regurgitates the starry-eyed rags-to-riches story of Cuban musicians making it in the States immortalized in everything from I Love Lucy to Mambo Kings. Chico’s triumph, of returning gloriously to the States in his old age after being sought after by a group of hipster musicians, even recalls that of Ibrahim Ferrer, whose musical resurgence was celebrated in Wim Wenders’s Buena Vista Social Club.
There’s vivacity and authenticity to the film’s saucy cacophony of Cuban voices and playful expression of Chico’s hungry pursuit of Rita and her dramatic rejection of his advances; a highlight is a scene in which a livid Rita keeps her cool after a passing bus lifts her skirt in front of Chico and his best friend. Their love is neither deep nor memorable, but these details make it seem almost vibrant. But the same can’t be said for the story’s articulation of the success the pair finds and loses in the United States. Rather than indict the consumerist faddishness that especially explains Rita’s fall from cultural grace, it unrealistically chalks up the demise of her showbiz career to one boozy outburst she gives prior to a New Year’s Eve performance. Consciously or not, this allows the filmmakers to advance the notion that the success of Latin music can only be made possible through white cultural interest. Times, it would seem, haven’t changed.