Ben Chace stages Sin Alas, one of the first American films produced in Cuba in five decades, as a testament to the possibility of enduring love, with an elderly writer, Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón), pondering the trajectory of his life after learning about the death of his past lover, Isabela (Yulisleyvís Rodrigues), whom he last saw 50 years ago. Luis not only thinks back to his time with Isabela, but also his childhood in Hershey, Cuba during the late ’50s, just before the Fidel Castro-led revolution in 1959. Accordingly, cinematographer Sean Price Williams uses Luis’s memory to give the film visual distinction, so that leaps into the past not only switch from color to black and white, but also a grainier image, with scratches and rips indicating the past-tense events.
These stylistic choices enliven Sin Alas, offering a sense of geographical difference between Luis’s youth in the country and his contemporary life in Havana, but they’re also calculated, even mechanical manifestations of an attempted reconciliation between past and present. Chace feels most at ease when following the elder Luis: In present-day Havana, he seeks the council of a friend, Ovilio (Mario Limonta), as he struggles to remember the name of a song he’s had stuck in his head for many years, and in the film’s best sequence, the two roam the streets humming bits and pieces of it for passersby and even shout to the entire neighborhood for assistance. They come to discover the song is part of the “music in the war of independence,” which Luis heard while watching Isabela perform in the ballet. There are seedlings of fascinating themes in play here, like the relationship between not just art and politics, but one’s personal relationship to both. In fact, young Luis (Lieter Ledesma Alberto) imparts his stance on the matter to a couple of Cuban officers, explaining how one’s experience of art creates distance from what’s being seen, which can then be carried into political life.
The character is, in essence, offering the film’s own perspective on a potential hybridity between art and politics, but the effect less mobilizes Chace’s chosen aesthetic than reveals that Sin Alas is something of a dissertation in cinematic clothing. These revelations are further compounded by overt allusions to 8½, as Aruán Ortiz’s score directly mimics Nino Rota’s, and Wild Strawberries, with Luis’s reveries prompted by death’s cold stare. Such points of reference are heightened by Chace’s reluctance to diverge from a structure that explicitly invokes them, so that the film’s Cuban setting comes to seem like an opportunistic locale for reenacting a decidedly art-cinematic legacy.
Chace factors Cuba’s history into the story rather generally as parallels for character action in contemporary Havana. When it’s revealed that Luis’s father moved to the U.S. during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it foreshadows a similar decision made by a key figure late in the film. Nevertheless, the subplots of Sin Alas are fairly run of the mill, with Katrina (Camila Arteche), Luis’s neighbor, involved in domestic disputes with her husband, Yuni (Adael Rosales), over whether or not Katrina is sleeping with her boss. That the couple’s young daughter is caught between their arguments catches the eye of Luis, who implicitly associates her situation with his own childhood, though Chace curiously never places the elderly man and child in conversation with one another. Sin Alas often appears deeply felt because Luis’s state of being suggests lingering sorrow, but its emotion is of a mitigating sort, calibrated to announce pain without seriously, or messily, embodying it.