The representation of Cuba in cinema is exceptionally difficult to separate from its political context. Whenever the island is invoked in the movies, narratives turn into statements, if not full-blown mystery plays, designed for the exorcism of geopolitical demons. It’s something that can be seen all the way from Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s landmark interrogation of his post-revolution society in Memories of Underdevelopment to the imperialist bombast of Bad Boys II and its “Let’s invade Cuba, and do it right this time” finale.
Along with the premiere of the architectural documentary Unfinished Spaces, this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival shone an international spotlight on Cuba, screening a quartet of films from and about the island nation. The films run a gamut of genres from reflective documentary to romantic comedy, but they are all unified by the ease in which one can read them simultaneously as small-scale reflections of life in Cuba and as footnotes in the political conversation.
Case in point: The festival’s artistic director David Ansen prefaced his introduction of Habana Eva, directed by Venezuelan Fina Torres, by saying that the film could be enjoyed as a simple romantic comedy, or as a parable for contemporary Cuba’s international dilemmas. And at first blush, it does glide right into a familiar genre pattern: Eva (Prakriti Maduro) works as a factory seamstress in Havana, but dreams of becoming a top-flight fashion designer. Her complacent engagement to good-natured but quasi-doltish architect Angel (Carlos Enrique Almirante) is thrown into disarray when sexy and wealthy expatriate Jorge (Juan Carlos García) drops into Eva’s life and she becomes his tour guide around the capital. The dilemmas of this love triangle play out in front of an array of photogenic Havana backdrops, and if you were to guess that there are romantic misunderstandings and turnabouts, bawdy sex jokes, and plenty of forlorn gazing over the water into the Cuban sunset, you’d be correct.
Yet the political reading leaps right off the screen. What does it say when the salt-of-the-earth Angel can’t finish building his fiancée a home because of lack of time and building materials? Or that Jorge, ensconced in Armani and Audi, is the scion of a capitalist exile eager to wrest control of colonial-era land holdings from the populist protagonists? Even the simple romantic gesture of a single red rose in hand becomes fraught with import if you also recognize it as a traditional symbol of socialism, and Eva changing her hairstyle by straightening out her cornrows seems to be one of a multitude of minor allegorical swatches.
Late in the game there’s a bizarre leap into some kind of magical realism that is neither particularly realistic nor magical, but instead resembles the premise of a ’60s American sitcom. The film barely manages to sell its third-act shenanigans—whipsawing from one plot point to another as if trying to set a speed record—through Maduro’s portrayal of Eva. Torres asks her to vault from sexy to goofy to rebellious to introspective, and she handles the challenges with aplomb. She charms both her lovers and the audience, and she holds the entire enterprise together even as it threatens to rip at the seams.
Boleto al Paraiso, directed by Gerardo Chijona, is somewhat more explicit in its political examination. It’s set during the Cuban “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting economic downturn, taking us on a journey through the fractured underbelly of Cuban culture and counterculture. It’s a story of love in the time of AIDS with the way Chijona weaves together a tragic romance with a glimpse of the methods used by the Cuban government to try to curb the spread of HIV.
The film follows Eunice (Miriel Cejas), a country girl who escapes the clutches of an abusive father by falling in with a group of “freakies,” young vagabonds who party hard, deal drugs, and listen to Metallica and the metal band’s Cuban equivalents. As the group journeys to Havana, Eunice forms a bond with idealistic punk Alejandro (Héctor Medina), who has grand plans for a new life in the city. But their romance takes a dark turn as the hardships of Cuban society press down upon them. It’s a harsh tour through the ills of social decay as we’re buffeted by street crime, homelessness, and prostitution—with the specter of AIDS as yet another affliction upon the body politic.
Chijona takes a dour, jaundiced lens to the society on display, and Eunice’s struggle for survival is evoked through moments that come to us by turns melodramatic and operatic. As with Habana Eva, Boleto al Paraiso is quite self-conscious about the signifying qualities of its narrative; it’s especially clear in the film’s sexually charged moments, where the themes of family, community, disease and decay all converge and reach a boiling point. They’re staged and shot and scored in a way that infuses them with a symbolic weight they struggle to bear.
Yet amid the heightened energy of the fiction there are intriguing glimpses into the realities of this historical moment, especially when it takes us into the AIDS hospices. Part of Cuba’s top-down command approach to preventing an epidemic, we see the patients are well cared for, but they’re also unable to leave. The weight of that paternalistic restraint is emblematic of the narrative as a whole. And even as the film veers straight towards the histrionic in its final act (a trait it shares with Habana Eva), it still provides a window on the youth of Cuba struggling to make the best out of a set of bad options. They try to forge personal identities in a society ill-equipped to support them, and cling to idealistic hopes in a place where there seems little to hope for.
Operation Peter Pan was a facet of the powder keg that was early 1960s U.S.-Cuban relations, less visible than the Bay of Pigs or the Missile Crisis, but with its own traumatic historical legacy. Supported by the C.I.A. and the Catholic Church, over 14,000 Cuban children were sent by their parents to live in the United States. The children’s parents were spurred in part by reports of a law—later revealed to be a forged false-flag document—that the revolutionary government would take their children and send them to Soviet re-education camps. Although many of the kids were later reunited with their families, others were separated from their parents and siblings and sent to live in orphanages and foster homes. A half-century later these Peter Pan children, well into adulthood, still struggle with the consequences of the operation.
American filmmaker Estela Bravo documents that struggle in Operation Peter Pan: Flying Back to Cuba, tracking down both the people involved in organizing the operation and the children who were sent to live in the United States. Bravo is entirely unconcerned with presentation: The movie is mostly talking heads shot on low-grade digital video backed by a sentimental score, an aesthetic package that’s reminiscent of an infomercial. She’s confident that the stories and memories delivered by those talking heads are powerful enough to stand on their own—and for the most part, they are. With such a wide-ranging group of people, there are all sorts of stories; some made the American transition relatively smoothly, while others found abuse and exploitation at the hands of their supposed caretakers. But the stories are all tied together by a common shock at being uprooted and deposited in a foreign land at such a young age, and the growing realization that they were used as pawns in geopolitical gamesmanship.
While the film meditates on questions of physical and emotional and diplomatic isolation, it’s ultimately designed to be a narrative of reunion, one that closes divisions and makes connections between America and Cuba. These Peter Pans are men and women without a country, their homeland indeterminate, but years later they make a journey back to Cuba to find their roots and see what they left behind. Bravo does deploy some flair in this latter segment; there’s a scene where she weaves a contemporary performance of a Cuban national song by the singer Candi Sosa with a film of Sosa as a child at one of the Peter Pan holding camps, singing the same song. It’s a moment of quiet resonance that bridges past and present. But that’s an isolated moment in a final act that seems disjointed. There’s no real sense of journey or progression in the vignettes capturing the return to Cuba. They’re disconnected from space and time and only pasted together by the talking heads in between. Bravo works to bring intriguing and important facts to light, but the film seems content with merely a flat recitation of those facts.
The 2003 film Suite Habana is the Cuban film at the festival most disconnected from questions of politics, mostly because it’s also the most disconnected from questions of narrative. Director Fernando Pérez crafts a solid entry in the genre of the urban symphony—not fiction, but not exactly a documentary. Instead the film creates a rhythm for the titular capital through a day in the lives of ten of its inhabitants. Pérez searches for the soul of Havana and finds it in an overlapping mosaic of minutiae—the routines of the everyday.
There’s little dialogue in the film, none of it necessary; instead, the film communicates with us through image, gesture, and action. Patterns and connections unfold before us as hour after hour passes, and there’s a sense of the two sides to Havana: The doctors and rail workers and laborers of the day are the clowns, dancers, and jazz musicians of the night.
The pace of the film is a measured, languorous one, and though there are scenes of building and construction and labor, Pérez eschews any high-energy urban kinetics in favor of lingering on the tiny details. An inordinate amount of time is spent following these people as they buy, prepare, and eat their meals. Perhaps this is one way the film finds inroads into the political discourse: Is the proportion of time we spend watching these Habaneros with their food reflective of the time and energy required for such a basic facet of survival? The importance of food is made explicit in the film’s epilogue, which profiles the characters we follow; one of them is an elderly woman who sells peanuts to survive. We are told each person’s dream in life, and with her Pérez tugs at the heartstrings by informing us “she dreams no more.”
At times the movie finds its strength not in the lives it follows, but in the identity of the city itself, the urban framework that gives structure to these people. The oh-so-photogenic lighthouse and breakwaters of Havana’s harbor are a sight we return to like a refrain; also featured in Habana Eva and Boleto al Paraiso, they’ve become the city’s cinematic signifiers. We spend quite a bit of time wandering through Havana’s sun-dappled plazas and boulevards, almost to the point of a travelogue—until we snap back to the characters and see the streets as the conduits by which they conduct their lives. The power of the city symphony film—a power that Suite Habana trades on—is that by locating and observing the spirit of a city, we can see how that environment shapes the identities of those who call it home.
Though it wasn’t the official close to the Los Angeles Film Festival, the live musical production of The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman is perhaps the best reflection of its ethos. It’s a Los Angeles story that reflects on the city’s cinematic legacy, a clash between the unstoppable force of Hollywood and the immovable object of art cinema, and a display of interdisciplinary virtuosity that’s ultimately a love letter to the power of the movies.
Seduction was originally a radio production commissioned for Swedish public radio and produced by the Los Angeles-based rock duo Sparks as their 22nd album. The musical’s transition from radio to stage—and hopefully to the screen—came about as a series of happy Hollywood accidents. Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers who make up Sparks, were introduced to Canadian surrealist director Guy Maddin when they revealed in an interview that he was one of their favorite directors; the interviewer just happened to be a close friend of Maddin’s. Meanwhile, the genesis of the live production came when the organizers of the Los Angeles Film Festival saw that the band was following the festival’s Twitter account.
At an open-air performance of the musical at Ford Amphitheatre, Maddin takes the stage with the Mael brothers and the rest of the cast. The director reads from his screenplay as we watch the action unfold in front of us and a series of sketches, storyboards, classic movie posters, concept collages, and script snippets are projected onto a giant screen behind them. It’s a technique that evokes Maddin’s films, with the barrage of film clips and text and stills flying by at synaptic speed while performers amble in front of obviously artificial projections. With it, Maddin conjures up a clash between the real and the unreal.
The style perfectly suits the narrative: Following his 1956 Cannes “Best Poetic Humor” win for Smiles of a Summer Night, Ingmar Bergman (Peter Franzen) enters a Stockholm movie theater to watch a blockbuster from Hollywood and finds himself transported to that place—or perhaps it’s more of a sensibility. There he’s given the hard sell by a smarmy Studio Chief (Russell Mael) to come and make big-budget Hollywood movies; Bergman also embarks on a phantasmagoric tour of the city led by an enigmatic Limo Driver (Ron Mael). Franzen dominates the stage as Bergman, gruff and imperious in his grey sweater and black beret, an intellectual as icy as the Scandinavian snowscape he calls home. He’s a lone genius with critical cachet, meaning that in Hollywood’s eyes he’s ripe for the picking. The Chief uses every trick in his arsenal to tempt Bergman, from money to busty blondes to “crews that can read your mind and work all night.”
One of the highlights comes as Bergman is given a tour of the studio commissary; there the Chief tries to sell the Swede on Hollywood’s special brand of artistic expression fused with extravagant consumption. Backed by a chorus of laughing executives and an off-kilter polka melody, he points out the pantheon of émigré auteurs that made the Hollywood leap: Among them are Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock (the Chief points out the example of “The Man Who Knew Too Much done twice, in Hollywood done twice as nice!”).
Of course, the whole thing is a Faustian bargain that begins to unravel even as soon as Bergman considers it; at the heart of the drama is an existential crisis straight out of one of the man’s films. Sparks’s rock stylings transform a director-actress squabble into a clash of apocalyptic fury, and Bergman’s situation explodes into a dramatic and delirious escape attempt from his gilded prison; he reflects on the irony that he’s “now an actor in a bad big-budget Hollywood action film.” By the time Bergman crumples on the Santa Monica pier calling out for rescue from a God he’s not sure exists, Maddin and Sparks make a convincing argument that the subsequent film—which will undoubtedly screen at a future Los Angeles Film Festival—will be an intensely fascinating product from a group of offbeat talents. It’s a collaboration the real Bergman would have smiled upon.