Film Review #152: Barrio Cuba
Director: Humberto Solás
Cast: Luisa María Jimenez, Mario Limonta, Jorge Perugorria, Adela Legra, Rafael Lahera
It’s remarkable how you remember some films, how you find they are crisp and clear in your mind much later and just as good now as when you first watched them, surprised and unsuspecting. Cuban director Humberto Solás’ Barrio Cuba, just out on DVD here, screened almost exactly a year ago – March 3, 2007 – at the DC Independent Film Festival in Washington, thanks to the persistence of DCIFF’s founder and director, Carol Bidault. She had seen Barrio Cuba abroad at another festival and endured lengthy negotiations to make the DC appearance happen. Barrio Cuba had its international theatrical premier later – in mid-July – in Spain. Perhaps needless to say, it has never opened theatrically here.
Two staff attached to the Washington Cuba Section Office came with the film that Saturday night, keeping to themselves in a strategic corner of the mezzanine balcony overlooking the main lobby on the University of the District of Columbia campus in northwest DC – this year’s DCIFF opens this weekend at George Mason University – even during the lively, pretty much continuous reception between and during screenings. The second in a trilogy of films about life in Havana’s slums, Barrio Cuba was extremely well-received by that festival crowd.
Many seemed to know Solás’ most recent previous film, Honey for Oshun, about a young man who searches for his lost mother after he discovers he was taken out of Cuba illegally as a child by his father. Honey for Oshun released in 2001, the year after the notorious Elián González affair in which a boy brought to Miami by his mother was returned to his Cuban father after court battles by Miami relatives and middle of the night seizures by federal agents. I had seen Honey, which shares four principal cast members with the newer film, at a May Memorial Church fund-raiser several years ago and watching Solás at work in Barrio brought memories rushing back. Whatever else has been going on under Fidel, the 67-year-old Solás – who started his film career in 1961 with shorts and docs, appreciates and explores women as few male directors do, and survived Cuba’s aggressively anti-gay state policies that began in the 1970s – can sure still make movies.
In the past year since DCIFF, three have become available in the US, notably through First Run Features’ 5-disc Cuban Masterworks set, which has come out one disc at a time: A Successful Man (1987), about two brothers’ divergent political paths and their family newspaper from the 1930s through Castro’s revolution; Amada (1982), about a cross-class Havana romance in 1914; and Cecilia (1981), about racial tensions circa 1830. Solás’ 1968 sensation about three women who embody three critical time periods, Lucía, exists on DVD but sadly not in US format.
The plotline of Barrio Cuba also revolves around three women and their trials, partings, longing for children, family, connection and reconciliation. The nurse Magalis (Luisa María Jimenez) rides her bicycle to the hospital – already exhausted by her father’s bickering with her younger brother Willy over his decision to come out as a gay man and by husband Alfonso’s wandering – past the shop where much older Ignacio (Mario Limonta) watches her daily, besotted. Chino (Jorge Perugorria) picks up Vivian (Isabel Santos) from her all-night shift at the pharmacy. Prodigiously passionate, their marriage breaks under the strain of her miscarriage and his own family’s grief as a younger brother leaves Cuba, taking the young grandsons with him. Amparo (Adela Legra) welcomes the pregnant wife Maria (Ana Dominguez) of her son Santo (Rafael Lahera) into her tiny barrio home, only to have Maria die in childbirth. We measure the film’s time frame – years longer than we might think without this yardstick – by the growth of the boy Miguelito, whom Santo leaves with Amparo when he takes to the road, unable to bear Maria’s death.
We meet all of these characters, save Miguelito, in the film’s opening moments, as Havana sets out en masse, gamely, even energetically for its worn, tattered day. One of the shocks of this film, which steals over you gradually, is the depth of material privation in everyday Cuban life after decades of embargoes and sanctions. Yet this city is gorgeously filmed and these emotional lives rich, full-bodied, nuanced, utterly convincing. Every major character weeps at some turning point. Esteban Puebla provides a musical score of startling lush emotional power. Such filmmaking has a confidence and sweep that leaves much of American mall cinema seeming rotely hesitant by comparison, even in Solás’ refusal to create artificial connections among his subplots. Instead, he simply pans across the sky to the next location, picking up that story where he left off, relying on the momentum of emotional resonance to keep its balance. Remember that first time you rode without training wheels?
This review appeared in the 3/6/2008 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.