David closed the window, then smiled at his friend Diego. The rapt audience watched in silence as the two men – one straight, one gay – fell into each other's arms, embracing for the first, and perhaps the last, time. The screen at the Karl Marx Theater went dark, and the lights came back on at the world premiere of Strawberry and Chocolate. The warm applause that greeted the debut of this Oscar-nominated comedy on opening night of the 15th Havana Film Festival suggested that Cuban cinema was about to head in an intriguingly progressive direction. A certain 21-year-old college student took in all the good vibes on that cool December night back in 1993, and he felt certain the future for that country's cinematic output looked very bright indeed.
Fast forward 18 years. Another sellout crowd. Another storied film venue. The streets of Havana were once again plastered on a large screen for the enjoyment of an appreciative audience. But this time I wasn't laughing. The zombie satire Juan of the Dead had its local premiere this past Friday as part of the 29th Miami International Film Festival (MIFF), from which it crawled away with the Audience Award and a newfound cult following. Count me as one of the dissidents.
The gory comedy, which shows off some of Havana's most iconic sites, takes a very clever concept – depicting a zombie epidemic as an allegory for the Communist country's dire socioeconomic situation – and proceeds to hammer its pointed anti-Castro jabs for 100 interminable minutes. What should have been a kickass dose of pulp fiction turns out to be a repetitive, unimaginatively topical slog to sit through. It's Shaun of the Dead for impressionable exile brats, Zombieland for the ¿Que Pasa, USA? crowd.
The title character fits the antihero mold the subgenre demands. A ne'er-do-well trying to get by in Raúl Castro's Cuba, Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) receives a nasty surprise while he's out fishing with BFF Lázaro (Jorge Molina). What seems to be the catch of the day turns out to be the corpse of a prison inmate. No, this corpse is actually moving. After disposing of their little problem, the two men agree to keep this incident to themselves. Their secret doesn't last long, as more and more citizens become infected with the walking-dead virus, and Havana starts looking more and more like a war zo—oh, that's right, the city already looks like a bomb went off. And so it goes. Scene after scene pits the wafer-thin characters against a facet of contemporary Cuban life turned on its head by the undead menace, which the Communist Party's spin doctors have attributed to Yankee scum. Of course they would blame the imperialists, Buenos Aires-born writer-director Alejandro Brugués seems to be screaming in our ear. To drive this point home, he has Juan capitalize on the outbreak by opening a zombie disposal business that takes care of the undead so their relatives don't have to. The filmmaker's heavy underlining wears out its welcome pretty early on, and with the exception of some well crafted bits of mayhem involving rotting body parts, he lets the deafening political commentary do the heavy lifting. The end result is a sputtering narrative that lurches in fits and starts without gaining any momentum.
What ultimately ruins Juan of the Dead, besides Brugués' halfhearted stab at developing Juan and Lázaro's dysfunctional relationships with their grown-up kids, is the filmmaker's eyebrow-raising reliance on prehistoric gay-panic gags to generate laughs. Nowhere is this homophobic streak more apparent than in the film's depiction of La China (Jazz Vilá), the sassy trannie who starts out as a fairly empowering ally (weapon of choice: a slingshot), but is brutally discarded after Brugués runs out of ideas for the character. When she becomes just another undead stereotype for Juan to stamp out, Brugués makes sure to stage the moment for laughs. Needless to say, it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Surely the Cuban experience is capable of yielding more enlightened stories to capture on film than the hollow sound of symbols clashing..
You won't have to look very far. The enchanting, thrillingly adult animated feature Chico & Rita opened MIFF last year to great acclaim, and then vanished into the celluloid ether. It's taken a whole year for this festival hit to begin a commercial run in South Florida, but the movie is worth the long wait. The tale of two volatile Afro-Cuban performers' on again-off again love affair spans over five decades and a lifetime of well-worn showbiz staples. The word “cliché” comes to mind, but Spanish directors Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque), Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando have chosen a storytelling format that makes the old-fashioned material feel vibrant and fresh.
We begin in the streets of Havana a few years ago. An elderly shoeshine man comes home from work to his tiny, run-down apartment, and begins to reminisce about his faded past. Suddenly it's 1948, and Chico (the voice of Eman Xor Oña), an aspiring songwriter, is quickly making a name for himself as an ace pianist. All he needs is a muse, but it couldn't possibly be the snobbish spitfire who won't give him the time of day. Then he hears Rita's honeyed vocals, and they blow his mind. Ramón (Mario Guerra), Chico's friend and manager, sees Rita's a$$ets, and moves heaven and earth to enter the bickering duo in a talent competition.
It wasn't love at first sight, for the characters or for this reviewer. Mariscal's well-researched, richly detailed designs recreate Havana and New York City in the late forties with rare immediacy, but the film's particular style of hand-drawn animation makes for rather limited facial gestures. There's a disarming homemade appeal to Chico & Rita, as well as an explicitly rendered erotic charge, but I kept wishing for the characters to be, well, more animated.
Once Chico and Rita become a breakout sensation, though, I couldn't help being seduced by the film's narrative sweep. Their divergent, occasionally intersecting career paths have Chico rubbing shoulders with real-life jazz legends like Charlie Parker and the ill-fated Chano Pozo, while Rita becomes the toast of Tinseltown as a Caribbean answer to Dorothy Dandridge. The directors hit paydirt when they introduce the subject of racism. Their approach isn't exactly subtle, but they aren't hitting you over the head like Brugués does in Juan of the Dead. Chico & Rita is at its strongest when it dives headfirst into the twists of fate that brings these two talents together and ruthlessly pulls them apart. The final scene, in particular, packs an emotional wallop that I did not see coming. It's a moving fadeout in a film that has most definitely earned its tears.
Chico & Rita opens Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (www.gablescinema.com). Director Fernando Trueba is expected to attend screenings on Friday and Saturday, with a special conversation with Miami Herald film critic Rene Rodriguez set for Saturday at 5 pm. For more information check out the theater's website. The film is scheduled to expand to more screens across South Florida in the coming weeks. Juan of the Dead continues an exclusive run at Little Havana's Tower Theater (www.mdc.edu/tower) through March 30, at which point its descent into obscurity is all but inevitable.