Sin La Habana

Leonardo triumphant.

(2021) Drama (Maison 4:3) Yonah Acosta Gonzalez, Evelyn Castroda O’Farrill, Aki Yaghoubi, Julio Cesar Hong Ortiz, Ahlam Gholani. Directed by Kaveh Nabatian

When one is frustrated with the way their life is turning out, it’s not uncommon for them to believe that their problems can be solved by a change of scenery. For those living in countries that lack the opportunity of other countries, there is some merit to that argument. However, the truth is generally that your problems accompany you wherever you go.

Leonardo (Acosta Gonzalez) is a brilliant ballet dancer who is aware of his own talent and isn’t afraid to promote it. When he isn’t cast in the lead role of his Cuban ballet company’s production of Romeo and Juliet, he demands to know why. Leonardo is sure that it’s because of the color of his skin – he’s of African descent. The company director maintains that it is his attitude that is holding him back. Ultimately, they are both right but the upshot is that Leonardo talks his way into being fired.

Forced to take a job as a salsa dance instructor for tourists (he speaks fluent English), he is berated by his girlfriend Sara (O’Farrill) who nags him for always throwing a monkey wrench into their plans to leave Cuba for a land of more opportunity. Sara is a lawyer who knows she will never make the kind of money she will elsewhere, and she is anxious to prove herself as a lawyer but also to bring herself out of the poverty that her and Leonardo cannot escape from.

The two hatch a desperate plan for Leonardo to seduce one of the foreign students in his salsa class and get her to bring him to her home country for marriage. Then, when he has saved up enough money, he can divorce her and bring Sara over as his wife. The plan appears to be working when his Canadian student Nasim (Yaghoubi) – herself an immigrant from Iran – falls for Leonardo’s charms and invites him to be with her in Montreal.

Leonardo leaves the tropical heat of Cuba, certain that he’ll quickly land a job at one dance company or another, but cold reality is about to hit him – literally. Montreal is in the middle of winter and Leonardo is unprepared for the subzero temperatures, the snow and the hostility that he encounters. He applies with several companies, but he isn’t what they are looking for. He ends up getting a job at a meat packing company where as he has no immigration papers, he is paid under the table at a miniscule amount. Sara is impatient and wonders if Leonardo will keep his promise; Leonardo is frustrated that his dreams aren’t coming together the way he planned, and Nasim suspects that she is being lied to, although she doesn’t realize how deep the deception runs. When Leonardo’s friend Julio (Hong Ortiz) suggests that one of their friends marries Sara and brings her over, the three of them end up facing undertain futures in a present that is not at all what any of them were looking for.

We’ve had a raft of films exploring the issues confronting refugees, especially those arriving from Syria and other Muslim countries, and Latin American countries. Mostly, they examine the physical obstacles of emigrating – legally or otherwise. This is one of the rare films that looks at the emotional toll of moving from one country to another one. It is enhanced by solid performances by all three lead actors who are gifted with well-written parts that are actually human rather than archetypes or tropes.

Leonardo is the most obviously unpleasant of the three; he is self-absorbed to the point of narcissism and about as arrogant as you can be. Sara, however, is blunt and pragmatic but also a bit of a nag, complaining bitterly about all of Leonardo’s points. There are times I wonder why the two of them stay together, but there is certainly a real bond between them. Nasim, who is coming out of an abusive marriage, is aware she’s being used and seems to be okay with it. She wants to break out of her restrictive Iranian family’s clutches and let loose to become the woman she wants to be. It isn’t easy, particularly since racism runs deep in her father.

It was fortunate casting Acosta Gonzalez in the role of Leonardo because the boy can dance. He is incredibly graceful and handles the dance scenes easily. In fact, the film is very strong on the technical end, with particular kudos going to cinematographer Juan Pablo Ibañez Ramirez for beautifully capturing the heat of Havana and the chill of Montreal, choreographer Julio Hong Ortiz, and Nabatian, who in addition to directing (and this his first feature!) also co-wrote the screenplay and composed the Latin-tinged score.

This is a very strong and emotionally complex film that is heartbreaking in places. The resolution is a bit pat and relies a bit much on coincidence, but otherwise this is an outstanding effort. The film is currently playing at the Miami Film Festival and is available online through the Festival for American audiences through the end of the Festival run on March 14. If you are unable to order it online before the Festival ends, keep an eye out for it as no doubt it will be making its way on the Festival circuit throughout the spring, summer and into the fall.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful cinematography. A gripping (and occasionally heartbreaking) story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Leonardo isn’t always the most likable of characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including racial slurs, sexuality and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yonah Acosta Gonzalez is the nephew of the legendary Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (available through 3/14/21)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
The Walrus and the Whistleblower

Latin Noir

Double fisted death.Cine

(2021) Documentary (AnemonPaco Ignacio Taibo II, Roberto Bardini, Luis Sepulveda, Claudia Pineiro, Leonardo Paduro, Philip Swanson, Juan Sasturain, Santiago Roncagliolo.  Directed by Andreas Apostolides

We all have our image of noir fiction; hard-bitten, world-weary detectives (most of whom resemble Humphrey Bogart uncannily) dealing with beautiful women who shouldn’t be trusted and forces well beyond his pay grade. They prowl the back alleys of the big city, wearing heavy trenchcoats and fedoras, peering into the fog and rain-soaked streets looking for clues, knowing deep down that justice is something that only happens in fairy tales.

In Latin America, they have a different outlook on noir. As Mexican crime fiction novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II asks, “how can you write a crime novel in a country where the state is the main criminal?” In the 70s, Latin America was riddled with military dictatorships and authoritarian governments. People disappeared without a trace; the police were not interested in protecting the people so much as protecting the government that paid them, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to be murdered in cold blood on the order of the state.

For a group of writers that began to emerge during that period, crime fiction began to blend by necessity with social fiction; the real crime was being committed by the State. A handful of writers, including Taibo but also Luis Sepulveda (Chile), Claudia Pineiro (Argentina), Leonardo Paduro (Cuba), and Santiago Roncagliolo (Peru), created a subgenre of crime fiction that came to be identified as novellas negras or, black novels. They began to be referred to as Latin Noir, for their similarities to the great noir fiction of the 1930s and 1940s.

Apostolides, himself a crime novelist whose work is infused with his own experiences during the repressive Greek dictatorship of the 1980s, interviews the five writers as well as scholars Philip Swanson and Juan Sasturain for context. The writers talk about how their experiences within their countries inspired them to create their best-known novels and characters. The interviews offer a fascinating look at the creative processes of these writers, as well as give us insight into recent Latin American politics and history.

The jazz-inspired score fits perfectly into the noir oeuvre and clips from noir films help bring some of the words to life. However, the best parts are when passages from the novels themselves are read (in Spanish, with the English translation in subtitles). One gets a sense of the underlying hope for better things and the grim realities of the past and present that flavor these novels.

This isn’t for everybody. There is definitely an academic tinge to the film which tends to be fairly analytical in tone. There is a lot of good information here, however, and those interested in Latin culture are going to find this fascinating. It made its world premiere at the Miami Film Festival and is available online through the Festival for American audiences through the end of the Festival run on March 14. Afterwards, keep an eye out for it at your own local film festival, particularly if it tends to play films from that region. I wouldn’t be surprised if this made its way onto PBS somehow; it would fit like a glove there.

REASONS TO SEE: Very informative about political events in Latin America.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very reliant on talking heads; some may fid it dry and academic.
FAMILY VALUES: Little overt violence or sex, but discusses adult thematic concepts of state-sponsored repression.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sepulveda passed away due to complications from COVID-19 last year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (available through 3/14/21)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Los Angeles: City of Film Noir
Sin La Habana