Thursday 18 November 2010

Havana nights: "Chico & Rita"

This is such an exceptional period for animation - in terms of both the artistry being demonstrated across all forms of the medium, and the audience response to it - that distributors are coming to take commendable chances on the features they release theatrically. Chico & Rita, a collaboration between the Spanish director Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque), illustrator Javier Mariscal and music producer Tono Errando, is as close to a fully-fledged musical as the form has come since the golden age of Disney - but also encompasses nudity, mild drug use (very mild, as it turns out: oregano masquerading as grass), lingering regret and seemingly irreparable heartbreak. We can't say we haven't been primed, because effectively the film does for the Havana and New York of the 1940s and 50s what August's The Illusionist did for the Edinburgh of a slightly later period, setting out a love story with an eye for pop-cultural detail (what was on the Wurlitzer jukeboxes of the mid-50s, say) every bit as sound as its grasp on the ways of the human heart.

It's in pre-Revolutionary Cuba that the characters of the title first meet. He's a pianist with wandering hands; she's the singer with whom he comes to form a partnership of sorts. On stage, the two are an ideal match; it's off it - in those nights between gigs - where his womanising starts to drive a wedge between them. As the years pass, and the pair come and go like so many ships in the night, both will come to be seduced by America, but this time, they cross paths on foreign soil, as outsiders, and while we assume their story can't end well - framed, as it is, as the memory of the ageing Chico as he drinks alone in his Havana bolthole and hears all his old standards on the radio - it has, much like life itself in fact, more than a few surprises up its sleeve.

In animation terms, the film's closest relative may actually be 2008's no less adult Waltz with Bashir, albeit with the pen wielded to evoke bittersweet pleasures above deep psychic trauma: certain sequences have a fluid, almost rotoscoped quality, which proves especially effective as the lovers' bodies first merge, though a mid-film reverie employs simple, retro-tinged cartoonery to convey the allure of the New World, with particular reference to the players of On the Town and Casablanca. Between them, the credited directors conjure a heady, intoxicating atmosphere: one of music, cigar smoke, the night and the sway of a departing woman's behind. (It is, one should say, a very male, deeply romantic vision: Rita, fiery and full-lipped, may be the sexiest animated creation since Jessica Rabbit, although one could argue even the filmmakers betray her in the later stages, leaving her to struggle on in Hollywood and electing to follow Chico's more meandering path.)

Above all else, though, it's the music that drives the action, from the pianist's debut fumble through Stravinsky's "Ebony Concerto" (you wonder how anyone would spot the bum notes) to an encounter with Charlie Parker in a Manhattan jazz bar. This music brings people together, and consoles them when they grow apart; it's a way of measuring out time, and the space between us. (Chico's biggest betrayal isn't his various infidelities, but his decision to erase Rita's name from the title of the track he'd composed for her.) From the rap blasting out on a latter-day Havana streetcorner to the salsa rhythms of a Vegas ballroom, Trueba and Errando keep up their tempo to keep us close to the protagonists' bruised yet beating hearts, but it's also a film of terrific, affecting nuance, suggesting both the weight of life experience behind it and something more specifically cinematic: that, as Pixar's Up first proposed, animation may just be better suited to conveying the everyday tragedy of time passing than the latex make-up and bad wigs of so many live-action features.

Chico & Rita opens in selected cinemas tomorrow.

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