Thursday 5 July 2012

We are Cuba: "7 Days in Havana"

It must be portmanteau week. That 7 Days in Havana exists at all is a sign of how Cuba has come to open up to the rest of the world in recent years; it could, in fact, pass for a Latin spin-off of the ...I Love You series (previous destinations: Paris, New York and Shanghai), in which major cities are parsed by blue-chip international filmmakers with passing actors, signed for the price of a week in a room in a hotel by the sea. The unifying concept here is a simple one: seven tales, each representing one of the seven days, and addressing a different aspect of a city enjoying its post-Castro moment. You can tell these entries have been made by artists, rather than overseen by the Havana Tourism Board, because the themes that come up include transvestism, drinking (lots of drinking), dancing, migration, homophobia, prostitution, sexual heat, more dancing, and more drinking. Perhaps only the self-mocking contributions of the overseas stars eased the project's passage past the committee - or maybe the country really is getting with the liberal agenda.

Benicio del Toro, making a middling, non-committal sort of directorial debut, gives us Hunger Gamer Josh Hutcherson as a vacationing dumb lunk actor who doesn't realise the she he's trying to get back to his hotel room is actually a he; Pablo Trapero offers Emir Kusturica, playing a bibulous version of himself and looking more and more like a Mephistophelian Kevin Whately, shucking off his commitments to the city's film festival and setting out to jam with the locals. In the most ripely (and, for director Julio Medem, typically) melodramatic segment, German actor Daniel Brühl plays a Spanish music exec tempting a shapely local singer (Melvis Estévez) with the promise of a new life in Europe; when he starts getting overly cocky, the narrative follows her back to her home, where her buff baseball-player boyfriend is waiting for her with a place on a boat to Miami. It's telenovela stuff, underlined by Estévez's reappearance in the later episode by Cuban veteran Juan Carlos Tabio (Strawberry and Chocolate).

Only three of the assembled directors truly impose themselves on the city. Elia Suleiman is on reliably deadpan form in Thursday's episode, "Diary of a Beginner", playing himself as a tourist summoned to the Palestinian Embassy, but left forever looking on as the city reveals itself as a playground of droll, diverting delights. Politically wry and formally precise - making effective use of the waves crashing on the city's shores to suggest a relentless yearning - it's a deft little portrait of what it is to be an outsider, or a stranger in a strange land. The Friday (and, more specifically, the Friday night) could perhaps only belong to Franco-Argentinian shockmeister Gaspar Noé, whose "Ritual" begins with the camera glued to the groins of bumping and grinding teenagers, and then - to the accompaniment of pounding drums, and a distant dentist's drill - shows us a teenage girl being stripped of her Sapphic tendencies in an antiquated tribal ceremony. The gently lapping waves of Suleiman's entry are here turned into suggestively frothy spumes, and Noé seems to be turning into another Larry Clark: if it's hard to deny his virtuosity - his ability to tell a story through pictures and soundtrack alone - you do just wish he'd use it to less unseemly ends.

The very best is saved for last. Laurent Cantet's "The Fountain" is a quiet, assiduous application of the fly-on-the-wall tactics this director fostered in The Class to a parable of collectivity that here goes towards a description of not just one nation's political and religious ideals, but how a project such as 7 Days in Havana gets assembled in the first place: with the best of intentions, and the odd compromise along the way. Here, the residents of one apartment block are gathered to help an old dear (Nathalia Amore) build her shrine to the Virgin Mary. Just as the artisans of this neighborhood are set to constructing a base worthy of the Madonna, so Cantet looks to construct his film around the firm presence of Amore, a sturdy, aged-but-not-withered non-professional, as she orders her (possibly real-life) neighbours around, kicks out interlopers, and turns a potential disaster into a small evening of triumph. More of the Amore school of direction would have been welcome, but this is a generally lively portmanteau - if, by its very nature, an only whistlestop tour.

7 Days in Havana opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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