7 Days In Havana

7 Days In Havana

***1/2

Reviewed by: Emma Slawinski

Short films always face the difficulty of establishing characters and allowing them to evolve in a brief period of time, but where the overreaching protagonist is the location, it is a format that comes into its own. There is something about the city that is inherently suited to the fragmented style of an anthology like this one – perhaps it is the pace of life, the potential for chance encounters, the strange interconnections and coincidences.

7 Days in Havana is an interesting attempt at this conceit, already adopted by Tokyo! and Paris, Je T’Aime. Just like those capitals, Havana is sufficiently world-renowned to have its own identity in our minds, ready to be reinforced, examined or exploded. Seven well-known directors, have taken on the task, and each directs one ‘day’ of a screenplay by the Cuban journalist and novelist, Leonardo Padura Fuentes, which deftly weaves together the lives of characters local and foreign.

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On Monday, Josh Hutcherson strikes the right balance between cocksure and vulnerable, playing a self-assured young American actor, Teddy, who is jolted out of his comfort zone, and sees his somewhat sleazy eye for the ladies aptly rewarded. Tuesday sees Emir Kusturika very gamely play a well-known film director visiting Havana to receive an award. During a booze-fuelled emotional meltdown, he inflicts all manner of trouble on his patient hosts, but is finally soothed and brought back to himself by music and an unexpected friendship.

As the week progresses, Havana is also viewed through the eyes of locals like Mirta, who despite having a good job, is baking sweets to supplement her family’s income, and Martha, an elderly woman who persuades her family and friends to help her hold a ceremony for the Virgin after seeing her in a dream, with just a day to prepare.

The seven stories knit together well, and provide an engrossing and alternative view of a city whose image has long been absorbed into popular culture through a shorthand of colourful, crumbling buildings, cigars, ancient automobiles, and ubiquitous music and dance. Plenty of these elements are present, but clichés are mostly resisted or pleasingly satirised.

The soundtrack is a case in point: it would have been easy just to dump a schlock salsa accompaniment onto the film in a pretence of creating atmosphere. Instead, a variety of styles are used and frequently are an important part of the story. Vibrant Cuban brass on Tuesday with some great shots of an impressive trumpet solo gives way to a fervent, desperate love song sung in a nightclub on Wednesday, and the unexpected intrusion of ground-trembling electronic and tribal beats that pulse through the whole of Friday, in Gaspar Noé’s startling contribution to the series. His episode concerns an African-Cuban teenage girl forced to undergo a purification ritual, to cleanse her of her attraction to the same sex, and has an eerie intensity lent to it by the throbbing score and absence of dialogue. Though hard to watch, in hindsight, it impresses with its clever play on the viewer’s expectations.

Less successful is Julio Medem’s florid take on a young woman’s choice between two great passions, her lover and her career as a singer, which is at times as overblown as the hammiest telenovela. In contrast, Elia Suleiman’s contribution, in which the director takes the main role of a somewhat alienated visitor to Havana, is instantly recognisable for its deadpan humour (including his managing to slip in an enormous bust of Yasser Arafat in a wry reference to 2002’s Divine Intervention), although it becomes a little ponderous.

If the city is both the set and the backbone of the stories, it is not the only connection between them, although the others are not at all schematic. There is a preoccupation with water and bathing that runs through – that serves a continuous reminder of the poverty of many of the characters – in material terms if not spiritual ones. It is also a means of purification, and, in the frequent shots of the sea, as a symbol of freedom and promise, and a facilitator of escape. Other links between the stories – the occasional crossover of characters and locations – are used judiciously, and give the film some cohesion without being too contrived.

7 Days in Havana has some directorial flaws, but it is a heartfelt love song to a city and even a country, and the quality of Fuentes’ storytelling and his feel for the majority of characters shines through nonetheless. Even if the project does not succeed entirely, there are plenty of good reasons to watch, from its self-conscious humour and cameos, to the warmth of performances by some of the little-known Cuban actors; but especially for the musical tour of this incredible, vibrant capital.

Reviewed on: 21 Jun 2012
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Seven short films show unseen sides to Havana through the eyes of locals and visitors.
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Director: Benicio Del Toro, Pablo Trapero, Julio Medem, Elia Suleiman, Gaspar Noé, Juan Carlos Tabío, Laurent Cantet

Writer: Laurent Cantet, Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui, Julio Medem, Santiago Mitre, Gaspar Noé, Leonardo Padura, Elia Suleiman, Pablo Trapero

Starring: Daniel Brühl, Vladimir Cruz, Josh Hutcheson, Mirta Ibarra, Emir Kusturica, Jorge Perugorria, Elia Suleiman

Year: 2012

Runtime: 126 minutes

Country: France, Spain

Festivals:

EIFF 2012
SSFF 2012

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