Sin Alas

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sin Alas
"This is a extraordinarily bold first film which, though it certainly has its flaws, makes intriguing viewing."

It is a strange feeling when one realises for the first time that a person with whom one had a romantic connection has gone from the world, not through unlikely illness or violent misfortune, but simply through old age - swept away by the passing of time. Luis (Carlos Padron) is reading his morning paper when he learns of the death of Isabela (Yulislievis Rodriguez), the beautiful ballerina with whom he had a brief but compelling liaison in his youth, and at her funeral, leaving white flowers, he is watched with suspicion. It's a glance that recollects a bitter history here in Havana. In both his personal life and his professional life, Luis has always had to exercise caution to stay one step ahead of those with power. Only with Isabella did he risk it all, and he has walked these dusty streets without her for decades since.

Sin Alas is reportedly inspired by Jorge Luis Borges' The Zahir, the cautious yet beguiling tale of what might be considered the original obscure object of desire, in which all that is valued in life gives way to a single obsession. Luis becomes obsessed by a melody, the music which he remembers Isabela dancing to. His friend Ovilio (Mario Limonta) suggests that if he can hear it again, he might thereafter be able to forget it, so they roam the streets together with Ovilio playing Luis' hesitantly sung notes on his guitar, asking strangers for help. It's a delightful sequence that really draws the viewer in, but whilst it might provide our hero with clues to his past (and his country's), it only draws him closer to the dead woman, until everything, past and present, seems to be refracted through the prism of her being.

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Judiciously interweaving the old, dance hall style tune with Aruán Ortiz's lively contemporary score, the film maintains perfect control of tone, all the more important giving the meandering nature of its narrative. All rivers lead to the sea in this island nation, however, and Luis keeps finding himself brought back to Isabela, whether through the volatile romance of his neighbours or through fractal memories of his own past, in which he becomes a witness to his own life. A remembered party official remarks that he doesn't see the point in ballet - can't one see the kinds of scenes it depicts on any street corner? Luise talks to him about the importance of distance and contemplation - exactly what will allow him, in time, to observe such scenes in his own life as a form of art, with dream and reality challenging one another's authority just as they do in The Zahir.

Is this a ghost story? It might be more accurate to say that it offers a different perspective on time. Luis' imagination allows him to travel backwards and sideways, freeing him from the shackles of old age and casting him into a future that is truly unknown. Sin Alas is one of the first Cuban-American collaborations since the new accord and it suggests that the island, too, is now confronted with unknowable things. Its history and Luis' intersect as we move through half a century of small but potent events and dangerous ideas. Is it only in retrospect that we can understand, or does each moment exist forever after all?

This is a extraordinarily bold first film which, though it certainly has its flaws, makes intriguing viewing. Shifting in style as we move through time, yet with a backdrop of buildings and cars that never change, it challenges conventional perspective yet offers so much beauty and so much delight in simple things that no intellectual effort is required to fall prey to its charms. Though unlikely to obsess you forever, it's worth loving for a while.

Reviewed on: 30 Apr 2016
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Following the death of a dancer he hasn't seen for 40 years, a writer recalls a transformative love affair.

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