Four years on, Cuban director Ernesto Daranas follows up his multiple award-winning Behavior with an altogether different proposition — Sergio and Sergey, a wacky-but-serious take on how a globe-spanning trio of radio hams make an impact on the space race, and hence on international politics. The film’s noble satirical intentions and upbeat air are able to carry it through its wobblier sections, which are probably intrinsic to an outre, ambitious project like this.
Ultimately, Sergio bites off more than it can chew — but it’s a satisfyingly wild ride for as long as it lasts, and has the benefit of being a strong, distinctive brew whose political concerns could find it a home on the non-Spanish language fest circuit.
The pic is set in 1991, with the former USSR falling apart and the Soviet-dependent Cuba suffering the economic consequences. Suddenly at financial risk, widow and Marxist philosophy teacher Sergio (Tomas Cao) is struggling to bring up his small daughter (the impossibly cute Dyna Posada, who recites her memories in voiceover), living with his mother Caridad (Ana Gloria Buduen) and trying to teach classes to, among others, rebellious student Paula (Camila Arteche), who proposes a root and branch overhaul of the education system. (The script doesn't miss a trick when it comes to taking satirical aim.)
A radio ham, Sergio is in touch with Peter (Ron Perlman, best-known under heavy makeup as Hellboy), a U.S. subversive and writer; the connection between the two raises the eyebrows of Cuban bureaucrats in the form of stern-faced Lia (Yuliet Cruz) and Ramiro (Mario Guerra, giving it the full histrionics). The two form a comedy double-act that's somewhat deja vu as a critique of the Cuban regime.
The storyline is loosely based on the surreal true story of the cosmonaut Sergey Krikaliov, who was stranded for 10 months in 1991 satelliting Earth on the Mir space station, unable to descend for lack of funds: Krikaliov was in regular touch from space with amateur radio enthusiasts. When Sergio finds he can communicate with Sergey (a very enjoyable Hector Noas), they realize they have much in common, starting with their feelings of geopolitical isolation. The men form a friendship that the script could have made more involving had it not been so determined to rope in the American sections, which are the weakest.
Lack of time sometimes forces the land-to-spacecraft conversations into artificial-sounding intensity: The idea of two shipwrecks of the Cold War meeting via ham radio positively throbs with potential, but the script lacks the psychological nuance to make them work.
Though it fizzes and pops with big 20th century ideas, there’s the sense that Sergio is trying to take on too much, moving from intellectual reflection to sentimentality to political satire none-too smoothly despite the film’s solid underlying structure. (There’s even an undercooked CIA conspiracy theory subplot, and Perlman has to tackle a couple of lines of heavy over-motivated backstory about his family being killed by Stalin.)
But the film's quest to pull together scenes of Havana semi-poverty with images of the Mir floating high above Earth was always going to be a tall order, and it’s remarkable that Daranas has managed to make even half a success of it with this enjoyable but flawed item.
Scenes involving the Mir and meteors are creditably done, given the pic’s lack of a budget, but anyone seeking the tech hi-jinx of, say, Gravity had better look elsewhere. Alejandro Menendez makes good (and appropriate) use of vertical shots throughout, allowing the viewer to enjoy the streets of Havana from a compelling new perspective. The use of Cuban waltzes makes for a neat homage to 2001, while the sight of the cosmonaut’s teardrops floating in space shows that Sergio and Sergey is intermittently capable of poetry, too.
Production companies: ICAIC, Mediapro, RTV Comercial, Wing and a Prayer Pictures
Cast: Tomas Cao, Hector Noas, Ron Perlman, A.J. Buckley
Director: Ernesto Daranas
Screenwriter: Ernesto Daranas, Marta Daranas
Producers: Jaume Roures, Joel Ortega, Ramon Samada
Executive producers: Javier Mendez, Ron Perlman, Gabriel Beristain, Danilo Leon, Adriana Moya, Omar Olazabal Rodriguez
Director of photography: Alejandro Menendez
Art director: Maykel Martinez, Laia Colet
Costume designer: Yanelys Perez, Anna Guell
Editor: Jorge Miguel Quevedo
Composer: Micka Luna
Sales: BTeam Pictures